Aaron Hodge Greenberg Silver is a Minnesota-based artist and graphic designer. A couple weeks ago, his papercut of the words “Black Lives Matter” on an open tallis went viral online. The tallis hovers above the Hebrew from Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5, “Anyone who destroys a life is considered to have destroyed an entire world; and anyone who saves a life has saved an entire world.”
Certainly for me, seeing those words wrapped in a Jewish prayer shawl, tied to one of Judaism’s central ethical tenets, hit me with a surreal gravity and seriousness. The black on white incisions reminded me of apocryphal stories that the Ten Commandments were written on stone in black fire or, in other versions, carved completely through the stone. The papercut is a beautiful work of craftsmanship, but it’s even more powerful in what it names — the centrality of our faith and our allyship in one of the defining issues of our generation.
Below, Aaron explains the inspiration behind this work, his art, and the place of artistry in a movement for social justice.
What inspired you to make this piece?
I was inspired to make this piece after the horrible week in July when Philando Castille and Alton Sterling were killed and later that week five police officers in Dallas. I live in Minneapolis, not far from where Philando lived and worked, so his death affected my community very directly. That Friday, I went to shabbat dinner at a friends’ house, feeling deeply affected and unable to think about anything else. I know people who have been involved in the fight for racial justice and I had followed, with horror, the news of many previous killings of black men by police.
But something about that week in July pushed me over an edge I didn’t realize was there. For the first time, I felt like I had to learn more, had to understand more about racial inequality, and had to find ways to fight it myself. The planning of that papercut, which took over a month to ponder, design, and cut, started at the same moment.
Between when I started planning my papercut (in midJuly), and when I finished it (in late August), the phrase “Black Lives Matter” became tangled up with the release of a political platform by The Movement for Black Lives, which includes inflammatory and inaccurate language towards Israel. The Black Lives Matter text in my artwork is unconnected to that organization, and any other organization that uses the same phrase. I think the original text stands on its own as an indisputable fact that represents the importance of dismantling structural racism in America.
Why a tallis?
That weekend in mid-July, I brainstormed a number of Jewish and Hebrew papercut designs that incorporate the Black Lives Matter text, and started working on more complete designs for a few. I’m almost done with a second piece that has the same texts but is designed around a tree of life, a more common symbol in traditional Jewish papercuts than the tallit.
The tallis spoke to me because I was thinking about Jewish responsibility for tikkun olam, repairing the world, with visions of embracing (like the tallis does when you wear it). In my original drawing, I wanted to display the tallit as embracing or hugging the phrase Black Lives Matter. If the tallit is symbolic of a Jew, or of the Jewish people, the image is saying, “We, the Jewish people, are obligated to repair the world and actualize the truth represented by this phrase, a truth we often don’t see happening in the world around us.”
Regarding the English text: when I started developing the papercut, I was forced to confront the choice to either change my method of producing papercuts (i.e. by introducing glued-on letters) or to cut into the tallis. I balked at doing that because it seemed initially to be violent toward the tallit. However, as I dwelled on it, I found a different meaning, which is not in the act of cutting the paper tallit, but in the result, which is to reveal that the Jewish people are also made not whole by the existence of structural racism, and through our ignorance of, silence about, or participation in it.
Where did you get your start with papercuts?
When I was in middle school in Teaneck, New Jersey, I took a class on papercutting from Debbie Ugoretz at the Teaneck Jewish Center. My very first piece was a buffalo. I’ve been making papercut artwork with some regularity ever since then.
Making papercut artwork appeals to me for many reasons. I enjoy the dual challenge of creating a visual impact with only two colors and where the foreground is all connected to itself. Some of my pieces use both foreground and background to create the imagery, such as this piece. Practically, I appreciate the ease of needing only a small knife, paper, and a cutting mat Also, since there is a rich tradition of papercut artwork within Judaism, I enjoy being able to draw upon those symbols and histories when I create my own work, though I often create pieces that have no obvious connection to that history as well.
How can art impact movements for social justice?
This is a big question for me, and one that has been weighing on me lately. The “Black Lives Matter wrapped in a tallit” piece is one that has been born out of the desire to be part of a social justice movement, a piece that I want to make a strong statement about something current, meaningful, and unfortunately controversial.
Even from the moment I started working on sketches for this idea, I was asking myself “What will this accomplish? Is making this artwork a valuable use of your time? Should you be comparing it to the option of spending your time at a protest or making phone calls?” I wouldn’t consider my thinking on this question complete, but I do know that visual art communicates something that cannot always be communicated in plain words. I hope that there are people who will see this piece, think, and possibly change their conclusions in a direction toward more participation in anti-racist activities.
What other papercut of yours are you proud of?
I’m quite fond of this one, which is built around a pair of texts inspired by a Hasidic teaching. It’s that all persons should have two pieces of paper, one in each pocket. On one is written “On my behalf was the whole world created” (Mishnah of Sanhedrin 4:5) and on the other “I am but dust and ashes.” (Gen. 18:2) If we can simultaneously keep in mind both our own individual importance and also our smallness, and the importance and smallness of every human being we encounter, we can be in a good position to empathize with other people, cut them a break, and make positive connections with others.
Another papercut I’m proud of is All the Whale Wants, because I think it’s particularly beautiful and it was also a challenge to cut. So many tiny letters! You see more on my site and on Istagram.
Which of your works are available for purchase?
Many of my original hand-cuts papercuts and other artwork are available for sale on my website, and I also create new artwork on commission. Poster prints of the “Black Lives Matter wrapped in a tallit” design are available here and I’m donating 100% of the profits from those sales.
Aaron Hodge Greenberg Silver has been making art since childhood. He’s lived in Teaneck, NJ, New York and Brooklyn, NY, and currently makes his home in Minneapolis, MN, where he lives with a motley collection of humans and animals. When not making art, Aaron spends his time bicycling, rock climbing, cooking, making websites, and building relationships with wonderful people.