Painting with heart: Artist makes a journey from inside the human body to Judaica

Myriam Nafte got her master’s in skeletal biology and went on to teach a university course called “The Anthropology of Death.”

She has helped police identify human remains and even wrote a book titled “Flesh and Bone: An Introduction to Forensic Anthropology.”

So how, as an artist, did she move beyond her fascination with human anatomy — incorporating delicately detailed bone structure and muscle tissue into her paintings — to where she is now using Hebrew letters, Torah passages and the Etz Chaim (tree of life)?

The transformation began eight years ago when her father, artist Max Bensabat, challenged her to try something different and difficult — learning to paint Hebrew lettering. She originally thought it would be a simple undertaking, but now says the process humbled her.

After meticulous practice, Nafte began incorporating inked Hebrew lettering and Jewish imagery into her paintings.

Her work has been displayed in dozens of galleries across the United States and in her native Toronto, but it has never been seen in the Bay Area until now. “Divine Proportions,” part of Nafte’s series of silk-screened paintings on watercolor paper, is on display now through Feb. 28 at Congregation Emanu-El in San Francisco.

Nafte has layered Hebrew text — some of it directly from the Torah — over colorful Jewish imagery, such as trees of life and prayer shawls.

She says her goal was to recognize and celebrate Jewish contributions to the arts and sciences — from medieval times through the 20th century.

“Historically the Jewish role has always been reduced to the moneylender,” she says, “and yet, in the medieval period, Jews were involved in botany, astronomy and biology — science and art and religion were all wrapped into one.”

“Science, art and religion all wrapped into one” can describes Nafte herself.

As a college undergraduate, she studied art and anthropology, but then went on to get a graduate degree in skeletal biology from McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario.

“I wanted to study the anatomy as an artist,” Nafte explains, “and the only way I’d have access to a cadaver was to study skeletal biology.”

In addition to her outside work, Nafte also maintains a Jewish household. A Sephardic Jew of Moroccan descent, Nafte enjoys cooking traditional Sephardic meals, like chicken soaked in olive oil and spices, for her husband and their two children, Chava, 9, and Zev, 6.

The children have their own workspace in Nafte’s art studio, and they’re both very inquisitive about Mom’s art and her study of bones. Nafte loves showing her art to her kids, she says, so they can see that Mommy isn’t around for just “cooking and shlepping.”

Nafte believes that seeing a parent work outside of their “traditional” role positively affects children.

She speaks from a personal awareness, for when she was growing up, she never saw her father as an artist. She says he was “very religious and very strict — it’s only been in the past decade or so that I’ve come to know him as an artist.”

Bensabat, her father, is an Orthodox scribe and glass artist who creates stained glass images from the Torah for many shuls in Toronto.

He promised to take the time to help Nafte learn Hebrew lettering if she promised to follow his rules. No. 1 on the list: She must not throw out her work, even if there are mistakes.

While Nafte is not fluent in Hebrew, she says she has learned a great deal by studying the letters. Though she’s now comfortable incorporating the letters into her paintings, she still occasionally needs help from her father when words have complicated meanings with underlying messages.

On one painting, for example, Nafte wanted to include the Hebrew word for “artery.” She needed her father to explain that in Hebrew, the word for artery also translates to “internal strength.”

That ended up working perfectly with her painting — a descending aorta that transects the human body, representing an internal tree of life.

That “tree of life” imagery is a recurring theme in Nafte’s paintings, even in the works that don’t involve body parts that will be on display in the exhibit at Congregation Emanu-El. In those paintings, she paints more literal trees of life layered with Hebrew words describing how a strong person is similar to a tree with strong roots.

Despite extensive Jewish imagery and text taken from the Torah, Nafte swears her current exhibit shouldn’t be seen as a traditional religious exhibit.

“I don’t call it religious. I call it celebratory,” she says. “The texts are not about how to maintain a kosher kitchen. They are more about living life to the fullest, the joys of knowledge and wisdom.”

Divine Proportions: Recent Works” is on display through Feb. 28 at Congregation Emanu-El, 2 Lake St., San Francisco. Information: www.emanuelsf.org.