Art by Mark Podwal

Acclaimed illus­tra­tor Mark Pod­w­al dis­cuss­es his career, cre­ative process, and work for Elie Wiesel’s poem The Tale of a Nig­gun with Ada Brunstein.

Ada Brun­stein: When you were in kinder­garten your teacher noticed one of your draw­ings and only then asked you what your name was. You wrote, My exis­tence depend­ed on my draw­ing.” Does it still? If so, how?

Mark Pod­w­al: A child­hood ill­ness caused me to miss the first days of kinder­garten. As a result, my name was not on the class ros­ter. Only when my teacher noticed my draw­ing of a train was I rec­og­nized as exist­ing in that class­room. Freud, in his bio­graph­i­cal study of Leonard da Vin­ci, explained the pecu­liar­i­ties of the artist’s char­ac­ter on the basis of his child­hood, focus­ing on a child­hood mem­o­ry. While Freud con­clud­ed Leonardo’s child­hood mem­o­ry was a fan­ta­sy, my child­hood mem­o­ry recalled an actu­al expe­ri­ence. Since ear­ly ado­les­cence I intend­ed to become a physi­cian. When I grew up in Queens, New York, in the 1960’s if you excelled in school you became a doc­tor or a lawyer. You did not become an artist. Nev­er­the­less, in med­ical school, art became my dual career, per­haps des­tined by my kinder­garten experience.

AB: You redis­cov­ered your love of draw­ing in med­ical school. Was that trig­gered by the draw­ings that fill med­ical books, or was it an escape from the rig­ors of med­i­cine, or some­thing else entirely?

MP: Def­i­nite­ly not inspired by med­ical illus­tra­tions. A Yid­dish proverb says, If you want to give God a good laugh, tell Him your plans.” In med­ical school, I planned on becom­ing a sur­geon. It seemed nat­ur­al since hav­ing a tal­ent for art I was skilled with my hands. While draw­ing a car­i­ca­ture of a phar­ma­col­o­gy pro­fes­sor, a class­mate not­ed, You’ve missed your call­ing.” Some­how that com­ment both­ered me. After attend­ing a Viet­nam War protest, I vol­un­teered to cre­ate anti-war posters for the Mora­to­ri­um Committee.

Many thou­sands were print­ed and the pos­i­tive feed­back moti­vat­ed me to set aside time for draw­ing. The cre­ativ­i­ty was a need­ed diver­sion from med­ical school’s pres­sures. Con­sid­er­ing that a surgeon’s life would leave lit­tle time to pur­sue art, I fol­lowed the advice of my pro­fes­sor, the emi­nent immu­nol­o­gist Edward C. Franklin, to choose a spe­cial­ty such as der­ma­tol­ogy, radi­ol­o­gy, or pathol­o­gy that would afford time for art. Dr. Franklin’s pres­i­den­tial address to the Amer­i­can Soci­ety for Clin­i­cal Inves­ti­ga­tion in 1974 includ­ed slides of my drawings.

AB: Your first pub­lished book was a col­lec­tion of polit­i­cal draw­ings based on events in the 1960s. That book led you to the New York Times, for which your first draw­ing was about the Munich mas­sacre. Can you describe how you went from learn­ing about those events to ren­der­ing them in drawings?

MP: Draw­ing anti-war posters led to draw­ing ink images, which chron­i­cled those tumul­tuous years. The first New York Times Op-Ed page art direc­tor — on see­ing the draw­ings from my first book, The Decline and Fall of the Amer­i­can Empire” (for­ward by Peter Fon­da) — com­ment­ed that my work was rem­i­nis­cent of the pow­er of George Grosz’s satir­i­cal depic­tions of post-World War I Ger­many and the rise of Nazism. Impressed by my art, he recruit­ed me to draw for the Times. My Munich mas­sacre draw­ing was pub­lished as the first Op-Ed Art — a pic­ture with­out an accom­pa­ny­ing arti­cle. That draw­ing was lat­er exhib­it­ed in Paris at the Musée des Arts Déco­rat­ifs in the Palais du Louvre.

AB: You wrote that art can be a form of prayer. How?

MP: Franz Kaf­ka once described writ­ing as a form of prayer, and that def­i­n­i­tion has res­onat­ed with me. When my tex­tiles for Prague’s goth­ic Old-New Syn­a­gogue were ded­i­cat­ed, I men­tioned in my speech how for me, art is a form of prayer.” I espe­cial­ly ref­er­enced Kaf­ka because he had attend­ed that syn­a­gogue. Unbe­knownst to me were books such as Draw­ing to God, about how draw­ing can itself be prayer; it can visu­al­ize prayer, and it can inspire prayer.

