The Daily Heller: New Faces in the Old Testament

Posted inThe Daily Heller

Three decades ago, Hanoch Piven changed the paradigm for caricature with his 3D collage method of concocting likenesses of the famous and infamous. He not only captured a subject’s image, he did so with bits and scraps of material that somehow underscored the identity of the person being caricatured. Some were simply uncanny in their symbolism. If you’ve never seen them before, check out this Pinterest page.

In recent years, Piven has turned his attention to books for children. “I have been pulled more and more into the education field by teachers who seek alternatives to written language in the way they approach [their craft],” he told me. “I realized that the visual language I have developed for my own use (admittedly to bypass my drawing limitations) is a language that anybody, regardless of their artistic/drawing capacities, can use as a tool.”

Over time he has conducted dozens of workshops in schools in which collage with everyday objects is used to explore literary, historical or biblical characters. “I ended up becoming a bit of an accidental educator and find myself preaching to teachers to ‘take art out of the art-room and expand its use throughout school,’” he says.

Here, Piven tells us more about his new book with Shira Hecht-Koller, Dream Big, Laugh Often and More Great Advice From the Bible (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)—an ingenious romp through the Old Testament, updated for a new generation.


How did you get the idea for this approach to the Bible?
Having been doing collages for over 30 years, I learned to trust what serendipity brings my way and to find pleasure in making it work.

Four years ago, as I was conducting a workshop in a Jewish camp at The Poconos Mountains, an educator approaches me and says: “I have been following your work forever and I use it in the classroom. Let’s do a project together about the Bible.” I told her: “Hmm, I don’t really know much about it, honestly haven’t been following much, and also with all due respect to the plot, I don’t really connect to the whole God and the chosen people concept.

“OK, so let us read together some stories together and see where it connects to you!” she answered.

So we did that, and to make a long story short, we started to look at the stories as “hero journeys,” and distilled one lesson that the characters might have learnt by going through their own journey. That really excited me and became my own emotional connection to these stories, as someone who is always on a journey, moving between countries and also always looking for something (a nose, a mouth …). It eventually morphed to advice that children (and ourselves) could get from these heroes and their stories.

Jonah might suggest a “re-thinking timeout” as obviously three days inside a fish belly surely taught him to reconsider his initial actions. David might suggest “trusting your own powers” as he didn’t need to worry about not being as strong as Goliath if he himself possessed the advantage of artillery.
(Without getting too philosophical, I think any process of creation is a journey in which you need to trust the road, be curious, forgive yourself, etc. Shira Hecht-Koller, the educator who had approached me, was not just my Bible teacher but also the co-author of the book.


Would you say this is not your usual kind of illustration? There is much more small detail than in your bolder caricatures. Is there a reason?
It is definitely different than the synthetic/minimalistic approach I attempt to do in my caricatures, but I’d say that my children’s books have always been busier, loaded with more content.

I feel that in this case, the abundance of objects serves the purpose of creating multiple entry points to the story. It creates a nonlinear reading experience and hopefully invites the reader to decipher why an object is there. Perhaps it invites conversation between parent/teacher.

Also, as there is no likeness here to achieve, the whole challenge of “let’s see with how little I can create a likeness” is irrelevant and that allowed me to load a bit more. Talking about likeness, I did find inspiration in real people for some of the characters. You might have noticed that Balaam actually looks like Muammar Gaddafi. Joseph the dreamer (and big storyteller) was inspired by another dreamer and big storyteller, your fellow New Yorker, WeWork founder Adam Neumann.


What surprised you as you were putting the elements (and sacraments) together? I love the Matzoh for Moses’ beard.
Again, my method of working is to bring to the table as many relevant and irrelevant objects as possible in order to help good accidents arrive. (And be there to observe them when they come.)

Surprises then are always happening: Two chattering teeth were full of laughter, so I ended up using them as eyes for Sarah rather than as a mouth. The seashells for Miriam’s eyes, chosen for their shape and water connection, added in retrospect the idea of shelling and protecting, which was the task of Moses’ elder caretaking sister at the beginning of Exodus.


Do you play games with your illos? Do you give yourself certain elements and then put your collages together? Or do you use just what is necessary to make the story?
I do really enjoy the playful and at times nonsensical approach, definitely releasing myself from the obligation to use only what tells the story. Why does Abraham have peanuts for his limbs? Cause it looks cool. It’s just a joyful visual pun. I hope it does not send somebody on scholarly research to find whether Abraham was cultivating peanuts in Canaan.


Is your process chaotic or rational?
It obviously starts with a lot of chaos, and my job (and that of any artist) is to find and define some subjective order within the chaos by editing out what doesn’t help tell the story. Yet I think that as I got older, I became more permissive in letting some of the chaos stay in the final versions. Fun and play are not always rationale, but they are FUN!