A Bintel Brief – Interview with artist Liana Finck

On Wednesday, March 21 the Museum will exhibit work from Liana Finck’s graphic novel-in progress based on the Bintel Brief, the beloved Yiddish advice column of The Forverts newspaper. When I first saw Finck’s drawings I was taken with the range of emotions she was able to express with her beautiful drawings and text. Also, I am struck by the continued resonance of this century-old column, which was launched in 1906 by The Forverts editor Abraham Cahan and so poignantly (and, at times, humorously!) captured the condition of the Jewish immigrant on the Lower East Side.  The letters continue to speak to readers today. Here Liana Finck shares her thoughts on the project.

Liana Finck with a panel of her Bintel Brief graphic novel at Eldridge Street

Liana Finck with a panel of her Bintel Brief graphic novel at Eldridge Street

What led you to the Bintel Brief?
My Grandma Helen had a copy of the collection of letters edited by Isaac Metzker. I found the book two years ago on a trip home from Belgium, where I was living, and loved it immediately.

What is it about the Bintel Brief that made you want to undertake this project?
The simplicity of the letters moved me. I have very specific taste in narrative: I like books and movies that are simple, full of emotion, and also told with a bit of distance and understatement. I think my taste comes from having loved poetry before I learned to love books or movies or art. The Bintel Brief letters touched me immediately, and this was especially wonderful because art usually seems to me like an escape from the ‘real world,’ specifically, in my case, from New York; from Judaism, from mundane life…these letters felt deeply familiar, but they had the special wildness and strangeness I usually look to art for.

Why the graphic novel and not another medium?
I’m not sure. I never liked to read graphic novels until very recently, and the discipline required to be a graphic novelist is something I’ve had to struggle to teach myself. It’s a slow and arduous medium and I still feel in over my head a lot when I’m working. Still… Here is why I chose to make graphic novels:

A page from Liana Finck's "A Bintel Brief"

A page from Liana Finck's "A Bintel Brief"

When I was a teenager I developed a passion for books, but I’d been drawing obsessively since I was a baby, and I knew that drawing was my natural ‘language,’ much more than written and spoken words. I thought of drawing as a responsibility that I had to hold onto, even if I wanted to become a writer. I never loved graphic novels, but I did relate more than anything to cartoonists and illustrators who seemed to have figured out how to ‘write’ with pictures. Some of my favorites were Maira Kalman, Roz Chast and Saul Steinberg. I decided to be a graphic novelist instead of a cartoonist or illustrator because it’s an exciting time to be a graphic novelist: the medium has suddenly become somewhat popular and very interesting in America. It’s also a relatively unexplored medium: there’s much more room to break ground today as a graphic novelist than as a writer or an artist. This sounds a little crazy but I do believe it. Somewhat, at least. And I deeply enjoy the challenge of using drawing -which comes naturally to me- in a way that does not come naturally.

How do you feel about exhibiting your work at the Eldridge Street Synagogue?
So excited and honored. The building is so beautiful, comforting and also awe-inspiring–such a perfect mixture of art and Jewish history, like the Bintel Brief letters. I feel so calm and glad whenever I go there. It’s also right in the neighborhood where most of the Bintel Brief letters were written – the Lower East Side – and is a stone’s throw from the old Forverts building on East Broadway. The synagogue has felt like the center of the Lower East Side to me since I first went into the sanctuary a few months ago.

Liana Finck’s A Bintel Brief opens on March 21 an 7pm and will be on view at the Museum at Eldridge Street through May 31, 2012.

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