Sunday, February 22, 2015

An Unfamiliar Place

When I first decided to do paintings based on memory loss, I identified some possible subjects drawing on my observations of my mother's experience. Topics emerge in the normal course of our interaction, often from our daily conversation.

I call my mother every morning to help her prepare for her day. Our calls have gradually become shorter as content becomes less important than the call itself. Sometimes she asks me why I'm calling. "To talk to my mother," I reply. I've taken to saying, "Hi Mom, it's Susan" to help her identify both me and our relationship. Sometimes she asks "Where are you?", ever hopeful that I might be coming in and be in route at this very moment. Or perhaps she is confused about who is calling and is looking for an identifier.

The content of my call focuses on which aide is coming to assist her and when. She is still a polite conversationalist, asking me about my life, but I've learned that her attention span is short and will soon return to who is coming and when.

She went through a period of confusion awhile back, which fortunately has abated. It had us worried that we were entering a new period of decline as opposed to that imperceptibly gradual decline we had come to accept. On this particular day she started our conversation by saying "I'm confused".

"Is it good that she can identify it?" I wonder. She continues, "Where is everyone? I feel like I’m all alone. Has everyone forgotten about me? It's like I’m in a wilderness".

My mind seizes on the idea of a wilderness. Perhaps the definition will give me some clue to her experience. I look it up. A wilderness is an uncultivated, uninhabited, and inhospitable region. This is where she lives when she is dislocated, confused. A place that feels unfamiliar to a woman who always feared the unfamiliar.

I peruse the definitions. They speak of a voice in the wilderness as one who is ignored. Being in the wilderness means one who no longer has influence or recognition. Both are apt descriptions of one with Alzheimer's. The presence the person cultivated in their life and work now dissipates. They begin to withdraw, sensing the discomfort of others with this change in the person they knew, feeling their own discomfort with a suddenly unfamiliar world.

Wildernesses also signify a passage. Moses and the Israelites wandered in the desert, also a wilderness, as he shaped a people. Perhaps my mother's wilderness represents a passage as well. A gradual process of losing one's way, letting go of the world as we know it. Preparing for an unknown. It is a passage for me as well. One of letting go of the person who was most central in my life. Learning to accept this new permutation, still with her essence at the core, but different.

I wonder what is in this wilderness. What does she bring with her? What does she leave behind? What does she see? What does she hear?

I wrote a bit about this last year in Into the Wilderness before I began developing these paintings. This was how I pictured it...


Her cat is her companion and gives her comfort, another living, breathing creature. Her cat would accompany her into this wilderness. My mother writes a lot of notes to herself. Not always logical, she writes down times that five minutes later will be obsolete. It is the act of writing that helps fix her reality. I report how long before her companion would arrive, 20 minutes, 15, 10. She writes this down as if to capture time, to make it stand still for her like her oven clock, stuck at ten after eight for countless years.

I picture a path of yellow post-it notes, a yellow brick road of sorts with her cat leading the way, her shadow behind. A thick and tangled forest in front. The red flash of time through the trees. And my phone call reverberating in waves, an anchor for her as she stands before this forest. I can picture this wilderness with its echoes of noise and light, her following her cat into the unknown.

Many of my paintings go through a long evolution. As you can see this one thus far is amazingly close to my initial description.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Cutting and Pasting

Cutting and Pasting  30" x 24" Acrylic on canvas  S. Weinberg
I've been busy developing my paintings on loss of memory with many in interim stages.  I've debated a bit on what to share with you as they are all subject to change at this juncture.  Sometimes I think a painting is done until I come into the studio and suddenly decide to totally rework it.  So the point of that intro is to keep in mind that what I share is likely to continue to change and evolve.

I am always fascinated by process and as I am in the beginning stage of a new series,  I find myself reflecting on the process that underlies it.  I read about a subject, observe closely, test out some concepts by writing about them in this blog and finally put brush to canvas.  Then I work and rework.  Part of the process is learning how to share what I am working on with other people.  Later in my process I give talks on my work, in fact I am busy speaking about my Jewish Identity and Legacy series currently on exhibition.  For the memory series I am still testing how best to share the stories behind this series.

