She's always been an autobiographical artist, using her writing and two-color illustrations to express her inner life.
But Liana Finck's debut graphic novel, A Bintel Brief: Love and Longing in Old New York, which captures the experience of Jewish immigrants at the beginning of the 20th century, took her entirely out of herself.
Finck, 29, will discuss the book with renowned cartoonist Terry LaBan (who is also the co-creator of the Edge City comic, which appears in The Inquirer) at 7 p.m. Sunday at Temple Beth Zion-Beth Israel in Center City.
A Bintel Brief (A Bundle of Letters) is inspired by an advice column that ran in the Yiddish-language New York newspaper the Forward for more than six decades beginning in 1906. The brainchild of editor Abraham Cahan, the column gave recently arrived Eastern European Jews help in adjusting to life in their adopted home. Readers sent in letters about a range of issues, from finding jobs and paying taxes to sex and marriage to dealing with family members victimized in the Russian pogroms.
The column found an enormous readership: Between 1900 and 1914, more than 1.5 million Eastern European Jews entered the United States. Many settled in New York City.
Why would a 24-year-old artist, who had spent a decade distancing herself from her parents' religiosity and cultural roots, turn to Cahan's column for inspiration?
Finck thanks her writer's block.
After studying art at the prestigious Cooper Union college in Manhattan, Finck won a Fulbright fellowship to spend a year in Belgium, to write a graphic-novel biography about the great cartoonist Hergé, who created Tintin.
She came back empty-handed. (Finck said she feels confident that she will complete the Hergé book someday soon.) Feeling utterly lost, she tried her hand at her preferred genre, memoir, but to no avail.
"I had terrible writer's block and very low self-esteem," she said in a phone interview. So Finck turned to the one form of writing that always cheered her up: grant applications.
"I've always had this weird love of [writing] grant applications," she said, "because you talk yourself up in them, [which is] the opposite of low self-esteem."
A chance to win a fellowship for emerging Jewish artists brought her to Cahan's column.
"When I asked my parents for ideas, they gave me one of my grandmother's books, a collection of the Bintel Briefs, edited by Isaac Metzker."
Finck became fascinated with the letters and spent months digging up and translating dozens of missives not collected in the Metzker volume.
The work eased away her writer's block. "It felt more like an assignment than some grand artistic project that can swallow you up," Finck said.
A Bintel Brief collects together 11 actual letters as processed and illustrated by Finck. Constructed with poetic, surreal, dreamlike images, the graphic novel evokes the work of master painter Marc Chagall. "I was very consciously referencing him," Finck said, "since he's so much a product of that world of European Jews. Yet his work transcends that and touches such a larger audience."
Finck said she spent so long trying to be "an artsy kid who didn't belong to [her Jewish] community" that she finds it ironic - joyfully ironic - that her first significant work has "brought me full circle" back to appreciating her Jewish identity.
Liana Finck: "A Bintel Brief"
In discussion with Terry LaBan, at 7 p.m. Sunday at Temple Beth Zion-Beth Israel, 300 S. 18th St.
Tickets: $20; synagogue members $18, students $15
Information: 215-735-5148 or www.bzbi.org