Friday, December 6, 2019

A Confluence of Influences

When people come through my studio, they often talk with me about my artwork. “How long does it take to do a painting?” they ask. I am amused by the question, not sure when I should start the stopwatch, or stop it. There is a lot of work that occurs long before brush meets canvas. Some of it doesn’t look like work to outside eyes. When I left my job, I soon learned that artwork does not conform to the production mentality that I once brought to my work life.  It happens in its own time and at its own pace. The process involves opening your eyes and mind to take in information that may or may not find its way to a painting.

I am working on a new subject that seems to be coming from a confluence of influences.  Recently I read the Pulitzer-prize-winning book, The Overstory, by Richard Powers. The book is about trees as experienced through a human lens. It explores the impact of deforestation on the climate and shares the stories of several individuals that all relate to trees. Ultimately the stories converge.  It is an unusual book and I found it thought-provoking. It made me think about the ecosystem within a tree, what we lose when a mature tree is taken down and its interrelationship with flooding and climate change. Since then I’ve been thinking a lot about trees and seeing them through fresh eyes. And of course, once an idea finds its way into my head, I notice associations everywhere I turn.

Soon after I read the book, my husband and I went to the Grand Canyon where I fell in love with the junipers with their elegant twisting trunks dancing on the canyon’s edge, blue berries peek from foliage, a hidden surprise. Most of my pictures have a juniper framing the canyon. 

When we returned it was time to kick off the 7th year of the Jewish Artists Lab.  Its topic this year is Muddy Waters, an exploration of climate change and the environment through the lens of Jewish text. We study text for eight months and then create artwork on the theme for an exhibition. In preparation, I did a lot of reading on the topic, specifically its relationship to my latest fascination with trees. 

At our first meeting of the lab we were asked to bring an image that speaks to the topic. I brought a photograph of a tree taken by Beth Moon, a photographer who has been taking pictures of the oldest trees in the world. Some are as old as 5000 years and are beautiful and mysterious. The wonder I felt in viewing her photographs echoed the wonder that was stirred by The Overstory.

The Whittinghame Yew-Beth Moon photographer
Soon it was time to head down to Chicago for Thanksgiving where we visited the museums and galleries. Surprisingly many galleries had subject matter related to trees. Some built trees out of veneer, other painted them.   Viewing art always makes me want to paint which is a good thing as I’ve been a bit stuck, trying to figure out a new direction which engages me. How does one get unstuck? Viewing art is one approach, but sometimes just picking up a paintbrush to do anything is a first step.

When I came back from travels in South Dakota, I was taken with the skies that so dominated the landscape. To loosen up, I took an image of clouds and painted them up close.  When I turned it upside down it reminded me of water. 

Water and trees are closely related. A few years ago, a neighbor took down a number of mature trees to put up a sports court. Our next-door neighbor then lost half his yard to flooding as a permanent pond took residence. Trees can absorb 100 gallons of water daily so the loss of the trees had an impact on the broader community.
Goodby Dutch!

His dilemma will only worsen as we recently diagnosed a tree with Dutch Elm disease. It sits between our two houses and unfortunately, we will be taking it down. I am surprised at how much its prospective absence saddens me. I photographed its presence as my recent work has explored the concept of absence and presence. That too may be a related direction on which to build.

Just this week, I started to paint. I took the canvas of clouds transformed to water and began to paint tree stumps across it.  They looked mysterious, their limbs dancing against the tide.  It will change many times over before I deem it done. It may be just my first foray into a series. Right now, I just paint to see where it takes me.

One of the things that intrigues me is the idea that trees bear witness. Their rings represent each season that they live through and reflect the climate of those times. They are recorders of history. I often find a title before I find a painting. Bearing Witness comes to mind.

So, let me trace my path. From reading about trees to viewing trees to lab project on environment to research to viewing artwork on trees to actually losing a tree. All before I picked up a brush. Do I count that time that preceded painting when I was circling the topic even before I knew it was the topic?  And of course, there is the painting itself. Will it come together quickly or will it evolve over months?

Wednesday, October 23, 2019

Filling the Gaps with Story

Every so often, I encounter something unexpected when I am doing genealogy. A puzzle beckons. It is then that I step in with a bit of imagination coupled with some research. It helps to have read a lot of fiction. I try to contemplate the human dimension as I fill the gaps with conjecture, an imagined story that becomes my hypothesis. I consider the period of time in which the event occurred and how larger events may have had an impact.

Over the years I have accessed many naturalization records. They require the person to go through a series of different filings, meeting a residency requirement before they can reach the final stage of citizenship. Generally, it occurs about seven years after arrival, but I’ve seen a few filed later in life. I have always assumed that it was driven by a desire to collect social security. I’ve never seen one turned down, until recently. 

