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Luck of the Draw

Yehudit Garmaise

Artist Marc Lumer sketches new adventures out of old stories

Thursday, October 27, 2016

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STORYTELLER “As artists, we should be able to tell our stories just as they are, without crafting every book into an educational message that hits the reader over the head,” says Lumer

"E dgy” isn’t usually a word that’s used to describe illustrations for frum children’s books, but French-born Los Angeles artist Marc Lumer isn’t your typical frum illustrator. One of the first things a person sees when walking into Marc Lumer’s art studio on the second floor of his home is a large, bright-yellow Pop Art–style painting of a fire hydrant with Hebrew letters gracefully escaping from underneath.

Torah is water, Lumer explains, adding, “So, what better metaphor should represent how it flows in all things, than a fire hydrant?”

What indeed? And just as this is not the usual traditional painting that your elter zeide would have hung on his living room wall, neither are the nine children’s books and one graphic novel that Lumer illustrated and cowrote.

“I feel like I’m on a mission to put Jewish children’s books out there that are more about imagination, emotions, and a sense of destiny,” says Lumer, who has two new children’s books scheduled for publication this fall. Babel is a humorous and innovative retelling of the story of the Tower of Babel episode (Apples and Honey Press), while My Little Prayer and Story Book from the Western Wall (Western Wall Heritage Foundation) recounts the history of the Kosel Hamaaravi from the perspective of one of the stones.

“So often, Jewish children’s books focus on ‘teaching a lesson’ or ‘making a point.’ But simply telling stories about our lives as frum Jews in imaginative, creative ways should be enough of a plot to make a great book. I just want to tell stories about things that happen in families like mine.”

Telling Our Stories 

In addition to the many colorful paintings on the walls of Lumer’s studio are a collection of toys for Benny, his eight-year-old son. Benny isn’t just a companion in his studio, but also an inspiration. For instance, Benny’s Mitzvah Notes (Hachai Publishing), is about a little boy whose mother writes him a mitzvah note, while his father adds a little drawing every day. Lumer conceived the idea for Benny’s Mitzvah Notes after his son’s nursery school morah made a book of her students’ many mitzvah notes at the end of the school year. When Benny brought his book home, Lumer felt the book resembled the comic books he grew up with in Europe, where he spent much of his childhood. He decided to write about a father’s love for his son that went along with the drawings.

“Loving my son isn’t necessarily about things like taking him to baseball games,” Lumer says. “Part of me loving my son as a Jew is expressed in making a drawing on his mitzvah note every morning.

“I love the idea of telling stories where our values come through as part of the story,” he says. “Life is a journey, and it’s full of good things and bad things. You meet people, they affect you, and things happen to everyone that aren’t fair or expected. As artists, we should be able to tell our stories just as they are, without crafting every book into an educational message that hits the reader over the head.”

Boot Camp with Disney 

Lumer was born in La Tronche, a small town in southeastern France. When he was six months old, Lumer’s family moved to Seattle, where both his parents taught mathematics at the University of Washington. After several years, the family returned to France, where his parents were instructors at École Normale Supérieure in Paris. Later, when his father received an invitation to teach at the Université de Mons, they moved to Belgium.

According to Lumer, he’s been drawing and sketching as far back as he can remember. A fan of the popular European comic book The Adventures of Tintin, which is about a cute blond boy and his dog, Lumer used his creativity to remake Tintin into a hero he liked better: a boy who was bald and had a patch on his eye.

“I think I already had a quirky sense of humor, and I thought Tintin was too squeaky clean,” Lumer says with a smile. “I thought you could be funny-looking and still be a hero and have adventures.”

Those early sketches prepared Lumer for some of his first jobs after he studied art at La Cambre, one of Belgium’s leading schools of art and design. He began publishing comic strips for Tintin and Spirou, another popular youth magazine in Europe, while working as a freelance illustrator for a variety of European advertising agencies, magazines, and publishing companies. He also worked as an art director for Tintin’s apparel line.

In creating Babel, Lumer envisioned a children’s book that was fun, cartoony, and creative, while staying true to Torah

In 1994, Lumer moved to Los Angeles, where he freelanced at Disney and worked at Warner Brothers. In 1996, he joined the creative team at DreamWorks, which was then a new animation film studio created by Steven Spielberg, Jeffrey Katzenberg, and David Geffen. One of the projects he worked on was the animated feature film The Prince of Egypt.

“I saw how they made a $100 million movie out of the story of Moshe,” Lumer recalls. “People in my community didn’t like everything in that movie, but I loved the idea of creating kosher entertainment for children. I love to find Jewish stories that have wider appeal.”

He also loved the opportunities he was receiving to hone his craft. “Working in the Hollywood studios made me a much stronger artist than I was when I came in. It was like going to boot camp in the sense that I improved many aspects of my craft that were weak. But at a certain point, I wanted to do my own work and not just other people’s cartoons.”

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