The Daily Heller: Artist Celebrates Heritage of Jewish Women as Typographers and Printers

Posted inThe Daily Heller

Lynne Avadenka is a Detroit-based book artist and printer with a special interest in the legacy of women from Constantinople, Lviv, Amsterdam and Vilna, among other cities, who were serious printers of their day. In The Work of Her Hands: The Art of Lynne Avadenka and the Craft of Jewish Women Printers (currently on view through March 16 at The Library of the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York City), she examines the power of text and image, the physical and philosophical idea of the book, and the beauty of visual language.

For the exhibit she completed a series of prints celebrating the role of Jewish women in early Hebrew printing. Below are her prints from the Invention series, which resemble Hebrew letter mandalas, included in the exhibition along with this video of the artist at work. These prints are created by “building formes” (of metal and wood Hebrew type, along with metal ornaments and type-high rule) in an angle chase. “A single sheet goes through the press 24 times, with each small turn of the angle chase (formerly used in commercial printing for setting type on an angle) building the image,” she explained in a brief email interview.

You have quoted a poetic line from a Hebrew book published in 1476: “In a moment ink flows over me [the letters], without guidelines, the ‘writing’ is even.” What is the goal of this work combining letterforms and design?
My goal is to create art that is beautiful and conceptually grounded in meaning. 

How did your Invention series take shape?
I found an angle chase and began experimenting. I started incorporating Hebrew phrases into the printed pieces. “Invention” refers to a passage from a book by a 1590s polymath, David Gans, who called printing a “great invention” that rivaled other technological innovations of the time. 

You wrote, composed and printed A Doctrine of Handy-Works, a tribute to Jewish women involved in printing. What is the genesis of Jewish women in printing? Was this something that began in Eastern Europe during the 19th century “oriental renaissance” or earlier?
The earliest-known Jewish woman who was active in Hebrew printing was Estellina Conant, who worked with her husband in their print shop in Mantua, and in circa 1474, included herself in a colophon. That’s how we know what we know: The women set their own names in type in the colophons, and in the case of women publishers, on the title pages of the Hebrew books they published. Women worked alongside their husbands and, often, when their husbands passed away, the women kept the businesses running. The earliest known Jewish woman to establish a press was Doña Reyna Mendes (1534–1599)—her press was opened in 1593 in her home in Belvedere, a suburb of Constantinople.

I have a Berthold specimen catalog of Hebrew lettering. Were women involved in the development of typefaces? Were there many hurdles to overcome? 
The whole process of the creation of early Hebrew types is a mystery … there are no manuals like Joseph Moxon’s Mechanicks of Printing. 

In more recent history, Franziska Baruch (1901–1989) was a very influential type designer that more people should know about. The small metal type in my Invention prints was designed by Baruch and purchased new from the Bixler Type Foundry in Skaneateles, NY.

(More on Avadenka’s work can be found here and be sure to read the eloquent epilogue to Handy-Works below. )