“The Power of Hebrew” Reaches England:  Santa Fe artist’s work finds a home at Cambridge University

“The Power of Hebrew” Reaches England:  Santa Fe artist’s work finds a home at Cambridge University
Artist Gloria Abella Ballen with Director Dr. Nicholas Bell at the Wren Library, University of Cambridge

By Norma Libman

It all started a year ago when, on a trip to England, Santa Fe artist Gloria Abella Ballen visited the Wren Library at the University of Cambridge. 

The library is named for the renowned eighteenth-century British architect and physicist Christopher Wren, and is one of the most prestigious libraries in Britain. Abella Ballen wanted to visit the library to view the etchings of Wifredo Lamb, a Cuban artist and contemporary of Picasso, in whose work she had an interest. Yes, she saw Lamb’s work but, more importantly, she discovered that “The library has an amazing collection of ancient Hebrew manuscripts, including the first Bible from Mantua, from the 1400’s. I was able to see it. It was just incredible,” she says.

This led to an honor she was not expecting. When Dr. Nicholas Bell, director of the library, arranged to take her on a personal tour, she told him about her own work, including her book, The Power of the Hebrew Alphabet, and a special edition of five “suites,” a collection of 13 prints from the book in archival ink on French paper. She gifted the library with Suite #3 of the five. 

“It is very special to have only five,” she says. “And I wanted it to go to a place where a lot of people would see it. The Wren Library was the perfect place, and Dr. Bell told me this was the first example of modern Hebrew in their collections.”

The first image in the Hebrew Alphabet Suite, the complete Aleph-Bet

Abella Ballen was born in Colombia and came to Miami when she was 16 years old to study in a summer program. She went on to study anthropology at Emory and at Georgia State, followed by more studies in Mexico, then back to Georgia where she met her husband-to-be, Ron Duncan Hart. Together they have lived in South America, the Caribbean, Puerto Rico, and England, and in Santa Fe since 2008.

“I have always done art,” she says, “and I earned an MFA from SUNY-Buffalo.” She has exhibited around the world: London, Los Angeles, Seattle, Mexico City, Israel, Japan, and more. She has been a visiting artist in various countries and a professor of art at universities in Puerto Rico, Colombia, and the United States. 

Abella Ballen says she has often used letters and numbers in her art, even before she wrote The Power of the Hebrew Alphabet. The book is a gorgeous collection of Abella Ballen’s art. Each Hebrew letter has several pages devoted to artistic depictions and explanations of the letter’s meaning and numerical value.

The Power of the Hebrew Alphabet by Gloria Abella Ballen. Gaon Books. Available on Amazon.

The initial inspiration for the book came from a dream. “In my dream, the letters were coming out of my head and they were huge and going into space. I wondered what it could mean, so I began reading about the letters and their meanings.”

She decided to make a book from what she was learning so the knowledge would go further. “It made me know more about being Jewish than I did before. I began to know the mystical connections – the meaning of life – things we don’t talk about but we experience.” She says she was totally immersed in this study for five years.

Aleph. The letter for the first man Adam and the first Jew Abraham. Aleph represents the connection between man and God.

When she recently delivered the book and the suite, the library director was hosting a meeting of 80 people who research documents and books. He was excited to receive her materials at that time, and showed her an early Yemenite Torah scroll the participants were examining.

The Wren Library, University of Cambridge

But what was most important to Abella Ballen, she says, “was to be able to feel and express my Jewishness. Especially at this time, to be celebrated for being Jewish, that was incredible. It made me see that we have to stand and keep on with our faith. We have to make the world better than it is. We have to support each other and do the best work we can do.”

She has real concerns about the current increase in anti-Semitic rhetoric in this country and abroad. “I love Santa Fe,” she says. “It’s beautiful. The mountains remind me of Bogota. I have felt secure in Santa Fe compared to life in Colombia when I was teaching art at the university there. But now in the Santa Fe Plaza I see signs against Israel. Signs against the Jews. We have to stand together against this. We are good people.”

Gloria Abella Ballen in her studio in Santa Fe
Hebrew Alphabet Suite cover

Community Supporters of the NM Jewish Journal include these advertisers:
Jewish Community Foundation of New Mexico
Congregation Albert
Jewish Community Center of Greater Albuquerque
The Institute for Tolerance Studies
Shabbat with Friends: Recapturing Together the Joy of Shabbat
Temple Beth Shalom

Event advertisers:
Academy of Jewish Learning at Congregation B'nai Israel
Jewish Federation of El Paso and Las Cruces

Read more