“I was born in the Negev desert. The Turkish Ottoman Empire was crumbling, but my family was busy rebuilding the Hebrew language,” she said.
Varda Lev asked me to her home in the vicinity of the statue of Roger Williams. She wanted to show me the work of her twin brothers, Ori and Ari Sherman, both now of blessed memory. Ori’s paintings are inspired largely by Hebrew scriptural passages. They illustrate sacred but also familiar excerpts, sometimes the lyrics of psalms or good words from Ecclesiastes. The calligraphy is incorporated into the woodcuts, the prints, the watercolors, the oil canvas paintings – landscapes and portraits. Perhaps the most impressive and remarkable aspect of this collection on the walls of her house is that Ori started his art career as a very young boy, continuing as a teen, as a scholarship student at the Rhode Island School of Design and throughout all the chapters of his life.
Varda guided me from room to room – vestibule to parlor to dining room to kitchen to stairwell to upstairs chambers and even to the bathroom. Although she explained each piece (“Please note that Ori also designed, by hand, the frames!”), she added, “My brother would never answer my questions about what he was thinking, what the symbolism was, of the beast, or the face, or form. He claimed he couldn’t remember and also didn’t believe the maker should say in words what he already has expressed in color and line.”
I’m not great with tape recorder, camera or even the power of memorization. I can only wait until somehow the story of the day’s adventure comes out within my recall, as I tell the tale of the visit.
Ori was a twin, “two sides of a coin,” but they lived the breadth of the American continent apart. Since “Ari” means “lion” in Hebrew, the image of a fierce feline probably suggests that, despite their distance, they were also intimately and deeply bound together.
Ori cut quite a figure at RISD. I found the quails, skeletons and plants from the Nature Lab in pantry and bathroom. Both brothers were not only immensely talented and intelligent, with multiple talents from linguistic to musical, clerical to diplomatic; they were also both homosexual. “It broke their father’s heart. I believe the knowledge actually killed him. He was a humble and practical man. He wanted them to earn their own livelihoods, didn’t approve at all of art for art’s sake. He wanted Ori to major in textiles, a useful craft, not painting. He worshipped the normal and ordinary. They were handsome young men, and liked women, who adored them each. By the end of their lives they had particular partners, and I considered them my own brothers. But life was tragic for them.”
I added that their incredible lives had meaning, and that every human soul has its destiny. I like to cite Shakespeare. “There’s a Divinity that shapes our ends, rough-hew them how we will.” For now, I’ll leave it like that, with just a few glimpses into the fabulous legacy Ori’s work and Varda’s heritage add up to. “I’d love to have a show in a gallery or within a museum, to celebrate this wonderful person and poet. I hereby invite your Bible class, come September, to visit and study these images of a century of Jewish visual thought and memory,” she said
MIKE FINK (firstname.lastname@example.org) teaches at RISD.