This weekend we had an open studio where I got to share some of my stories with visitors.  It is part of my process that begins long before I give formal talks.  I think of it as testing the market, learning what people respond to even as I learn how to tell a story in a way that engages the listener. While writing about it helps,  there is nothing like a live audience.

My mother's collages
One of the questions that drives this visual exploration is what happens to identity when we lose memory.  I've written of my mother in Everyone Has an Idea  as she does what she calls Cutting and Pasting.  My mother was a first-grade teacher, known for her artistic talents and love of reading.  As her memory has deteriorated, her past-time of reading became more challenging.  No longer could she remember what she just read to connect the thread to what followed.  While she has aides who come in to assist her, she still has a lot of time on her own, time that once was filled with reading.

More of her collages
My mother is an intelligent and purposeful woman and even with an uncooperative memory she brings her coping skills to bear.  Everyday she would get up and get her newspaper.  This was a very important part of her day, so important that if she didn't get it, I immediately knew I had to call the paper to assure a delivery.  This took on added importance when she began to "cut and paste'.  

Now each day she gets her paper and sits down before a notebook, scissors and glue in hand, and begins to collage.  She works at this purposefully, as if it were her job.  It is an extension of her long-time identity.  It is no coincidence that she calls this "cutting and pasting" and that her wall where she puts things up is called her "bulletin board".  She uses the terminology of her career as a first grade teacher and embraces the artistic process that was always part of her life.  Observing her, I can clearly see that identity is persistent.  Just as the Mississippi floods and remembers its original boundaries, so do we return to the familiar etched route from which we came.

I have great admiration for my mother's skills, both her creative skills and also her ability to identify the challenge, find a solution and work it persistently.  That is the woman I admired when she returned to college as an adult and later when she began a career in middle age.  It gives me pleasure to realize that she is still there with all the strength and determination that I have always respected even as her world becomes more difficult to navigate.

When I thought about how to capture this story, I knew it needed to be a portrait.  It also needed the location in which she does her cutting and pasting, at the same kitchen table where she used to type her papers for school.  I decided that I would deconstruct her collages and put the elements in the lower third of the painting, smaller pieces closer to her hands, growing is size as they reach outward, probably more pieces to still add.  For a long time I was uneasy about gluing them down until one day I just did so in a flurry of activity, prepared to paint over them and re-collage if necessary.  It is a collage after all where such things are permitted.  It would have helped if I had a bit of my mother's ability to ignore that part of the brain that worries about making mistakes.  She just keeps going, taking pleasure in the moment with no judgment except if it pleases her eye. Like a photographer who takes a lot of pictures knowing some will work, she actively creates each day.




Monday, February 2, 2015

Emotional Memory

I've been hard at work painting and writing. A new year seems to have brought me new energy. Deadlines help also. I have a show scheduled for my loss of memory artwork so I need to make a dent or it will begin to weigh on me.

I last shared a post with the beginning of a painting based on a Toni Morrison quote that equates "flooding" with "remembering". She talks of how the Mississippi River was straightened and in flooding the riverbanks, water finds its way back to the path it once carved. She spoke of it in terms of writers and the flooding of imagination. I think of it in terms of the emotional memory that leads us back to our well-engrained identity even when functional memory no longer exists.

Emotional memory leads us to the places and people that give us comfort, that feed some sense of who we were and how we still see ourselves. For example my mother likes when I come in because we do things together. Now the things we do are rather limited by her physical capabilities, but she associates me with activity and exploration because that was our history as we traveled together. It remains her emotional memory even as the details of our trips are long gone. Likewise her teaching years were very satisfying to her and hold warm emotional memories, hence her current activities of "cutting and pasting" (collaging) harken back to those times.

