black and white drawing of cats and human who has become a cat
"Quien con gatos va a maullar se ameza. / Who lives with cats learns to meow."

Artist breathes life into Ladino proverbs in Marin exhibit

“A barking dog doesn’t bite.”

“Before marrying look at what you are doing.”

“One who raises a child spins gold.”

Artist Marc Shanker brings these wise Ladino proverbs back to life — along with a splash of whimsy — in “Traces of Sepharad,” a series of etchings on exhibit at the Osher Marin JCC in San Rafael.

“My mother’s side of the family was Sephardic,” said Shanker, 70, who grew up in Brooklyn, New York, surrounded by extended family. Every Sunday, the whole mishpocha — his grandparents, aunts and uncles — got together for food and lively conversation.

“Everyone spoke Ladino,” Shanker said in an interview from his home in New York City, and “they would always use these pithy proverbs.”

a black and white drawing of flies buzzing around a pair of closed lips
“A la boca serada no entran moscas. / Into a closed mouth flies cannot enter.”

Ladino, also known as Judeo-Spanish, is the language passed down through the generations by Jews of Spanish origin.

Shanker’s grandfather, who barely spoke English, loved to spout Ladino proverbial truisms. “Pops spit out proverbs,” Shanker told an audience of 40 at a Jan. 26 reception at the JCC in San Rafael. “They were truth. Discussion ended, case closed.”

Shanker’s etchings, which also appear in his book “Traces of Sepharad,” are “my way of showing gratitude for all the suffering that allowed me to be here today,” he said, referring to the Spanish Inquisition. Shanker’s maternal grandparents emigrated from Salonika (then under rule of the Ottoman Turks) to the United States in 1917.

His book includes 45 etchings, along with essays by Shanker, Spanish novelist Antonio Muñoz Molina and T.A. Perry, a Sephardic and biblical scholar.

While Shanker is serious about honoring the oral tradition of the Judeo-Spanish culture that once infused his family, his artwork also reflects his sense of humor.

A self-taught artist, he describes his style this way: “Sort of primitive. Naive. Childlike.” And he describes a proverb as “a short sentence drawn from long experience.”

For much of his professional life, Shanker worked for the hospital workers union. He began his career teaching blind people how to travel, and then moved up the union ranks to become comptroller, health policy director and head of its benefit fund.

I had no idea what an artist was. I had never even been to MoMA. — Marc Shanker

He only got into art after college, when he “fell in love with an artist,” accompanied her to museums and spent time in her studio. Before that, he said, “I had no idea what an artist was. I had never even been to MoMA,” New York’s Museum of Modern Art.

Shanker pursued art as a hobby for the next 15 to 20 years, making paintings, collages and drawings. Yet “I was doing all this work, but I didn’t know where I was going or why. I had no compass,” he said.

Then he did some drawings of proverbs he’d heard growing up, and got positive feedback from an arts and literary magazine. “I thought, maybe this could be a book.”

Shanker, who knew nothing about bookmaking at the time, began collecting Ladino proverbs from around the world.

“I immersed myself in Spanish culture,” he said, studying 11th-century art and music, attending lectures and reading a lot.

It took him 3½ years to do the etchings — an intensive process involving copper plates, chemical washes and a hand-cranked press. “If you make a mistake,” Shanker said, “it could take weeks, sometimes, to correct it.”

Shanker’s work also will be shown at the Addison-Penzak JCC in Los Gatos from May 5 to June 20. His etchings have been exhibited at various venues, from the Center for Jewish History in New York, to as far away as the Netherlands.

“I really think that art should be a bridge between people, if possible,” Shanker said.

Traces of Sepharad,” on exhibit through March 10 at the Osher Marin JCC, 200 N. San Pedro Road, San Rafael.

Liz Harris

Liz Harris is a J. contributor. She was J.'s culture editor from 2012-2018.