Franz Kaf­ka once described writ­ing as a form of prayer, and that def­i­n­i­tion has res­onat­ed with me.

AB: Your work has been exhib­it­ed in the Terezin Ghet­to Muse­um, the Berlin, Paris, and Prague Jew­ish Muse­ums, among oth­ers. In recent years we’ve seen an increase in anti­semitism. Can art help fight it?

MP: Medieval art pro­mot­ed anti­semitism to an illit­er­ate pub­lic. Cathe­dral por­tal fig­ures Eccle­sia and Syn­a­goga were sym­bol­ic rep­re­sen­ta­tions of the Chris­t­ian and Jew­ish faiths, por­trayed by two female sculp­tures. Tri­umphant Eccle­sia, rep­re­sent­ed the Church. Syn­a­goga, for­lorn and blind­fold­ed — blind to Christianity’s truth” — rep­re­sent­ed Judaism. When my port­fo­lio of prints, All this has come upon us…” was acquired by the Bavar­i­an State Library in Munich, the library’s direc­tor described the images as real­ly dis­turb­ing and thought-pro­vok­ing that gives you an insight in the long, long his­to­ry of anti-Semi­tism to its cul­mi­na­tion in the bar­barous Nazi Era…we are col­lect­ing, as we like to empha­size, for eter­nal times. And so hav­ing this Port­fo­lio in our col­lec­tion is at least also a very small con­tri­bu­tion to remem­ber for­ev­er what Ger­man peo­ple in the Nazi Era has done to the Jew­ish peo­ple.” Near­ly fifty insti­tu­tions, includ­ing the Vat­i­can Pon­ti­f­i­cia Uni­ver­sità Urba­ni­ana and Yad Vashem, have acquired that port­fo­lio. Through my art I’ve tried to edu­cate against anti­semitism. Yet, I’m unsure how effec­tive art is as a weapon against such hatred. Even so, accord­ing to Pirkei Avot, It is not your respon­si­bil­i­ty to fin­ish the work of per­fect­ing the world, but you are not free to desist from it either.”

AB: You’re a doc­tor. How do you man­age an award-win­ning artis­tic career along­side the demands of med­i­cine. Do the two worlds intersect?

MP: Dur­ing my inter­view for a der­ma­tol­ogy res­i­den­cy, the inter­view­er com­pli­ment­ed me on my draw­ings of Belle­vue Hos­pi­tal for the med­ical school year­book. He not­ed that since der­ma­tol­ogy is a visu­al spe­cial­ty an artist’s obser­va­tion­al skills would enhance their diag­nos­tic acu­ity. Cyn­thia Ozick refers to the two worlds inter­sect­ing in her essay on my art, Ink and Inkling,” she states his can­ny pen is atten­tive to the human oblig­a­tion to see, with a doctor’s eye, the ter­ri­fy­ing wounds of our world.”

Art by Mark Podwal

AB: You’ve writ­ten sev­er­al children’s books, includ­ing Jerusalem Sky. What mes­sages do you want to pass on to the next generation?

MP: Mau­rice Sendak, who con­tributed a blurb for the sec­ond print­ing of Jerusalem Sky, said that he wrote not for chil­dren nor adults. He just wrote. So do I. The ecu­meni­cal mes­sage from Jerusalem Sky is Per­haps pos­sess­ing Jerusalem is like try­ing to own the sky.”

AB: You col­lab­o­rat­ed with Elie Wiesel on sev­er­al books. How did your rela­tion­ship begin?

MP: In Jan­u­ary 1977, the French cap­tured the ter­ror­ist Abu Daoud, the Munich massacre’s mas­ter­mind. A West Ger­man extra­di­tion request was refused on grounds that forms had not been prop­er­ly filled out and the French put Daoud on a plane to Alge­ria. Elie Wiesel con­demned the affair in an open let­ter to Pres­i­dent Gis­card D’Estaing, pub­lished as a full-page ad in the New York Times. To voice my out­rage I drew the Eif­fel Tow­er with a thought bub­ble con­tain­ing an oil well. Short­ly after my draw­ing appeared in the Times, Elie sent a brief hand­writ­ten note full of gen­er­ous praise say­ing we should meet. That’s how our col­lab­o­ra­tions and friend­ship began.

AB: Describ­ing your work, Wiesel wrote, such is the pow­er of this artist: he cap­tures what death has for­got­ten to take.” Is that some­thing you con­scious­ly aim for in your work?

