Diane Samuels: Visual Artist and Scribe, Part Two

I’m thrilled to share with you the second part of my interview with Diane Samuels.
(Click here for last week’s post, part one.)


Diane Samuels at the YMCA, Jerusalem 2013

Diane and and I met at a wonderful dinner party for The American Academy in Jerusalem. Launched in 2010, the academy offers a 10-week fellowship for distinguished artists, architects, and planners from abroad and from all backgrounds that helps strengthen the city of Jerusalem as a vibrant, pluralistic center of arts and culture. Diane was a 2013 fellow.

 DIane is a visual artist whose work is built from other people’s words. She uses their handwriting, their texts, and their stories in her public and private artwork and is committed to protecting writers’ words in her role as co-founder of City of Asylum Pittsburgh which provides sanctuary to writers in exile.


I’d love to hear about your time in Jerusalem as a fellow at The American Academy in Jerusalem. How has this experience influenced you as an artist?  

Although the work I described last week is almost monastic, another part of my work involves being in public, talking with people and collecting their stories on my on-going theme of “home.” In Jerusalem, I proposed sitting in public places where I would meet a wide cross-section of Jerusalemites. The American Academy in Jerusalem arranged for me to be “in residence” at the Jerusalem International YMCA.

I sat five or six days a week for three to five hours a day at a big table in the entrance of the YMCA. When people came to the table and asked what I was doing, I asked them to talk with me about “what is home,” to write their observations on a small card in their first language, and to make suggestions of books I should read.


Diane Samuels at the YMCA, Jerusalem 2013


detail by Diane Samuels, Jerusalem 2013

The YMCA made project explanation signs for me in Arabic, English, and HebrewI had table talks with a cross-section of the YMCA community: staff/employees; families who take their children to day care; people who exercise there, stay in the hotel, come to conferences and concerts.

During my eight weeks at the YMCA, I had 472 conversations about home. The conversations were enlightening, distressing, illuminating, and some were humorous. Tourists, especially those from the United States, were often very clear about “home” and would quickly write “New Jersey” or “Utah” on their card.

People from the Jerusalem area would almost invariably say, “It’s complicated.” They talked about “home” as both the place where they lived currently and another place where they were born, or where their parents or grandparents or were born. Often it was a place that they had never been, either by choice or by external circumstances. I started to think of this as the echo response—standing in one place but reflecting on another.

 In between conversations, I hand-transcribed poetry that I selected or that was recommended to me by table visitors onto parchment that I bought from a parchment dealer in Ge’ula. He is a tanner and preparator of Torah parchment—and buys the skins in Nebraska.

Each day after my table time, I traced the handwriting on the cards I collected that day and I traced maps that I was given or used that day. I collaged these onto a 6’ drawing of a map of Israel. During my last week, I ripped this collage into hundreds of pieces and tried to reassemble it. Talking with so many people, and spending time in the Israel Museum, and being given a private tour by world-renowned archeologist Avner Goren made me think about shards, reassembling, piecing something torn or broken back together and trying to imagine the missing parts.

I’m still working with the material I collected in my Jerusalem archive and think it will be a resource for many years.


Diane Samuels at the YMCA, Jerusalem, 2013


detail by Diane Samuels, Jerusalem, 2013


detail by Diane Samuels, Jerusalem, 2013

How did the projects at The Center for Jewish History and The Memorial Garden in Germany come about and can you tell us about these works?

The Center for Jewish History project came about because of a search I was doing for a 1787 document that was located in the archive of The Leo Baeck Institute in New York. In 1996,  I went there, viewed the document and met Renata Stein, the LBI art curator and an artist herself. Renata and I became friends over the next few years. During that time LBI joined four other organizations under the umbrella of The Center for Jewish History and moved to a newly renovated building at 15 West 16th Street, near Union Square.

Renata wrote to me in 2001 asking if she could nominate me for a competition for a permanent artwork at the new Center for Jewish History. I won the competition and made Luminous Manuscript, funded by the Joseph S. and Diane H. Steinberg Charitable Trust.

Luminous Manuscript serves as the metaphorical preface to the vast archival collections of the institutions and explores the role of language and books in Jewish history and memory. First viewed from a distance, as you enter the CJH, it gives the impression of being a monumental page of Talmud. Upon closer approach, the artwork reveals itself to be a multi-layered mosaic of ever-proliferating detail. This extends to its very texture, which visitors are invited to touch. Gathering, assembling, ordering, and providing public access to the 200,000 component pieces of Luminous Manuscript required a care and precision analogous to the Center for Jewish History’s own archival mission.

It’s base stratum is composed of 440 Jerusalem stone tiles. Sandblasted into these are 112,640 hand-written alphabetic characters, spanning 57 writing systems, all collected by the artist from CJH users. Overlaid onto the stone tiles are 80,500 glass tesserae. Most have been sandblasted on the outer face with a hand-written alphabetic character or numeral or a miniaturized tracing of the hand of a child with a connection to the CJH. On the undersides of some sections of glass are engraved reproductions of 170 documents from the CJH’s archives, and the whole is bordered by sandblasted glass strips that resemble laid lines in handmade paper.