Sam was 52 and had been in the United States for twenty years. His wife had become naturalized while they were married, but the naturalization of a wife was distinct from her husband after 1922 so it didn’t affect his alien status. After his first wife had passed away, Sam remarried in 1947, something I discovered from the naturalization papers. I learned that he had filed a petition in 1942 and at the bottom it indicated that his petition was denied because he “ failed to establish good moral character.”  What was that about? I wondered.  

With that tantalizing clue, I began to search for something in his history to explain that statement. My hunch was that it had something to do with bootlegging so I began a deeper dive into Prohibition history which ran from 1920-1933. I soon found an article from 1927 noting an arrest of someone with his name at a nearby farm with a still and 500 gallons of mash. Was this the same person?

As I explored bootlegging in Minnesota, I learned that Stearns County was the hotbed of it.The German Catholic farmers began to grow the Minnesota 13 strain of corn to make what was a premium whiskey to save the family farm during the Depression. Most of the population was involved in some fashion in the business. The biggest still was run and owned by the monks at St. John's Abbey where praying became an effective cover when the Feds came to visit.  Whiskey needed distribution and this was an ecumenical business. Isadore Blumenfeld, better known as Kid Cann, a well-known Jewish gangster, was involved with a bootlegging operation known as the Minneapolis Combination or the Syndicate. Sam’s brother-in-law was arrested hauling 119 gallons of pure grain alcohol as part of the smuggling ring between Chicago and Minneapolis. And Sam was living in Stearns County in the 1930s.

After Prohibition ended, a relationship with that world continued through the relationships of his second wife. In the late 1940s Kid Cann was unable to get a liquor license because of a Prohibition era conviction for bootlegging. it was charged that he was acting as an undisclosed owner in a local bar. When it was incorporated in 1937 it listed three owners, Sam’s future wife, her sister and brother. So, three siblings were fronting ownership for Kid Cann. I imagine it was difficult to say no to him.

We don’t know for sure whether Sam was involved with bootlegging although these articles indicate that his relationships would have put him close to it. That would have been a plausible reason for the response to his petition for citizenship. 

In 1949 he took another run at citizenship, disclosing the prior denial. This time he received citizenship. Perhaps the view of bootlegging had changed with the distance of time.

Tuesday, September 17, 2019

A Long-Lived Project on Long-Lived Lives

We were getting ready for a drive to Madison, Wisconsin when the phone rang. This was the phone we usually don’t answer, the one mostly used by solicitors, fundraisers and our security system. I checked to see if it was someone I knew. "Star Tribune" it read. I hesitantly picked it up. I had just told my husband I was ready to go and I knew he was eager to get on the road.

“Is this Susan Weinberg?” a female voice asked. 

“Yes,” I replied. 

“Susan Weinberg, the author?” she clarified.  

“Yeeess,” I replied drawing out the yes with an implicit question. Most of my callers don’t begin in this fashion, although I must admit, I rather liked it.

“There are an awful lot of Susan Weinbergs in this town,” she said with a tinge of exasperation. I laughed and told her of the one of whom I was aware. 

“Yes,” she said, “I just got off the phone with her.”

She then explained the purpose of her call.  I had interviewed Trudy Rappaport, a Holocaust survivor, some years back and she had just passed away at 101. My caller was a journalist writing a piece on her for the paper. She knew of my book based on these interviews and had tracked me down to learn more about Trudy.

The project had started with an official sounding name, the Jewish Identity and Legacy Project. It grew out of my exploration of identity. I worked together with Sholom Home and the Jewish Historical Society (JHSUM), received grants to fund it and did the interviews in 2011 and 2012. Over the intervening years, I  created artwork on their stories and by 2017 I had turned the material into a book, We Spoke Jewish: A Legacy in Stories.  Most of my interviewees were in their nineties when I interviewed them, long-lived even then. Several made it past one hundred. Now only one, about a decade younger than the others, remains. For several years since, I've been doing book talks. This year my talks have taken me around the country, often speaking on themes of immigration and translating story to visual imagery.

It makes the time period from then to now feel a bit compressed. Their voices and their stories live in my head, even those long gone. Trudy was one I remembered well. She was an amazing storyteller, in part because the Holocaust was a hard story for her to tell. It kept her affect fresh, the emotion still alive within her as she retold her story. There is something very powerful about a story and the sense of connection that it creates in the retelling. I had ridden the waves of emotion with her as she recounted reconnecting with her parents after nine years of separation, not knowing if each other had survived. Eagerly I had asked her what happened next, my curiosity often taking over.

I reached for my computer and tried to remember the path to the transcripts I had done so many years before. I hadn’t anticipated them being used in this fashion although it was the perfect time to share the story. In addition to the transcript,  I sent the journalist to some video clips I had created so she could hear Trudy and get a feeling for her directly.