MP: Where­as Elie wrote numer­ous times about my art, that com­ment moves me most. Though cap­tur­ing what death has for­got­ten to take” has not been a con­scious aim, the sub­con­scious usu­al­ly con­tributes con­tent an artist express­es dur­ing artis­tic cre­ation. At times, writ­ers bet­ter ver­bal­ize what I thought to visualize.

Art by Mark Podwal

AB: Did you cre­ate the illus­tra­tions in The Tale of a Nig­gun after Elie Wiesel passed? If so, what was your col­lab­o­ra­tive process when he was alive, and how did you expe­ri­ence this book with­out him?

MP: After Elie died in 2016, his son Elisha emailed me, Mark, you were such a close friend to my father — he tru­ly trust­ed you, loved col­lab­o­rat­ing with you, and cared about your friend­ship. And he was always moved by what you saw in Judaism and enabled oth­ers to see.” When illus­trat­ing Elie’s works, Elie trust­ed me to draw what­ev­er I imag­ined. Only three times did he offer advice. The first was not to draw the face of Rab­bi Loew — who leg­end claims cre­at­ed a golem — since there are no known life­time por­traits. Sec­ond, not to draw Hebrew let­ters for dec­o­ra­tion. Third, not to draw Holo­caust vic­tims. I was unaware of the poem The Tale of a Nig­gun until last year, when Elie’s agent, Georges Bor­chadt, asked if I’d illus­trate it. Work­ing on the illus­tra­tions I kept think­ing about my time with Elie — our vis­it to his birth­place Sighet, to Auschwitz and Buchen­wald, and attend­ing his Nobel Prize cer­e­mo­ny in Oslo.

AB: One of the more haunt­ing images in the book shows small hous­es seem­ing­ly rest­ing atop barbed wires with two tre­ble clefs enlarged and set to the left. The draw­ing is decep­tive­ly sim­ple — black and white lines form images that seem delib­er­ate­ly devoid of pre­cise details. But seen as a whole, the draw­ing looks like sheet music. The wires are the mea­sures, the hous­es the notes. Can you talk about the process of cre­at­ing an image that evokes so much — cap­tiv­i­ty, ter­ror, music, com­mu­ni­ty — but is ren­dered with so little?

MP: I rarely draw with­out the image already pic­tured in my mind. The idea comes about as a sort of free asso­ci­a­tion. Since the essence of the story’s redemp­tion is a nig­gun—a word­less song sung by Ḥasidic Jews to ele­vate the soul to God — one of the ten images had to depict the nig­gun. Music staffs of barbed wire sym­bol­ize the Holo­caust, and the hous­es denote the story’s shtetl. It’s the book’s only black and white draw­ing. Col­or would be a dis­trac­tion, as words for a nig­gun would be a distraction.

AB: Your work so clear­ly evokes the Jew­ish com­mu­nal expe­ri­ence. Some of that comes through your depic­tion of arti­facts, such as meno­rahs, Torahs, and yads. But in your work a meno­rah is nev­er just a meno­rah. In one image, the meno­rah sprouts flow­ers; in anoth­er it is made of bones. How do you turn a cer­e­mo­ni­al object into some­thing that tells a sto­ry beyond just the one it is meant to tell?

MP: Draw­ing for the New York Times very much influ­enced my art. The role of Op-Ed Art was not to illus­trate,” but to expand the impact of the word, as opposed to a lit­er­al inter­pre­ta­tion. Lit­er­ary crit­ic Harold Bloom said about our book Fall­en Angels, Mark Pod­w­al is in every sense an illu­mi­na­tor.” The idiom illu­mi­na­tion” denotes reveal­ing infor­ma­tion or details about some­thing; to clar­i­fy or to help under­stand some­thing. I was very for­tu­nate to be friends with the artist Saul Stein­berg, per­haps best known for his New York­er cov­ers. Saul once told me that, of course, one dis­re­gards the first ten ideas since every­one will think of those. Much of my art involves invent­ing visu­al metaphors adapt­ed from Jew­ish sym­bols and iconog­ra­phy. A well-known art crit­ic com­ment­ed, Mark, you’re the mas­ter of metaphor.” I wish some­day he’d write that in a review.

AB: Do you doo­dle dur­ing Zoom meet­ings like the rest of us?

MP: No. I haven’t doo­dled since attend­ing med­ical school lectures.

AB: What are you work­ing on next?

MP: I’ll have two books pub­lished 2021: A Col­lage of Cus­toms (Hebrew Union Col­lege Press), and a revised col­or edi­tion of A Jew­ish Bes­tiary (Penn State Uni­ver­si­ty Press, pub­lish­er of Hein­rich Heine’s Hebrew Melodies with my illustrations).