When Bruce David began experimenting with screen prints, admiring friends told him his multilayered, colorful artwork would translate beautifully to stained glass.
“But no one wanted to give me a job because I had no experience,” David recalled.
In 1995, while in Louisville, Ky., to say Kaddish for his father at the family’s synagogue, congregants who knew David was a promising artist approached to ask if he’d design and make 6-foot-tall, stained-glass windows for their expansion. Then a neighboring synagogue asked for the same thing.
And just like that, David was a working artist.
The two synagogue projects jump-started his career at age 42 — and he has paid it forward ever since by creating art inspired by Torah stories and Jewish wisdom.
“I’ve had a lot of blessings along the way,” he said. “My career has taken a funny route. An artist is the last thing I thought I would be.”
David, 57, is self-taught. He discovered his artistic abilities in his mid-20s, when his wife bought him a set of colored pencils. At the time he was a social worker, helping underprivileged teens at youth centers throughout Appalachia.
“And art just started pouring out of me,” he said during a phone interview from his home in Bloomington, Ind.
David lives in the Hoosier National Forest south of the college town, and he and his wife often lead Shabbat walkabouts through the surrounding woods. David works out of a home studio.
His earthy and spiritual character emerges in his stained glass, screen prints and lithographs, all of which have a vibrant color palette and hidden meanings rooted in Jewish text and philosophy.
“I write explanations for everything I create, because I want people to be aware of the hidden symbolism so they can learn from it and appreciate it,” he said. “I want people to know my intentions.”
David’s works are on display at the Osher Marin JCC through September. “New Beginnings — Journey of the Soul” features 22 original, handmade serigraphs (a type of multilayered screen print) and limited-edition lithographs depicting vivid biblical and Judaic imagery.
“New Beginnings” is the title of one of David’s pieces in the exhibit, but it also has a more expansive meaning.
“Bruce wanted to focus on the fact that we’re always given an opportunity to begin again — to improve ourselves, to renew the covenant,” said Joanne Greene, director of the JCC’s Center for Jewish Life. “As we move toward the new year, [the exhibit] is a reminder that we can start again and open our minds and hearts to a new and better way to be.”
At the opening reception Sunday, Aug. 8, David will speak about his artistic process and the messages in his artwork.
“I want people to [look at my art] and develop an appreciation for Judaism and also Israel, and take it into their home,” David said. He also hopes his art “increases their conscious awareness of who and what they are, and what it means to be Jewish.”
Synagogues, schools, organizations and individuals around the country have commissioned David to make serigraphs, lithographs, metal sculptures, bronze reliefs, stained glass and glass mosaics. His art has even been featured in a college textbook on world religions (next to Marc Chagall’s).
David grew up in Louisville with an Orthodox mother and a Reform father. He attended Jewish day school, went in his own direction in his teens and 20s, and returned to Judaism through his art.
As a result, he has deepened his own spiritual practice and Jewish identity. He’s written two books that have yet to be published, “The Jewish Soul Haggadah” and “Whispers of Hope … for the World and Our Children.”
“To me, the art is all secondary; the most important thing is that I am able to share the value of a unique heritage I truly believe has so much to offer all of us — even, and especially, today,” he said.
With his son, Josh, David is starting a nonprofit called Light of the Nations to expand the educational aspects of his artwork.
Light of the Nations will offer a series of weekend retreats, or Shabbatons, that will blend traditional prayer, meditation, movement and music — along with a healthy dose of the outdoors. Father and son hope to host their first retreat in November.
“We want to share Judaism in a way that people can relate to it and show how it can benefit our world,” David said.
“New Beginnings — Journey of the Soul” is on display through September at the Osher Marin JCC, 200 N. San Pedro Road, San Rafael. Opening reception is 8 p.m. Sunday, Aug. 8. Admission is free. For information, call (415) 444-8066 or visit www.marinjcc.org/lifelong_learning_exhibits.html.