Counting the Omer by Drawing

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May 13, 2013

“Day 49: Amichai Lau-Lavie,” by Jaccqueline Nicholls, pen and ink. Day 49 is the final drawing in the artist’s 2013 “Counting the Omer” series.

This was my third year of counting the omer by doing a daily drawing. And this was the third year where I have managed to count every day of the omer. The small ritual of counting the 49 days, the seven weeks between Pesach to Shavuot, doesn’t take that long. And yet I found it easier to stay focused and do a 30-minutes-daily drawing than it was to take a few minutes to just say the blessing and the name of the day.

In 2011 I counted the omer by drawing an object I found in the street — the remnants and lost things brought back into my studio, labeling each one “I am still alive.” Each day acknowledging life on the journey from Pesach, the freedom from slavery, to Shavuot, being in a place of receiving and revelation.

2012 was a joint online omer project with Amichai Lau-Lavie, “Gather the Broken,” understanding the role that the flawed and broken play in creativity and revelation. We are counting up to receiving the tablets that will be broken before Moses comes down from Sinai, and yet these tablets remain within the temple alongside the second set. There is still something valuable and beautiful in the broken. It is part of life.

This year’s project began with a scratch of an idea. In preparation for Sinai, the receiving of the Torah, I wanted to explore what it means to hold on to something. To contain and carry. And I began with asking people to share with me those small items in the bottom of their bags, the stuff they carry around without really thinking.

But the focus changed. As it would do. The process of these omer drawings taught me so much.

No two lists were the same. We can’t help but be uniquely ourselves even in our mundane stuff of life. And the way these lists were written became as important as the items themselves. After all, to make an account is to itemize but also to tell a story.

The lists were different, but similar items would pop up. Obviously keys were going to feature heavily, but I was not expecting the amount of lip-balm, grooming products and medicines. Some people seemed to be carrying around a mobile pharmacy. This concern for care of the body and maintenance of one’s appearance didn’t seem vain. It’s an awareness that as we go through life things happen to us, and we want to be prepared to look after our bodies, and the face that we present to the world.

I wanted to focus on the objects, for them to be the feature not the person. But the face is fascinating and dominates. even in absence. Or especially in absence when the usual features are not there. These “faceless portraits” as one muse called them, don’t rely on the usual relationship between eyes, nose and mouth to be recognizable. Searching for my friend’s face to emerge on the page, I stopped drawing when I began to see them. But often it was only when I put the drawing to one side, out of frustration when it felt it wasn’t going right, when I looked back, and without altering the drawing, did it shift and click and it became someone I knew.

I did wonder whether or not as the weeks went on, would I be tempted to make the portraits more detailed, to reveal more of the face. I am pleased I didn’t. They got bigger, but they still remained slightly mysterious. Not knowing everything about the other, but knowing when to step back and not assume. Shavuot celebrates the revelation at Sinai. Encountering The Other with all the capital letters, mystery and not-knowing. Frustrating and problematic, like all relationships can be.

Thank you to my 48 muses. I deliberately wanted to ask people who are involved in creative artistic work. Not all were Jewish, or artists – there were academics, curators, producers as well as the artists, performers, musicians, writers, poets, dancers and puppeteers. All aesthetically engaged with world, and I was curious as to what objects, sacred or mundane, they carried with them as they go about in the world. I am deeply grateful to all of them for going along with my crazy idea, responding quickly to my nosy email, and sharing things that could be considered private and intimate. Many of them were people I met at the inspiring Asylum Retreat, facilitated by the brilliant Rebecca Guber from the 6 Points Fellowship. And to give credit where it is definitely due, Amichai Lau-Lavie, who bookends this counting, inspired this project and helped me refine my thinking.

And the other thing I have learnt from this project is that nostrils are really weird.

*The full Omer 2013 series can be found over at Tumblr.

Jacqueline Nicholls is a London-based fine artist, and Jewish educator, who uses art to explore and challenge traditional Jewish ideas. Nicholls uses an amalgam of media — including drawings, print, embroidery, tailoring, paper-cutting, knitting, and more — to expand the Beit Midrash beyond its textual origins. Her current project, Draw Yomi, responds to the daf yomi cycle with a daily drawing that engages with the Talmudic texts.*

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