In micrography, a single picture is indeed worth 1,000 words

On the wall of Laurie Coe's apartment is a drawing of a Chassid sitting in a chair at the Kotel, the Western Wall.

At first glance, the drawing looks simple — a few black lines on a white card. But if you look closer, squint real hard and use a magnifying glass, you'll see that those black lines are actually hundreds of teeny, tiny letters.

The drawing, titled "Hineni" (Hebrew for "here I am"), is the entire Musaf prayer recited by the cantor on Rosh Hashanah.

This artform is called micrography, which means "minute writing." It is an ancient Jewish artform dating back to the ninth century C.E., in which tiny Hebrew letters, words or sentences are copied from holy Jewish texts to form pictures or portraits.

A West Hartford, Conn., resident, Coe is a micrography artist in her spare time. When she's not working her regular full-time job, she's drawing micrographic pictures, gifts, commissioned pieces, bar-bat mitzvah invitations, Rosh Hashanah cards, or thank-you cards. Her micrographic pieces, all limited editions, are unique in that they are almost exclusively in English instead of Hebrew.

Sitting at her drawing board, Coe takes off her eyeglasses, puts her face up close to a white piece of paper, and starts to write minuscule letters in English — two or three of those letters would fit on a pinhead. She copies the tiny text from a book of psalms.

Since micrography is hard on Coe's eyes, she stops frequently to look up and give them a rest. When she returns to writing, she uses a magnifying glass to find where she left off.

In 1987, Coe, a member of Young Israel of Hartford, started dabbling in micrography, although she had never heard of it before. She made micrographic pieces for her friends and family. "My artwork grew out of poverty. If you can't afford to buy gifts for people, then make gifts," she says laughing.

Coe doesn't know how many micrographic pieces she's made but figures it's at least dozens. All of her artwork has a design and micrographic text that reflect the drawing — a Star of David with a caduceus symbol (a staff used as an emblem of the medical profession) is the entire Hippocratic oath; a patch of mushrooms is the entire definition of the word "mushroom" in Webster's dictionary; a challah is the whole text of "Aishet Chayel" (A Woman of Valor).

She is now working on a project in which she will write the entire English translation of "Shir HaShirim" (Song of Songs) onto a large drawing of Hebrew letters.

Another project is to write all of Tehillim (150 psalms) on a large poster with a drawing she made of the Tower of David in the Old City in Jerusalem. She also started work on a portrait of the seventh Lubavitch rebbe.

Her favorite piece? "Whichever one I just did!" she replies.

Coe explains that traditionally, micrography was done by scribes. "They write sifrei Torah, mezuzot and tefillin. [Micrography] is a natural offshoot. For a mezuzah or tefillin, you already write small."

Coe's micrography is inspired by photos, drawings or illuminated manuscripts in Jewish books or calendars.

After finding a picture and a text, she first draws the picture with pencil. Then, using an architect's pen (the width of the tip of the pen is like a needle), she writes the tiny text. After the ink dries on the paper, she lightly erases the pencil drawing.

Coe explains that the most difficult task in making a micrographic piece of artwork is writing the tiny words on small nooks and crannies, or circles. Some pieces have to be done over several times if there is too much text for a given picture, or too little text.

One of Coe's goals is to do more actual micrography in Hebrew. She says, "I can't do it small enough though. To get better, I practice. Sometimes, I sit and write tiny letters in Hebrew."

She adds, "It's neat that Jews have been doing this for 1,000 years!"