Not every autobiographical comics artist is driven to create her own private book from the Bible. Sarah Lightman’s motivation came from the fact that while the Book of Daniel and the Scroll of Esther bore the names of her brother and sister, there was no Book of Sarah. Until now. Lightman began her diary drawings in 1995 at London’s Slade School of Fine Art, which she displayed as projections and accompanied with her spoken texts. Looking back, she thinks, “I am not sure if I could have survived my life without also drawing it. Often I make art about questions and situations in my life before I have even discussed them with friends and family.”
Unlike most first-person graphic novelists, Lightman tends to avoid representing herself, preferring potent symbols like a glass of water or a table surrounded by empty chairs, sensitively recorded in pencil. “I see my object drawings as a cross between visual haiku and vanitas still- life painting, where our mortality and humanity become evident. I see a chair the same way – almost unnoticeable in a person’s presence, but a constant reminder of their absence.” She conveys this poignancy in her short animated film Family Table (2012) by personalising the original wording of Psalm 133 – ‘How good and pleasant it is when brothers sit together’ – to also encompass sisters, mothers, fathers, grandmas and grandpas. This was how she experienced the psalm itself and the dinner table on Friday nights.
Brought up within an extended Jewish family, Lightman sees her artwork bridging two forms of knowledge – learnt and experienced, or as she puts it, “History/herstory and my story. In Jewish textual tradition, midrash fills the gaps in biblical texts. My artwork lives in these spaces, as a visual midrash.” Lightman has found many parallels with her Old Testament namesake, voiceless and barren, who nevertheless bore Abraham’s son, Isaac, late in life. Recently married, Lightman reflects on her uncertainty about parenthood in her new Strip overleaf, And God Remembered Sarah, through such spare, evocative imagery as an egg carton and baking tins.
Lightman has signed with Myriad Editions to publish The Book of Sarah in 2015. “It will be formed of two chapters: Genesis, my beginnings, and Exodus, about leaving home and to some degree leaving religious life as well. Though I am still very excited by Jewish culture and intellectual heritage, I don’t always feel I belong. So I feel a little exiled right now.”
One community she does feel at home in is one she has actively helped to nurture, namely the blossoming scene of women’s autobiographical comics. Central to this has been her codirection with Nicola Streeten of Laydeez Do Comics, a monthly creative and supportive forum, run by women but welcoming to everyone, which started in London and has spread across the UK and to San Francisco and Chicago. Equally vital has been her cocuration with Michael Kaminer of Graphic Details, the first exhibition of confessional comics by Jewish women, which, after touring North America, reaches London next year. Her latest pieces, in an exhibit supported by a grant from the European Association for Jewish Culture at Occupy My Time Gallery in Deptford till 1 June, form another part of her life story and of her life. Both of them works in progress.
This article was first published in the May 2013 issue.