Joan “Pessie” Hammer recently bustled through the crowd of hipsters and Chasidim at the first gallery exhibition featuring art by her late son, Moshe.
Clutching a siddur, the Lubavich mother animatedly chatted with patrons who admired his ethereal religious drawings: pages of a siddur and other texts he had fancifully calligraphied and illustrated. The tears came only when she stood alone before his work — which had been his sole and secret obsession before a truck struck and killed him two years ago at age 26.
Sixteen pages from his handwritten sefarim (religious books) are on display at the Jewish Artist Network gallery in Los Angeles, part of a show that also features four other artists.
Moshe Hammer’s pieces look like quirkier, black-ink versions of medieval illuminated manuscripts. The Hebrew letters dance and morph into images based on his intensive studies of commentaries on the sefarim.
A bedtime blessing depicts a gods-eye view of archangels guarding sleeping children; diverse, disembodied eyes decorate morning thanks to the Creator for opening one’s eyes, literally and metaphorically. A tempest-tossed ship, secured by its anchor, adorns the traveler’s prayer.
At the gallery opening, a middle age Orthodox woman held a magnifying glass to that piece, to see the meticulous detail.
“He had so much potential,” she murmured of the artist.
A young man wearing chains and black leather gazed at Hammer’s “God’s Deliverance Quick as a Gazelle,” noting how the letters leap in sync with the animal.
“Moshe’s work is both religiously and graphically compelling,” said Aaron Berger (a.k.a. Aaron No One), the exhibition’s curator.
Apparently, Hammer was feverishly working on such drawings when he took one of his late-night walks to clear artist’s block in July 2004. He had trekked miles from his Fairfax area apartment when the truck hit him at the intersection of Santa Monica Boulevard and Western Avenue, killing him instantly, according to a coroner’s report.
At the time, Pessie Hammer did not know that her intensely private son had dedicated his life to studying Chasidism and illustrating religious texts.
“He was very protective of his work and he refused to speak of it or to show it to anyone,” recalls Hammer, 55, at her Beverly-Fairfax home after the opening.
Her son had often been elusive about his art. She didn’t learn that Moshe, as a 9-year-old, had sold his handmade comics at yeshiva until one of his old classmate told her after the funeral.
While Hammer had excelled at school, his family, in keeping with traditional Chasidic views, was concerned that he was showing too much interest in popular culture: “He wanted to know about anything and everything — to be part of it all,” his mother recalled.
In grammar and middle school, he had scribbled superheroes as students gathered to watch, sometimes delaying teachers from starting class.
“We felt he could not properly distinguish between the secular and religious worlds, so we wanted him to focus on Judaism in order to be able to make good decisions in life,” she said.
After consulting the family rabbi, the difficult decision was made to send Moshe away to East Coast yeshivas at age 14; four years later, he returned home thoughtful, quiet and studious. Yet he still pursued his artwork, both secular and religious, striving to find his creative niche. Over the next eight years, he took computer animation courses and studied creative writing at Santa Monica City College. He penned poems and taught himself to write comic screenplays, which he registered at the Writers Guild of America. He would also draw cartoon characters as well as a portrait of the late Lubavitcher Rebbe Menachem Mendel Schneerson.
All the while, he supported himself, with help from his parents, by working odd jobs that allowed him time to pursue creative endeavors. In the last years of his life, he drove hearses and guarded the dead for the Jewish Burial Society, which ultimately laid his own body to rest.
The Schneerson portrait hangs above the mantle in Hammer’s living room, which is adorned with a photo collage depicting Moshe, the third of Hammer’s five children, at various ages. Nearby, on an antique buffet, are professionally bound scrapbooks filled with his art: his mother’s effort to turn his drawings into completed sefarim.
She had not seen the vast majority of these pieces when she didn’t hear from her son for two days in the summer of 2004. Pessie Hammer and her husband, Yosef, a postal worker, frantically searched the neighborhood for information on his whereabouts. The bad news came when a rabbi, a rebbetzin and a police investigator knocked on the Hammer’s door the night of July 15, 2004.
“I saw their dark, contorted faces, and I told my children, ‘Go to your rooms,’ because I knew what they were going to say,” she recalls.
Once they had run upstairs, the rabbi said her son was gone. He had identified Hammer’s body in a morgue photograph.
“I wanted to see Moshe, but everyone said he was so mangled that they did not recommend it,” Pessie Hammer says. “I felt I didn’t get to say goodbye to my son.”
She received some closure as she helped clear out his single apartment on Formosa Avenue two weeks later. After numbly packing up his antique bottle collection and Judaica, she opened the bottom drawer of his pine desk and discovered more than 300 pages of drawings.
“I was shocked, because I had never imagined he had created this much work,” she says.
She spent the next week sorting the pages around the clock — and figuring out what they actually were. Turns out her son had written and illustrated a Passover haggadah, a Book of Esther and a “Song of Songs,” as well as a siddur.
Terrified that the pages might fade, she spent the following two weeks quizzing experts about how to best preserve the drawings and to duplicate the originals. She insisted that copy shop employees redo any page that cut off even a millimeter of his intricate work.
Her goal was to carry out what she believes was her son’s last wish: In his apartment, she had found a list of his aspirations, which included a gallery show. She saw her chance when the Jewish Artist Network opened in her neighborhood and its 31-year-old founder, Aaron No One, responded to Moshe’s portfolio.
“I consider his work to be a kind of spiritual graffiti art,” the curator, wearing a hose clamp and a ski cap, said while standing in the back doorway at the recent opening, framed by secular graffiti outside. “His drawings bring the intangible into the physical realm, for all viewers to see.”
Pessie Hammer, standing nearby, nodded and said she felt her exceptionally private son had intended one day to praise God in a most public way.
He hadn’t been quite ready to do so in life, so his indefatigable mother made sure he was able to after his death.
The exhibition will be on display through May 25 at 661 N. Spaulding in Los Angeles. For information and gallery hours (sometimes it is necessary to make an appointment), call (562) 547-9078 or visit www.thejangallery.com or www.exitnoone.com.