You can read what she wrote  here and if you’d like to hear it from Trudy you will find my artwork on her stories and her videoclips here.  

Wednesday, August 28, 2019

Taming the Tentacles of Creeping Clutter

I am cleaning my office. Now is that worthy of a blog post you might wonder? If Marie Kondo can write books about clearing away clutter, surely a blog post on its accumulation is long overdue. 

 I am a genealogist, a historian at heart. That means it is especially difficult for me to get rid of things. I am thus consigned to a life of clutter with occasional nibbles around the edges to keep it at bay. I envy the tidy spaces of those without that pesky preservation gene, but I value the benefits that come from it. None of my genealogy work would exist without it. I think it is in part the residue of a curious mind that branches in so many directions that it can't keep up with them.

Kudzu overtakes a forest*
I come by this honestly. I had two parents who were more keepers than tossers. Having cleaned out my father’s study after his death I know what that preservation gene can do when it runs amok and overpowers you like kudzu. I spoke of genes in jest only to find there might be some truth in that. Apparently chromosome 14 is associated with hoarding and while I hasten to add I am not there yet, I can see the path if I don’t mend my ways. We used to press my father to clean up his study when paper overwhelmed the remaining space. He would reply,”Someday I’m just going to light a match to it.”  I now realize that he was speaking metaphorically and his daughters were to be the match. 

Once you clear out a parent’s accumulation, you vow that you will do a better job with your own. In fact the system by which we tackled that mess was instructive, and I harken back to it as I contemplate my own mess. I first went through his files in search of financial information, family history, personal history and medical history- the fine sort. Then I went through his hard drive for any digital files. My role was to act as a keeper and identify critical things to keep lest an over-zealous tosser got carried away prematurely. After the fine sort, there was a lot of shredding and scanning. Then I sent in the big guns, my sister and niece who were less adverse to disposing of things than I was. A division of labor based on individual aptitude may have been key to our success. My challenge now is serving both of those functions.

Along the way, I read through reams of correspondence and documents. This is a part of decluttering that often goes unrecognized, the review necessary to determining value. It doesn't give you the satisfaction of empty rooms and it can be tedious, but it often unearths gems for those who value information. I am not necessarily talking economic value, but emotional or historic value or usefulness in the future. it is admittedly a subjective assessment which is where keepers often get stuck on the more generous end of the definition.

Some things are simply practical. I put together a summary  on health issues my parents had addressed which may in turn have bearing on me or my siblings.  As a historian, I couldn't bring myself to throw out the letter which invited my father to apply to the university where he found his life-long career. And yes, I kept his tax return from the year I was born when my name first became known to the IRS. When I go through my closet, I try on clothes to assess how they fit and what outfits I can create from them before pitching those leftovers from earlier life periods that look a bit embarrassing today. When going through paper, I read. 

It is both easier and harder to pitch clutter when someone has passed away. The mundane no longer needs to be retained. Did it ever I wonder, as I contemplate my own mundane. 

Ah, but history becomes precious. Once pitched it is gone forever only to be rediscovered if at all, by intense genealogical research. That retained information of my parents, already deeply culled, now occupies my study in addition to my own accumulation over the years. It distracts me from my normal culling of my files as it requires more thought and is more laden with emotion. I had thrown much of my father’s correspondence into a “to shred” pile only to rescue it for a more careful cut. 

As for my own clutter, I realize that there are many psychological components. I can’t recreate my own history so hesitate to pitch it. And yet I find myself thinking of a friend who long ago told me that he kept no correspondence as he didn’t want anyone else reading it if something happened to him. He was in his forties and I was much younger. It was an absurd concept to me at the time, but I must admit it gains in potency as I age.

I also realize I am an out-of-sight, out-of-mind person. I need something to be visible and easily accessible or I forget about it, a tendency that argues against tucking things out of sight.  Each archeological dig though clutter unearths some surprises of long-forgotten information. Did it really matter? At minimum it argues for better organizational systems.

Much clutter is about intention. There is a lot of paper with things I think I’ll take a closer look at someday, but never have. There are clippings for recipes I’ve never made, magazines I’ve never read and bookshelves of books I will never read again.  My attachment to history, my retrieval systems and my follow-through all come into question as I tame the tentacles of creeping clutter. It is indeed a humbling experience.

 *kudzu overtakes a forest. (Robert Michalove Flickr Creative Commons)

Saturday, July 20, 2019

Flashes of Image and Sound

You know the way memories play in isolated flashes of image and sound, honing in sharply on some details and graying out others. I have a lingering memory like that which recent events have recalled. It was 1969 and I was soon to turn 16, probably the last family vacation I went on before I headed off to college. We had gone to Door County in Wisconsin. We stayed in one of those little motels that dotted the roadways in those days. Basically it was a room in a string of rooms, all on one level. The door opened to a sidewalk and a strip of grass. I recall a screen door filtering the mottled light of the dark interior where my father sat watching television. My memory recalls only grass at my feet, sunshine, that dark space beyond that screen door and my father’s voice.