This painting is metaphoric, representing the path of emotional memory finding its way home. It is both painting and collage.To move it forward, I found I had to do something that seemed strange. I had to flood it. In my "omnipotence" I had created a river and land masses, together with the suggestion of homes. Now I had to extend the waters to obliterate them. It felt like a creation process in reverse as I let my flood take over, slowly rising over the land and trees I had so carefully created. I'm still debating writing a sentence from the quote over the painting.  You can see I began to do that and then took parts of it out.

The creation-destruction cycle actually is not an uncommon process for an artist. We often get too attached to a painting that is almost right, but not quite. Afraid to destroy our creation, we can remain paralyzed. The only way we can save ourselves is to let go and start over. I find covering a painting with white paint is my favored flooding technique on which to build anew, but here I was actually trying to mimic a flood.

This painting may do double duty in both the memory series and as a piece for the Jewish Artists' Lab exhibition on the theme of water. As a metaphoric piece it can work in many ways and certainly mimics the creation and destruction process contained in Biblical passages.

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Favorite Reads

This past year I read 60 books, an all time high for me, but a pittance in the world of literature. Because we are allowed a finite number of books in our lifetime, I choose with care, trying to allot my time wisely. For the past seven years I've kept a list of everything that I read, give it a rating and jot a sentence to remind me of its content. About 60% is fiction and 25% has some Jewish theme as I frequently read on themes related to my artwork. I am in two book clubs, one that has been going for around 30 years and reads a broad range of current literature. The second is focused on creativity and the arts. That assures that I am introduced to books I might not pick up on my own, but which I am grateful to discover.

I am surprised at how easy it is to identify the ones that are standouts. They are the ones that stayed with me, where plot and characters remained lodged in memory. Interestingly several of them are debut novels and all of those have some otherworldly elements. As a child I loved fairy tales and mythology and perhaps these are the adult versions, often weaving mythical creatures and historical fiction.

The Debuts

Three Souls (2014) by Janie Chang is set in China and told through the eyes of a woman who has died and is looking back at her life. It begins with "we have three souls or so I've been told, but only in death could I confirm it". The novel begins in 1935 and looks back upon the politics of a changing China. The main character is guided by her three souls, one stern, one impulsive and one wise. She must make amends before she can move on in her journey. On this premise one is taken into her life as a Chinese woman in search of the matter which must be remedied.

The Golem and The Jinni (2013) by Helene Wecker takes the Jewish theme of a golem made of clay and imbued with spirit coupled with a jinni drawn from Arab folklore. It sets them loose in turn of the century New York and lets them evolve, often testing the limits of their natures. It is an odd premise, but Wecker makes it work, truly bringing them to life.

The Enchanted Life of Adam Hope (2013) by Rhonda Riley also creates one of the central characters out of mud. This creation has the ability to mirror another person in form and being, even to alter gender. It too is a weird premise, but it works. It examines what it is to live life with a secret. Beautifully written, it also creates an unusual and touching love story.

Nonfiction

I weigh nonfiction on a different scale. Did it give me information I didn't know previously? Did that information affect me on an emotional level?

The Lady in Gold (2012) by Anne Marie O'Connor followed the story of a Klimt painting of Adele Bloch-Bauer, the life of its owner and the efforts of her descendants to recover the painting. It takes us deep into Austria during WWII and the Nazi reign both during the war and distressingly after. The first part of the book explored Klimt's life and relationships that led to the creation of the painting. The second part was the destruction of both lives and a world under the Nazis. The third part was as disturbing as the second. It explored the difficulties survivors had in regaining their artwork even after the war as Nazis continued to reign, creating countless hurdles and ironically laying claim to this painting of a Jewish woman. A movie titled Woman in Gold will soon come out and I will be interested in how they address the post-war period.

The Birth of the Pill (2014) by Jonathan Eig explores the creation of the birth control pill which placed women in control of their lives. I came of age after this time and sometimes forget the limited choices biology imposed. It is a character driven book for it took a cast of four key characters to make this a reality. The fifth character is the environment in which the Pill's creation unfolded, a culture which was resistant to contraceptives largely because of the Catholic Church. Meanwhile women were desperate for a simple and reliable form of contraceptive. It seems that even today we continue to fight offshoots of this early battle.

Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher (2012) was addressed in an earlier post and introduced to me by my Arts bookclub. It looks at Edward Curtis and his role as both photographer and ethnographer of Indian tribes at a time when their culture was being quite intentionally destroyed. A fascinating exploration of a life driven by a singular passion.

Authors On a Roll

I've read at least two books by each of the following authors and can vouch for their staying power.
All the Light We Cannot See (2014) by Anthony Doerr is my all time favorite this year. While I read it in my bookclub, I had already discovered the author's book of short stories titled Memory Wall. His new book is set in France during WWII. It juxtaposes a young blind French girl in St Malo with an orphaned German boy swept up in the machinery of the war. His task is to trace radio broadcasts of the resistance and that task ultimately causes their stories to converge.

Transatlantic (2013) by Colum McCann is a book that leaves trails of breadcrumbs through time. There are three discrete, but connected stories; Frederick Douglas on an international lecture tour in Ireland in the mid 1800s, two aviators who attempt the first nonstop flight across the Atlantic in 1919 and George Mitchell in 1998 trying to broker peace in Ireland. The stories connect through interrelated generations of women.

And two more authors of books that I've addressed in an earlier post...

Night in Shanghai (2014) by Nicole Mones addressed prewar and wartime Shanghai and the experience of black Jazz musicians within it. I recommend any book by Mones and have read them all.

I became a fan of Chimimanda Adichie this year when I read Americanah (2013) in my bookclub and intrigued, followed with her earlier book Half of a Yellow Sun (2009), set during the Nigerian-Biafra war. Americanah was a look at the experience of a Nigerian woman in the United States, examining our culture, both white and black, through outsider eyes. There is also an excellent TED talk by this author.


Saturday, January 10, 2015

A Perfect Memory

 "All water has a perfect memory and is forever trying to get back to where it was". -Toni Morrison

I have two projects ahead of me with my artwork. One is a body of work on loss of memory which I will be exhibiting at a conference mid-year. The other is a piece on the theme of water for the Jewish Artists' Lab exhibition. Ever frugal, I am trying to find a way to knit the two together so I get some additional use out of the piece for the lab.

In this year's Artists' Lab we have a series of artist led sessions. Along with another artist in our group I led a discussion on the topic of metaphor and memory. We examined how water is used metaphorically in both the Bible and our language. I soon discovered that I had stumbled across a rich topic. Metaphor by its nature lends itself to artwork, creating layers of meaning.

In researching this topic I ran across the quote at the top of this page and found it quite thought provoking. Morrison talks of how for writers the act of imagination is bound up with memory and equates it to flooding, trying to find our way home. Here's what she says:

"Because, no matter how "fictional" the account of these writers, or how much it was a product of invention, the act of imagination is bound up with memory. You know they straightened out the Mississippi River in places, to make room for houses and livable acreage. Occasionally the river floods these places. "Floods" is the word they use, but in fact it is not flooding; it is remembering. Remembering where it used to be. All water has a perfect memory and is forever trying to get back to where it was.

Writers are like that: remembering where we were, what valley we ran through, what the banks were like, the light that was there and the route back to our original place. It is emotional memory - what the nerves and the skin remember as well as how it appeared. And a rush of imagination is our 'flooding'."

So how does this relate to loss of memory? One of the things I've observed in my parents as they lost memory was the way they clung to their prior identity. As I explore the question of what happens to identity as we lose memory, I have concluded that identity is very persistent. Even if they no longer possess the capability to do the tasks of their prior identity, it remains an important part of how they see themselves.

My late father was deeply involved in technology in his day, a man before his time in many respects. Then time passed him by. His identity as a tech savy person was deeply embedded and in his later years he had a propensity to purchase technology even if he could no longer comprehend it. He returned to the path he once carved.

