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Expressing Judaism with a paintbrush

A self-described 'crazy hippie' with a gallery in Los Angeles creates vibrant biblical narratives.

November 30, 2009|By Nicole Santa Cruz
  • Barbara Mendes, 61, stands in her gallery in front of her latest work, "Vayikra Mural," a 6-foot-by-16-foot mural depicting the 859 verses in the book of Leviticus, which took her more than three years to complete.
Barbara Mendes, 61, stands in her gallery in front of her latest work, "Vayikra… (Glenn Koenig / Los Angeles…)

Barbara Mendes believes her life has been a series of miracles.

Certain events have led her to embrace Judaism and paint vividly colored biblical narratives based on Genesis, Exodus and now Leviticus, the third book of the Torah.

"Vayikra Mural," her newest work, is a 6-by-16-foot mural depicting the book's 859 verses in tiny, intricately detailed pictures.

Mendes, an Orthodox Jew, said she names her murals in Hebrew to emphasize the language's use in the Bible. The latest mural, on display in her Pico-Robertson gallery, took her more than three years to complete, with the illustrations of each verse numbered so viewers can find it in the Bible.

The artwork, though universal, is a perfect expression of who Mendes is, said Rabbi Emeritus Marc Angel of Congregation Shearith Israel in New York City. Mendes calls Angel a mentor; he also serves the same congregation that her great-grandfather, also a rabbi, once did.

"She is very full of vitality and full of life," Angel said. "She is very imaginative, creative, and she has an eye for color."

But Mendes, a spunky 61-year-old, wasn't always painting biblical narratives.

In the 1970s, the New York-born artist went by "Willy." She was one of the only women in the underground, or alternative, comics movement, said Trina Robbins, author of "The Great Women Cartoonists."

Mendes calls herself a "crazy hippie." But even in her days as an underground comic artist, her work, unlike that of many of her harder-edged counterparts, was infused with spirituality.

"My stuff was never raw and sexual," she said of her comics. "It was about hippies saving the world through spirituality."

A longtime friend of Mendes, Robbins said she was not surprised at Mendes' journey from secular to observant Jew. As for her art, in one sense, Mendes has just expanded what she did originally, her friend said.

"Her biblical illustrations are really like comics," Robbins said. "If you look at them, each picture is told in a separate panel."

On a recent afternoon in her gallery, Mendes, wearing a rainbow tie-dyed T-shirt, pointed out scenes from her work, her bright pink fingernails matching the art.

"This is getting down to the nitty-gritty," she said as she explained a verse about dietary restrictions in the richly detailed Leviticus mural. In the work, hatch marks are used to symbolize that something is spiritually impure, and lightning bolts stand for "don't."

"Her work requires such patience," Angel said. "She doesn't let anything go by. Every letter, every picture, every image is thought through very carefully. It's very cerebral."

Other paintings in her gallery -- there are more than 150 displayed or leaning against the walls -- also pop with color.

A work in progress honors country music with depictions of guitars and singer Taylor Swift; another large painting features scenes of Los Angeles and Oregon, where Mendes once lived. Her work is influenced by her interest in Eastern mysticism in her 20s and African culture in her 30s, she said.

Mendes said her work reflects her life and what she feels. "I always paint what I'm involved in," she said.

"Shemot," her mural about the book of Exodus, is on display at the Sephardic Educational Center in Jerusalem's Old City, and "Beresheit," her depiction of Genesis, is permanently displayed at a Jewish community center in Boca Raton, Fla.

Mendes said her family had deep roots in Sephardic Jewish tradition, but it was not until she met Nathan Misraje, the man who would become her second husband, that she became seriously interested in Judaism. She quickly found mentors through Hebrew and Judaism classes.

But she also believes her journey to the religion was a matter of timing.

In November 1992, Mendes was painting a tropical-themed mural for a restaurant off of South Fairfax Avenue near Wilshire Boulevard. She was on her knees, with ants biting her, furiously painting a depiction of God's eyes when she was approached by a man who asked her to paint another mural -- in a synagogue.

"It was like my own people reached out to me," she recalled.

Her reply to the man: "I'll do it; I'm Jewish."

Mendes said that she loves her religion and that learning to speak Hebrew at 47 was like learning "God's secret language." And she says that she can't believe she's made a living from her dream to be an artist.

"I believe God made that happen," she said.

nicole.santacruz@latimes.com

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