“Luminous Manuscript” by Diane Samuels, 2004, The Center for Jewish History. Photographed by Dennis Cowley, Joshua Kessler

Center for Jewish History

“Luminous Manuscript” by Diane Samuels, 2004, The Center for Jewish History. Photographed by Dennis Cowley, Joshua Kessler


“Luminous Manuscript” by Diane Samuels, 2004, The Center for Jewish History. Photographed by Dennis Cowley, Joshua Kessler


“Luminous Manuscript” by Diane Samuels, 2004, The Center for Jewish History. Photographed by Dennis Cowley, Joshua Kessler

SamuelsGrafeneckGardenSamuelsGrafeneckGardenThe Memorial Garden in Grafeneck, Germany

On my initial visit to Grafeneck, I drove my rental car to Gomadingen, turned left at the small Grafeneck sign, and drove up a winding forested road, which ended in a huge stone castle. As soon as I parked, my car I was surrounded by a group of disabled men who welcomed me to Grafeneck. The only common word we shared was “Hello.”

The welcoming committee walked with me to a memorial stone with engraved text and a nearby outdoor altar with a crucifix carved on its face. Not reading any German, I took out my German/English dictionary and word-by-word translated the engraved text.  It read:

“For the 10,654 sick and disabled people who were murdered here in 1940 by the National Socialist Regime.”

There I was, a Jew from America, being helped and guided by a group of disabled people from Germany, standing on German soil in 1996 and reading that text.

 Grafeneck, a home for the physically and mentally disabled, was established for the so-called “euthanasia experiments” of the Nazi regime in 1940. 10,654 sick and disabled people were killed there. Today Grafeneck has been re-established as an institution for the disabled run by the Foundation Samariterstiftung, and it maintains a memorial site dedicated to the victims who perished there in 1940.

The memorial was conceived of by Pastor Otto Frey, who recognized a need for his aging parishioners to have a place to mourn and contemplate the horrors of Grafeneck that occurred during their lifetime. Annual remembrance days and prayer services are held at this site. The memorial was designed by Prof. Eberhard Weinbrenner of Nürtingen and completed in 1990.

The Grafeneck Memorial Committee led by historian Thomas Stöckle is trying to identify all those who perished at Grafeneck and to record their names in a book on permanent display at the memorial site. It had been believed that the victims were all Christian, but in doing the research to identify the victims, it was discovered that some of the victims were Jewish.

 In May of 1997, I was asked to propose and subsequently was commissioned to build an addition to the existing memorial that would commemorate the Jewish victims as well as the victims whose names may never be found. I proposed an Alphabet Garden, based on a Jewish folktale in which the sage Isaac Luria is introduced to a man whose prayers are particularly efficacious. Isaac Luria asks him how he prays. The man answers that he cannot read or write but that he can recite the alphabet, so he asks G-d to take his letters and form them into prayers.

The Alphabet Garden was built in August 1998 and contains 26 small, square granite memorial stones each engraved with a letter of the Roman alphabet, set into a field of 14,000 randomly scattered plants that bloom at different seasons of the year.

 In October of 2000, a stone bench was placed in the garden. The stone, part of the Grafeneck castle built in the eighteenth century, is inscribed with the words Bitte, nimm meine Buchstaben und forme daraus Gebete. (“Please, take my letters and form them into prayers.”)


“The Alphabet Garden” by Diane Samuels, 2000, Grafeneck, Germany


“The Alphabet Garden” by Diane Samuels, 2000, Grafeneck, Germany


“The Alphabet Garden” by Diane Samuels, 2000, Grafeneck, Germany


“The Alphabet Garden” by Diane Samuels, 2000, Grafeneck, Germany

Lastly, who inspires you? 

 The authors whose work I transcribe are the main inspirations for me now. When I am not transcribing, many people inspire me. In contemporary arts specifically…In the most recent Carnegie International, there were two artists whose work I loved and I am still thinking about: Rokni Haerizadeh and Dinh Q. Lê. Others: Kate Valk, Dean Moss (AAJ Fellow), Oliver Lake, Iva Bittová, Davidson Norris (AAJ Fellow), Janet Cardiff, Horacio Castellano Moya, Kutluğ Ataman, Doris Salcedo, William Kentridge, Mark Bradford, Henrietta Rose-Innes, Mona Hatoum, Richard Powers, Vija Celmins, Toi Derricotte, Forrest Gander, Rachida Madani, Israel Centeno, Steve Reich…


Thank you Diane for sharing so much of your work and life with us these last two weeks!

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8 Comments on Diane Samuels: Visual Artist and Scribe, Part Two

  1. diane samuels
    September 1, 2014 at 12:30 pm (8 years ago)

    Dear Julie, Thank you so, so much! You’ve helped me see my work in a new way. Diane

    • Julie Levine
      September 1, 2014 at 2:21 pm (8 years ago)

      You are so very welcome! It’s been such a pleasure and joy to spend time with your work these past few weeks.

  2. Elise
    September 2, 2014 at 1:44 am (8 years ago)

    Beautiful! Diane really is an extraordinary artist and person. Thanks for giving her the space to talk about her work.

    • Julie Levine
      September 3, 2014 at 6:56 pm (8 years ago)

      Thank you!!! XO

  3. denise Garone
    September 9, 2014 at 10:20 pm (8 years ago)

    The Alphabet Garden and the people and the institution around it, the year round blooming of scattered plants, the prayers made from letters of the alphabet- all combine to form a fascinating memorial. What an amazing idea. Thank you Diane and thank you Julie for letting us learn more about this memorial.

    • Julie Levine
      September 9, 2014 at 10:34 pm (8 years ago)

      I’m so glad you enjoyed the post. I agree – The Alphabet Garden is quite moving.

    • diane samuels
      September 17, 2014 at 12:29 pm (8 years ago)

      Denise, Thank you for your kind comments. The Grafeneck Memorial has a website that gives information about all the fine work they are doing.


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