Similarly my mother who had been a first grade teacher collages every day, but she calls it "cutting and pasting". She has a wall on which she has pictures of things that interest her that she calls her "bulletin board". She returns to deeply engrained aspects of her life as a teacher. Their world narrowed as they aged, just as the river's path was straightened, yet they flood its banks, seeking the life they once lived, the person they once were.

I've begun to play with some paintings on the theme of water. I've been away from painting for awhile so I have this barrier to crash, an uncertainty about where to begin. I find the best way to push past that gatekeeper in my brain is to just start, no research, just paint the imagery in my head, reminding myself that I can always paint over it. The images in this blog entry were a means to jump start myself and are likely to go through many iterations. The one above is on the concept of Flooding as Remembering.  I may write the quote over it when it is further along.

When I first thought of memory and water I was reminded of language that links the two, how we talk of memories bubbling up and streams of consciousness. Have you ever followed how a memory arises? Sometimes it can arise quite obliquely. Something triggers a tangentially related memory which in turn triggers another and another until there is a wave effect. The small paintings were an experiment in stepping into my mother's mind and creating waves of memory, Each image associated with one nearby.

She has been pondering lately if her father was left handed. A thought of her father might trigger a thought of her brother who her father asked her to look out for or of a dress he made for me as a child (he was a tailor). Memories move like water, fluid, wavelike, taking us places that may be far removed from our starting point.

Sunday, January 4, 2015

An Annual Ritual

cc courtesy of Win Naing- floating bnw  on  Flickr
Any resolutions this year? I've long given up on them. The fact is I do what I want to do anyway. Instead I build on the natural patterns in my life through my annual number counting ritual. We are what we count and what I count is telling, revealing the focus of my efforts and the gradual shifts of emphasis over time...books read, paintings completed, exhibitions of artwork, blogs written, speeches given. Expression in its many forms. And once I start tracking an activity it begins to grow.

Yes, I know this is a bit compulsive and yes I am. I've learned that I need to feel a sense of movement and this is my way to track my efforts. When I first left my job I think I was fearful that I would lose my drive and dissolve into a pile of mush. Hasn't happened yet. I've learned that driven people are driven no matter what the circumstances. The only difference is that now I find my own path on which to drive. Because I write about my path in this blog you will likely be hearing more of some of these themes this year. So here is both a preview and post view.

This year I hit a new high in books read, 60 of them. Now to confirm any thoughts you might have of my compulsiveness, I not only counted books but pages, about 24000 of them. A separate blog entry will address those books that left the deepest impression. Books often feed ideas that I address in these pages and in my artwork. They are an important element in offering me new inputs when I run out of internal inspiration.

I've been busy exhibiting my past artwork from the Jewish Identity and Legacy Project (JILP) in both solo and group shows. If you missed their development in these pages, you need only click on Interview Project at the top of the page. I just hung the work for one more solo show and am winding down this series that has occupied the last several years. It will feel official after I send off some paintings I sold when the show comes down. My new show is called Capturing the Stories and my talks about it will explore the oral history aspect behind the artwork. I've added in paintings from the Dvora Stories which also grew out of interviews.

I make prints of paintings I sell so I can continue to exhibit them which of course fails to free up any room in my studio. This year I solved that problem by adding space. My husband and I had shared a studio for many years in a building of artists' studios. Recently the space next door opened up and we leased it and inserted a door between. Side by side studios, an artist duo's dream. Now I must commit to making the space my own. I am still adjusting to it and mentally taking ownership.

My new series of artwork that I have begun to rough out is focused on loss of memory. I have a show scheduled for May so I need to dive in and tackle this subject, one I've often written of in these pages. It is a personal theme in many ways as much of it is based on my mother's loss of memory. Writing and painting is how I process the events in my life, trying to find both meaning and understanding. As I develop the artwork, I will share the work and underlying stories here.

