To Life! Festival:Artists tree of life brings identity to festival

Last year, Melissa Dinwiddie entered a contest to design the image that would represent the fourth annual “To Life! A Jewish Cultural Street Festival.”

She won, and her design was made into a poster last year. Now it has become the permanent logo of the festival and is on the cover of this section.

“We wanted something recognizable year to year,” said Stephanie Brown, director of the festival. “The tree of life is such a central focus of Judaism, and her piece really brings in so many elements of our culture and religious observance. It’s really a rich piece.”

Dinwiddie is a Palo Alto-based artist who is known mostly for her ketubot.

While the Peninsula native showed artistic talent at a young age, and took art classes as a child, she stopped at 13.

“I had a hiatus from ages 13 to 28,” she said.

The stirrings of her dormant talent, though, were roused when she was looking at ketubot for her own wedding. She was especially taken with those that included paper cutting, an art form she had never tried.

Meanwhile, Dinwiddie thought she was destined to become a writer, but found that the writing was not coming along so easily.

“I started to do paper cutting to procrastinate,” she said. “I found writing tortuous.”

As she started teaching herself paper cutting, she found she could sit for six hours straight without noticing the time go by. Meanwhile, “15 minutes in front of the computer trying to write felt like five days.”

When friends and family — sometime even strangers, like the person at the store where she was framing her art — told her how beautiful her work was, Dinwiddie realized she was onto something.

She still was hesitant though. She was now confident in her artistic abilities as a designer and illustrator, but without knowing calligraphy, she couldn’t break into the lucrative ketubah market. So she took a few calligraphy classes.

While calligraphy turned out to be more difficult than she expected, she went into business about a year and a half later. Now she is able to fully support herself through her art and by teaching.

“Ketubot are the main part of my business right now,” she said. “I have a line of prints, and I do custom ones on a commission basis.”

Dinwiddie said her work is hard to categorize, as she has no particular style.

“It’s diverse in style and medium and thematically. I really like dimension and color and I also love detail, that’s sort of a hallmark.”

She especially likes designing non-traditional, custom ketubot, like one she did recently where she was asked to hide a moose and a frog within the design.

The “To Life!” image is done in paper sculpture. Dinwiddie submitted it as a sketch — she didn’t have the time to make a piece that might not be used. When she won, she told contest organizers that she intended to make it in paper sculpture. She sensed that they had no idea what she meant, but trusted her artistic judgment.

“Instead of painting something, I shape the paper, cut it out and fold it, so that when I mount it on the backing paper, it’s mounted so it’s set away from the background,” she explained. “This allows for a lot of dimension and shadow, like a bas-relief, but with paper instead of stone or something.”

While Dinwiddie doesn’t do too much in paper sculpture, she enjoys it because “we tend to think of paper as two dimensional and flat. I love taking something we think of that way, and making it have volume.”

In addition to ketubot, Dinwiddie designs corporate logos and the occasional invitation. She also does other forms of Judaica; she is currently working on a Torah mantle out of painted silk. Her work can be viewed at the festival and at

Alix Wall
Alix Wall

Alix Wall is a contributing editor to J. She is also the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called "The Lonely Child."