Six years ago, when he was in Costa Rica, artist Scott Switzer began “The Torah Series,” 54 paintings inspired by each of the Torah portions. He gifted the studies for his first nine paintings to the indigenous Wimea people.
For the 55-year-old Idaho-based artist, there is nothing incongruous about the unusual origins of the series. Switzer’s journey as a non-Jew to Jewish art actually began with an exploration of Native American culture.
Switzer’s work is currently on display in the first joint art exhibit between the Peninsula JCC in Foster City and the Addison-Penzak JCC in Los Gatos. “The Torah Series” runs through Oct. 6 at the PJCC’s art gallery, with artist events on Aug. 19. The companion series on biblical imagery, “Related Paintings,” runs through Oct. 7 at the APJCC, with an Aug. 20 artist’s workshop.
When Switzer and his wife, Shelley, adopted two Native American children — the daughter and son of a woman they befriended on the streets of Haight-Ashbury — the couple began learning about Native American history, hoping to expose the children to their heritage. They were shocked to learn how Native Americans had suffered at the hands of Christian colonists and missionaries.
This unsettled Switzer. Although he had grown up with little in the way of religion, he had embraced Christianity along with Alcoholics Anonymous while struggling with addiction in his early 20s.
“We started getting a real education on what happened with the Native American people in the name of Christianity,” he said. “It opened our eyes to a lot of abuses … at which point I became disillusioned with my faith. … I saw how my faith had been distorted.”
Though Switzer no longer considered himself a practicing Christian, he didn’t want to expunge the religion from his consciousness. Through art, he wanted to examine his faith at its core, before it seemingly had been corrupted to justify the unjustifiable, so he decided to explore its origin: the Torah. Switzer also began to see parallels between the Native American perspective and the Jewish perspective, as two originally tribal cultures.
“Learning more about the Hebrew culture was a personal expression of reconciliation,” he said.
When Switzer began “The Torah Series” in 2009, he’d had little exposure to the Hebrew Bible, so he began to study it independently in Costa Rica, where his wife had accepted a teaching job. Switzer started reading the weekly portions along with online summaries, jotting down biblical stories and ideas for imagery as he read.
“I’m by no means a scholar,” he said. “The series is meant for contemplation and hopefully reveals truths beyond my comprehension, as all good art does.”
Over the course of the series, the artist encountered some challenges like how to go about depicting God. “There is no human likeness when you’re talking about HaShem,” Switzer said, “but that gave me a real freedom to [be] abstract …”
In 2011, wishing to see the settings depicted in his artwork, he traveled to Israel for six weeks, donating his first nine completed paintings to the Great Jerusalem Synagogue. Returning to the United States, he wrapped up “The Torah Series” in 2012.
Switzer, now 10 years sober, no longer identifies with a particular faith as he once did, but he finds meaning in Native American and Jewish rituals.
“My God has gotten a lot bigger and I don’t feel a need to quantify or qualify or understand his ways,” Switzer said. “When I’m painting, I feel like I’m finally being true to myself … The whole Torah and all this has been a part of my recovery.”
“The Torah Series,” through Oct. 6, PJCC, 800 Foster City Blvd., Foster City. “Art with the Artist: Visual Midrash” with Switzer and Rabbi Lavey Derby, 10 a.m. to 12: 30 p.m. Aug. 19, $40 and $48; free reception 5:30 to 7 p.m. Workshop registration: www.pjcc.org
“Related Paintings,” through Oct. 7, APJCC, 14855 Oka Road, Los Gatos. Workshop with Switzer 7 p.m. Aug. 20, $55 and $65. Register: www.apjcc.org