This year I again serve as the Resident Writer for the Jewish Artists' Lab which involves writing yet another blog. The Lab has a theme of water, a subject that is frequently used metaphorically in the Bible. I am considering how to marry the theme of water with my other theme of memory, an association our language often makes. Things bubble up in memory or we experience a wave of memory. It offers some rich material for both artwork and writing which you will hear more on.

My genealogy consulting continues to grow as I did research for a number of clients in Australia, Israel and the US. Often their focus is on their Jewish Polish roots, an area I've become rather adept in. As I've largely concluded much of my own research, I enjoy applying what I've learned to others' puzzles. I've written about some of the puzzles in this blog and I often use them as examples in talks I do on genealogy. Family history has been the engine for much of my artwork and will always be an important thread in my explorations.

My public speaking continues to expand in scope along with my interests. I do genealogy talks, talks on oral histories with elders, talks on my artwork and talks on the Holocaust, the latter in conjunction with a dear friend who is a survivor. I am beginning to work in association with the Mn Historical Society and have a series of talks scheduled through them. If you had ever told me I'd be on the speaking circuit I would have stared at you in amazement. Oddly enough I enjoy it and find the feedback and interaction informs my other efforts.

Writing is something I pledged to explore more deeply in 2014. I write this blog as well as the one for the Lab. Between the two of them I am writing every week. Blog writing is practice in both thinking and writing, something one does with some consistency which is an important element in practicing. I am often surprised when I encounter someone who reads this blog and has knowledge of my life. As an inward person I sometimes forget that I am also rather public. Your comments and likes are always appreciated and help sustain the effort of writing.

This year I took several writing classes and workshops at our local writing center and found that essays are very much my medium. I hope to take those learnings and carry them into a writing/art project that will grow out of my last series of artwork and interviews, or perhaps my next series. I think a deeper marriage between art and writing is a direction I will test over the coming years. As this deepened focus is new to me, I seem to be circling it unsuccessfully thus far, trying to muster the discipline required to tackle a new direction. I remind myself that every endeavor started with that toe in the water. I think the trick is to do it without outcome in mind as that creates too much pressure. Once you are floating out there in the middle, it is easier to add in your arms and legs and voila, swimming!

I actually have the gift of time. At the end of 2014 I left a board I have been very engaged in over the past eight years and calculated that it frees up over two entire work weeks of the year. That is just shy of two hours a week. I am framing my challenge for this year as what would I do if I had two extra weeks? Or two extra hours per week? Paint, write, read? Perhaps float in the middle of painting and writing?

Those tasks I used to think I'd get to, organizing my home, working out more often...You know the list, we all have it. They used to be resolutions that never got done and may well continue as such. The reality is we do what interests us and fortunately I have no shortage of interests.



Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Santa and the Maccabees

The holidays are over and quiet resumes in our small household. We love the hubbub of family, but it also deepens our appreciation of the quiet we so often take for granted.

The holidays also force a different reflection on my part. As a secular Jew married to a non-Jew I say the blessings over the Chanukah candles even as we debate what to get for Xmas presents for kids and grandkids. We don't have a Christmas tree in our home, but we enjoy the festive atmosphere at my stepdaughter's home and the family gatherings that go with it.

One evening one of my stepdaughters asked me to explain about Chanukah to her daughter. I demurred thinking about all those times I was asked to do that in grade school, the only Jewish kid for many years. I wasn't sure I could do it justice, but I also thought of it as a bit player in the whole scheme of Jewish holidays. What can I say...It's a minor holiday promoted so Jewish kids don't feel left out. I think about the question behind the question. How do you explain to a child that there are many different traditions? And for me, the larger question of how do I explain that being Jewish is an important part of who I am even though it doesn't appear to be.

It is a question that faces every secular Jew. Why does this matter? I didn't always realize it did. My former husband wasn't Jewish and I remember Christmas celebrations with his family. An aunt would always propose midnight mass and I would catch my husband's eye with a look of desperation. "Get me out of this!" it screamed. Celebrations are fine, but hold the religion. Somehow we never went. I wonder if they did when I was no longer on the scene.

