Demetrios Marcos Vital — or D.Marcos or whichever he hears, for that matter; he answers to both — is a man of many talents. An artist, an educator, and a sofer, D. Marcos is the Congregational Educator at Beth Jacob, and works as the Outreach Coordinator at the Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies at the University of Minnesota, which is learning and art-focused as well, working with scholars, educators, and many local communities, along with caring for the CHGS art and artifact collection. Who The Folk is D.Marcos Vital?!
You’re a congregational educator for Beth Jacob, a scribe, and an artist. How did you get here?
I’ve been lucky to be very curious, and have opportunities to share that curiosity through teaching, learning, and art. My art practice started as a way to explore nature and express scientific curiosity. My Jewish communal life has been how I’ve explored and shared identity and values. Getting to work in congregational learning allows me to connect with people of all ages and come together around big questions of our place in the universe and how we relate to each other, both in Jewish contexts and in the world.
What led you to the world of art?
Like a lot of kids, I love dinosaurs, but I never grew out of that fascination. The excitement of picturing an extinct species combined scientific questions with artistic ability and opened the door to my explorations in drawing, painting, and sculpture. My sense of artistic proficiency grew in high school, in the context of friends and family who are amazing artists and supportive of my art. Once I began learning scribal arts, that field of manuscript arts and calligraphy unfolded for me. Since becoming a scribe, I have been lucky to work in museums and art conservation labs with amazing practitioners, through whom I’ve learned about the scientific, research-based study of art materials and their preservation, which I lean towards in my approach to scribal work.
How did you discover scribing was for you?
I encountered the field when Mt. Zion brought in a scribe to restore Torahs. I was still in high school at the time, but I became incredibly intrigued. Restoring Torahs involves art and sensitive research into the material object itself, so in a lot of ways safrut touched on interests which felt very disparate: it’s a visual art that invites historical and scientific inquiry, but also entails the sharing of ideas, of Jewish learning and values that I have dwelt on my whole life.
How do your worlds of art and scribing melt together?
Safrut and my other art practices both resonate in practical and intellectual ways. Before I knew of safrut, my art was consistently detail-oriented. When I engaged with calligraphy I found that it activated those same ways of thinking and using my hands: in both calligraphy and drawing (for example), I can delve into each stroke — sometimes too deeply! — but there is no end: There’s always more to learn and practice.
On the other hand, a Torah contains 304,805 letters, so each detail must be understood in the context of the greater whole, both for the sake of the integrity and gravity of the work, and also to simply be able to complete a work of that magnitude. With the restoration of Torahs, that greater whole is the object in its long history, which means trying to understand what a 200-year old Torah has been through in order to be able to properly care for it, let alone the extensive halakhic guidelines that must be adhered to.
Similarly, in illustrating a scene of a dinosaur in its environment: there isn’t an end to the kind of questions and thinking that entails because each skin pattern or plant or depicted behavior should be checked against the fossil record. So in my science illustration, my calligraphy, and a lot of other art, I’m consistently drawn to intersections of intellectual curiosity and visual creativity.
But there’s another thing to these areas of art, and that’s the constant need for improvement. That’s both in the ability to draw and calligraph, as well as the need to continually learn to function in these fields, and is a philosophical connection to the value of self and social improvement.
How do you relate your Judaism to your art?
In a lot of ways, Jewishness and art-making are simply basic aspects of who I am. On a cognitive level, Jewishness is the language through which I experience important ethical and moral considerations, and I express that in art. Vice versa, art is an experiential way to be part of the beauty of the world around us, and I hope to recognize that visual exploration and awe of the natural world in my Jewishness. And on a specific point, working on Torah restoration — deciding how to most sensitively and properly care for a holy object — constantly reminds me of how I need to treat each other person.
What do you want to teach others about being a scribe and an artist?
An interesting and huge question, with a lifetime of answers. But one thing is how important it is to be attentive, listening and thinking and questioning how we can best learn about each other and our world. Each Torah scroll is made of dozens of animals, and most have been used in communities for generations of Shabbatot and life ceremonies. We need to be sensitive to the lives that have been connected to each physical Torah. And within each scroll is an ethical foundation that requires us to care for each other and or world.
Through the physical scroll, we learn about its history in the community, and we have to think about how to live in our communities today. That means very different kinds to different people, and dignifying that diversity is crucial to how we live and learn.
What’s your favorite Jewish holiday?
Passover for sure. My family has fun idiosyncratic Greek-Jewish traditions, and my wife’s family has huge and songful seders. As a student of Jewish art history, I love the long history of illustrated Haggadot. And the overwhelming social justice message in Pesach is very important to me.
What’s your favorite Jewish food?
NYC pizza (just kidding). When I lived in NYC I would go out with friends and eat pita and hummus, and there were so many days as a bachelor that I subsisted on that at home, so if I am what I ate, I owe a lot to pita and hummus.Click here to nominate your favorite TC Jew to be featured on our weekly Who the Folk?! series!