What could Moses, Abraham and Sarah possibly have in common with Superman, Wonder Woman and Wolverine?
In Isaac Brynjegard-Bialik’s art, at least, they all inhabit the same complex, colorful world — one in which caped crusaders and Jewish text engage with ease.
A lifelong comic book fan who is married to a rabbi, Brynjegard-Bialik combines traditional papercutting techniques with collage to create intricate pieces whose inspirations span centuries, blurring the lines between graphic storytelling and decorative arts, pop culture and worship.
His work has been exhibited throughout the United States and in Israel. His new show — cheekily titled “You Did WHAT To My Comics?” — opens Sept. 9 at the Osher Marin JCC in San Rafael.
“I think of it as a modern approach to a really traditional Jewish art form,” explains the artist, who will be at the JCC for the opening reception Sept. 9. Brynjegard-Bialik grew up in the Los Angeles area and studied graphic design at UCLA. He first picked up a craft knife in 1995, when he and his wife (and former high school sweetheart), Shawna, moved to Israel, where she was beginning her rabbinical studies.
With no visa, he wasn’t allowed to work, “so I really needed a hobby,” recalls Brynjegard-Bialik. The first piece he completed was a gift for his wife for Tu B’Av, the holiday of love. He made another for their first anniversary, noting that the traditional first-anniversary gift is paper.
Soon, friends who were getting married began asking for ketubahs. “I’ve been cutting ever since,” says the artist, who lives outside Los Angeles with his wife — now a practicing rabbi at Northridge’s Temple Ahavat Shalom — and their three daughters.
The idea of using comics as collage material developed a few years after Brynjegard-Bialik began papercutting in earnest. It was a natural choice, he explains. For one, comic books had always fascinated him — he started collecting them in middle school. Also, they provided the initial spark of inspiration that led him to study art later.
But marrying Batman with Torah portions makes sense on another level, he adds: Jews have a rich history in comic books.
“So many of these characters and tropes were created by Jews. I look at these stories and I see metaphors for our existence, and metaphors for the Jewish experience,” he says. “Certainly a lot has been written about Superman representing an immigrant who’s trying to fit in, a model minority… I’m always just trying to figure out, how do I use these stories as a level of commentary? I can start off with an idea, but [comics] always help to take it further.”
A recent piece, for example, explores the story of Moses sending spies into Israel and coming back with enormous grapes. The concept of rebel spies on a scouting mission reminded Brynjegard-Bialik of another adventure story: Star Wars.
“That’s my geeky side coming out,” says the artist. “But truly some of the themes are very similar.” He was especially entranced by the image of the grapes the spies brought back, and the idea of the Israelis deciding to go up against the giants, knowing they were outmatched.
Combining passions for Jewish text and graphic art has meant that Brynjegard-Bialik has found some kindred spirits in unlikely places. Some people come to his shows for the Jewish context — “they want to see midrash,” he says — and wind up entranced by the comic books; for others, it’s just the opposite.
“For families, I think it can be an entry point to talk about the text,” he says. And the serious comic book fans are always fun to talk to: “Someone will say, ‘This tiny piece right here, this is from the Wonder Woman run in 1982, right?’ And I’m checking my notes and going, wow. It sure is.”
One of his longtime fans is Dan Schifrin, director of public programs at the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco. The two were classmates at UCLA, and Brynjegard-Bialik worked on the design for Ha’Am, the student Jewish newspaper where Schifrin served as editor.
“The moment I met him I knew he was someone to watch,” says Schifrin. “He completely redesigned Ha’Am at a time when I didn’t even know a newspaper had a design. He was always pushing the boundaries of what something looked like, and what that new something communicated. He was always pushing the boundaries of what it meant to be both Jewish and popular.”
Brynjegard-Bialik deflects such praise, but does acknowledge that people often tell him they can stare at his work for hours and see something new every time.
“To me, that’s Torah — you always find something different, or see something in a different way,” he says. “That says to me that my work is consistent with our tradition as Jews, of telling and re-telling stories, the balance of the old with finding ways to keep things relevant, fresh and new.”
“You Did WHAT To My Comics?” runs Sept. 9 to Nov. 30 at the Osher Marin JCC, 200 N. San Pedro Rd., San Rafael. Free. Artist’s reception plus Jewish-created comic books and graphic novels from Blue Moon Comics in San Rafael, 4-5:30 p.m. Sept. 9. www.marinjcc.org