In our own home my ex had wanted a Christmas tree. It was a part of his tradition, but made me feel as if I were abandoning what little linkage I had to my heritage. We compromised by hanging an ornament on a spindly palm tree in our home. My ex then did a sumi painting of it on rice paper on the cards we sent out that year. Wishing you a warm holiday season. An artistic homage with a twist.

Then of course there were the gnarlier questions. How would we raise those theoretical children that I wasn't even sure I wanted to have? Why Jewish of course. I couldn't conceive of anything else. My then-husband was puzzled. I didn't seem particularly Jewish. Why did it matter so much? I wasn't quite sure myself except that it would have felt like a betrayal of who I was.

So who exactly was I? So often being Jewish in a Christian culture is defined by otherness. I related a story to my stepdaughter of when I grew up. It was a time when everyone decorated their home at Christmas. Everyone but us. As nighttime approached and the lights came on, our house was the only one that remained dark.

My parents struggled with how to raise their Jewish kids so they didn't feel left out. At Christmas they made a mild concession. They let us hang a stocking. I still remember getting little figures of people in my stocking. Then they began to feel a bit guilty and decided they had to stop this before it got baked into a tradition. This was complicated by the fact that we believed in Santa so it wasn't just a matter of them stopping the gift giving. It had to make sense to us. I would love to have listened in on their conversation as to how to tackle this dilemma. Their solution was to go directly to the man. They called Santa at the North Pole to tell him we were Jewish and that he must have stopped at our house in error. My brother and I were not bothered in the least by these ill-gotten gifts and screamed in the background for them not to tell him.

Chest with Star of David pulls- Sorolla Museo

Much of my experience of being Jewish was being outside looking in. I lived in a Christian culture and with friends I decorated Christmas trees and painted Easter eggs. No confusion there, it was their culture, not mine.

I often think of a drawing I did as a child. The assignment must have been to draw Christmas in a time before cultural sensitivity was expected. I drew a Christmas tree. I stood next to it, but behind me was a dresser. Each drawer had a drawer pull shaped like a Star of David. Some part of me was hidden in that chest. I am amused at the way I covertly asserted my heritage, a hidden Jew of sorts. On a recent trip to Madrid, I was startled to see a chest with Stars of David on each drawer and flashed back to my drawing. I wondered what stories filled these drawers.

Every child reacts differently to being an outsider. Some press their nose against the glass and want in. Others come to embrace their otherness. Otherness can be a gift, allowing one to see the world more clearly, creating a space from which to appraise the world at arms-length. That perspective often serves as a creative engine and it allows one to challenge and question. Now imagine a culture in part defined by otherness, an otherness not always visible. I begin to understand why many of the people I have developed friendships with are Jewish. I am drawn to differences, people with a bit of attitude who question and challenge the norms, creative people. It is a constellation of traits found in otherness.

But Judaism is more than otherness. It is a religion, a culture and a heritage. I grew up in a Reform temple and went through the religious school until I was 16. We had a comparative religion class where we attended different churches and learned about their beliefs. I was fascinated and rather appalled at the idea of dogma. Why would you ever believe something because someone told you to? It was a foreign concept to me for questioning was clearly encouraged in my family. In my confirmation class we debated if God existed and if so in what form. The rabbi led the discussion and it felt like the ultimate in questioning. I think it was then that I decided I could be Jewish.

My relationship to Judaism has ebbed and flowed throughout my life. My exploration of family history drew me closer and my reading about the experience of Jews throughout history formed a self-created curriculum of sorts. For several years I've participated in a Jewish artists' lab which has deepened my understanding and built a community of like-minded creative people. My artwork too has explored the Jewish experience.

Yet as many American Jews, I live in both worlds. My current husband is not Jewish, but our values and beliefs are very similar. He is an artist also and perhaps as such has a touch of the otherness I seek. The fundamental aspect of Judaism that spoke to me at 16 still speaks to me. I need to be free to question, to challenge and to explore. I am grateful to be part of a heritage that gives me the room to do so.