TUCSON, Ariz. — Mordecai Colodner finds faith just as important a tool as any brush, canvas or easel when it comes to creating art.
His paintings vary, from abstract pieces to serene Southwest scenes, but his primary inspiration derives from the teachings of the Torah.
Every room in his home just north of Oro Valley contains framed acrylic works, each relating to a different story from the Hebrew Bible.
One titled "Nishmat — Spirit of All Living" features primitive stick-figure deer, turtles and other animals, not unlike early cave drawings.
Colodner, 77, said the work is based on a prayer that says, "The spirits of all living will praise your name."
Another work, called "Jacob and Esau — Yin Yang," portrays the biblical brothers as babies in the womb, struggling with each other with a ladder between them.
"The ladder is the ladder of Jacob's dream, which symbolizes God," Colodner explains.
Colodner calls his works "Visual Midrash," his own artistic interpretations taken from phrases or scenes from Judaic scripture.
His unique paintings, mostly done in acrylics, have popped up in private collections nationally as well as in local institutions, such as the Tucson Jewish Community.
Colodner says that his Midrash paintings are not simply biblical illustrations.
"I am creating something that's new, something that's different," he said.
Colodner has always had a strong sense of faith.
He was raised in a Modern Orthodox Jewish home in Brooklyn in the 1930s and '40s.
It was his aunt, a housewife and part-time painter named Gertrude Bronfman, who encouraged him to dabble in art at a young age.
"She used to tell me all the time that my stuff was great," Colodner said. "It probably wasn't."
Colodner didn't truly become interested in art and design until late high school, during a visit to a local movie theater.
The Charlie Chaplin revival film he went to see was preceded by a short about industrial designer Raymond Loewy.
Colodner was intrigued by Loewy.
"I liked that what he did combined art with commerce," he explained.
Colodner began researching industrial design, eventually turning his attention toward graphic design and advertising, which was booming in the 1950s with giants such as Paul Rand and Milton Glaser making their mark.
Colodner's fascination led to his enrollment at Brooklyn College and then the prestigious Parsons School of Design.
He eventually became a career designer, creating promotional materials and brochures for firms and advertising agencies in and around New York City for decades.
He retired from his own company, Mordesign Advertising & Promotion Inc., in 2005.
When his daughter, Debra Colodner, took a job in Oracle to work at Biosphere 2 around the same time, an opportunity presented itself.
"A lot of our friends and family were moving to Florida," he said. "I had been to Florida. I didn't like it at all. We chose Arizona."
The Southwest inspired Colodner and still does. He has created several pieces paying homage to the Santa Catalina Mountains, including a large acrylic work with Pusch Ridge as its focal point, splayed out in bright blues, purples and yellows, that is mounted in his bedroom.
One of the greatest advantages to moving west was the abundance of space for Colodner to work on fine art, particularly his Midrash pieces.
The shed in his carport that once held the tools and building supplies of the previous owner is now filled with paints, brushes and other creative supplies.
An adjacent storage space holds stacks of finished works, many of them Midrash works, that Colodner has created since moving to the area seven years ago.
"Our apartment in New York was too small for any of that," he said.
Many of Colodner's visions have been featured in Tucson-area galleries, including the Toscana Studio and Gallery, 9040 N. Oracle Road.
Gallery owner Linda Ahearn is a longtime fan of Colodner's art, whether it's the Midrash pieces or his modern acrylic abstracts.
"I find his work to be some of the most unique examples of creativity," Ahearn said. "He is always trying to find new ways to do things. It is that kind of art that really stands out — the stuff that you've never seen before."
Colodner said the art market has been slow as of late, which has been discouraging, but he has faith things will pick up.
He'll continue to paint in the meantime.
"I want to create something that will give people a good feeling," he said. "An understanding of something that is in my mind."
Information from: Arizona Daily Star, http://www.azstarnet.com