Mara Clawson: Her Pictures Are Worth A Thousand Words
pastel set

Twelve-year-old Mara Clawson had a dilemma. With her bat mitzvah less than six months away, Mara had no idea how she was going to write a d'var torah. Born with a genetic disorder called Familial Dysautonomia, Mara has severe language disabilities that make it difficult for her to express herself in words. Then one day, she came home from summer camp with a solution. Mara had been introduced to a new art form-pastels-and had instantly fallen in love with this vibrant medium as a way to tell stories. "Why not tell my d'var torah through pastel drawings?" she wondered.

Mara's bat mitzvah fell on Shabbat Shirah in 2005, when the Torah portion tells the story of the Israelites' exodus from Egypt and the splitting of the Red Sea. Mara decided to retell the story through a series of ten pastel drawings. Her vivid artwork oozes with emotion. One picture shows the deep sadness of Jocheved, with a single, huge tear emerging from her piercing eyes, as she gives up her son Moshe; in another, Moshe courageously asks Pharaoh for freedom; in another, a fearful Egyptian woman is trampled by wild beasts and swarmed by locusts.

"When I think about Moshe's story, I can see it, like it was real. Not like words, but real pictures," Mara explained in a brief d'var torah speech that introduced her drawings, which were showcased in the foyer of her synagogue, Adat Shalom in Bethesda, Maryland.

Mara says she found Moshe's story inspirational because she can relate to the Israelite leader. Known as the humblest person ever, Moshe realized his talents but also his limits. Moshe's speech impediment sometimes made it difficult for him to communicate. "The story about Moshe is a bit like the story about me," explains Mara. "People didn't understand Moshe. Sometimes people don't understand me." And just as Moshe needed to show Pharaoh what he meant through the plagues, "sometimes I make drawings to help people understand me."

When asked how she develops an idea for a drawing, Mara modestly responds, "I just guess it," explaining that she sees the image in her mind's eye. Yet Mara knows that she's artistically talented. Part of her skill comes from long hours of practice, but part of it is simply innate, a gift from God. "It's just the way I am," she says matter-of-factly. "It's hard for me to write a story with words, but it's easy for me to write a story with pictures."

Mara is selling her artwork to raise funds for FD Hope, an organization dedicated to finding treatment for Familial Dysautonomia and raising awareness about the disorder. Mara is happy that she's found a way to use her wonderful gift for art, not only to share stories with other, but also to help other children with the same disability.