Ellen Frank (1946-2021) was a true renaissance woman — an artist, scholar, writer, and a woman dedicated to peace. Her family generously donated her illumination series, The Book of Judith, to The Magnes. Last December, Frank’s husband and daughter visited the collection to share memories of the artist and the work she did.
“We are honored that Stephen Dickman has entrusted The Magnes with Ellen Frank’s Book of Judith,” stated Magnes Executive Director, Hannah Weisman. “While the breathtaking illuminations stand alone as important artworks in The Magnes’s collections, the stories that Stephen and his daughter, Nyssa, have shared with us about Ellen and her work as an artist give us a deeper understanding of this specific artwork. In turn, we are better prepared to care for and share The Book of Judith.”
After searching for the best way to honor Frank’s legacy, her husband, Stephen Dickman, felt that The Magnes was “the right place for The Judith Project.” As an alumna, Berkeley played an important role in the artist’s life. Bringing her work to campus became a sort of “homecoming.” The artist’s daughter, Nyssa Frank further stated, “The goal is to place her artwork in places where they will be alive, and celebrated, and continue to educate and enrich.”
“The wonderful gift of Ellen Frank’s artwork devoted to Judith – a biblical female hero who was, among other things, celebrated at Hanukkah, before the (male) Maccabees became central to its narrative with the rise of the Zionist movement – proves once more how it truly ‘takes a village’ to create and grow a public collection like the Magnes’s,” explained Curator Francesco Spagnolo. “I am grateful to our donor, Moses Libitzky, for connecting me with Dr. Raquel Ukeles, Head of Collections at Israel’s National Library, who in turn offered a connection with Steve Dickman. It was a pleasure and an honor to work with Steve over several months to ensure that his late wife’s formidable artistic legacy would find its way back to UC Berkeley.”
If we understand the history and beauty of what has been damaged or destroyed, we can participate in the beauty of recovery and peace.— Artist Ellen Frank, PhD
Frank studied English Literature at UC Berkeley, art history and connoisseurship at Yale University, the Courtauld and Warburg Institutes, and held an interdisciplinary doctorate in English literature and the visual arts from Stanford University. She spent four years as an Assistant Professor of English Literature at UC Berkeley where she published her first book, Literary Architecture: Essays Toward a Tradition (University of California Press).
In 1977, Frank left academia to work as an artist, and in 2005 founded the Ellen Frank Illumination Arts Foundation, a non-profit dedicated to the transformative power of art to build a culture of understanding and peace.
With her work in the foundation, she also created the “Cities of Peace” project. She brought artists from around the world to work with her in Springs, New York, and then traveled to Armenia, Kosovo, and Poland to engage communities to co-create large-scale illumination paintings with her.
The Book of Judith is the ancient and inspiring story of a woman of valor, who single handedly saves her small town from military take-over and religious oppression. Ellen Frank’s work celebrates the triumph of Judith, her ingenuity, and her bravery. Frank creates a new Judith: one who slays ignorance and military aggression with insight and penetrating analysis of what is appropriate and necessary to transcend conflict. She depicts conquest and victory with images of bejeweled beauty and symbolism free from traditional images of violence.
Frank’s daughter, an artist herself, stated, “I think it’s important to celebrate women like my mother, who at 75 was insanely gorgeous, so talented… she was never stopping and never ending with her infectious love of art and love of the world.” We agree, and in honor of Women’s History Month, we celebrate Ellen Frank and The Book of Judith.