“Come here,” he called out.”History is being made!”  

And it was. Man was walking on the moon. As I recall we were not especially impressed, inured to the mysteries of anything that appeared on television and certain that anything important would be replayed. Vacation awaited and there he sat watching television!

He was 44 then, a young man by my yardstick today, more than 20 years younger than I am now. I somehow don’t recall him as young, the lens of my own youth obscuring any possibility of parental youth. When I think of the world he came from I realize that two things were part of how he experienced this event, that man walked on the moon and that he could watch it live on television.  My dad was a TV guy and watched it come of age in the course of his lifetime. A few years after this day he brought public television to Central Illinois. I’m quite sure the element of watching the moon landing live on television was part of his enthusiasm.

As we look back on that moment in history, I consider that fleeting moment in my own history. I wonder what was so important that we weren’t glued to the TV along with him. In one version of my memory I recall poking my head in for a second to see what had him so engaged before I traded that dark space and fuzzy black and white imagery for the sunny day that awaited in vivid technicolor. 

CNN has a video online titled “See the moon landing as they did 50 years ago.” I must confess it made my heart beat a little faster, as if I could step back in time to that day, my personal day. I pushed play and imagined myself back in time, this time in that dreary motel room watching history along with my father. 

Friday, July 5, 2019

Fire and Smoke

I think of my mother every Fourth of July. Four years ago, in the early morning hours she departed this earth. My husband had driven through the night to meet me and that evening we sat in an outdoor cafe enjoying a nice meal as fireworks rose in the sky nearby. Everything felt unreal in its normalcy.  How could the world still turn on its axis without my mother? The once unthinkable had happened and life went on, at least for some of us.

 I decided then that every Fourth of July would be my personal commemoration of my mother, a yahrzeit of sorts. I recently accompanied a 95-year-old friend to her synagogue for a yahrzeit, the commemoration of her mother’s death. Her mother had died almost seventy years ago, and I thought of my friend “religiously” observing her yahrzeit every year since. Well, I have a ritual too, it is to see the world through my mother’s eyes. At this time of year that means fireworks.

My mother loved fireworks and she was always happy to celebrate our country. She was grateful to be an American. She had a kind of patriotism that I lack but have come to appreciate these past few years. Perhaps the values of our country can only be fully appreciated if you realize how close you can come to losing them. 

My mother’s parents were immigrants and she often reflected on the fact that she as a female would not have been educated had they stayed in the Ukraine. She loved flags as a symbol of our country. She put flags in her planters and alway hung one on the Fourth of July. When she accompanied me in the car, she would point out flags along the way. She had a sepia photo of the Statue of Liberty on her wall. 

“Do you want to walk over to see the fireworks?” my husband asked. It was the third of July when we have a chance to see early fireworks at a nearby lake about a mile and a half away. It had been raining nonstop so I imagined the mosquitoes and the wet grass where we would normally sit and hesitated. The thought of my mother’s “yahrzeit” spurred me on. I should at least be as consistent as my 95-year-old friend. A three-mile walk made me feel doubly virtuous. 

We arrived just as the fireworks were beginning and secured a spot on the curb close enough to see the smoke from the fireworks. You can pick out July on my camera roll by looking for the fireworks. Invariably I take a few photos. I guess that’s part of the ritual too, but it is especially challenging to get a distinctive photo of fireworks. No matter how stunning they may look to the naked eye, the camera loses the majesty and invariably misses the moment. "No more photos," I admonished myself. But I found myself captivated by the smoke. I was intrigued with the layered effect it created, juxtaposed with the fireworks themselves. The past and present existed side by side until both faded away into nothingness as new pasts and presents emerged. Ephemeral, a nanosecond of existence in the unfolding of our world. I reached for my camera, this time focused as much on the smoke as the fire. 

It was only later as I studied those otherworldly images that the metaphorical meaning became apparent. I had been working on a painting related to my mother on absence and presence, contemplating how absence can make a person feel much more present. How since I can no longer take my mother’s physical presence for granted, I think more consciously about how I can keep her presence alive. Her fire once burned brightly and her trail of smoke layers my life, always present.

Monday, June 17, 2019

My First Big Move

I’m not big on commemorating occasions. I’ve never attended a high school reunion for fear of being transported back to a world of awkward self-consciousness. Neither do I focus much on wedding anniversaries. My husband and I had been together for many years before we married, so the wedding was more of a footnote to a long relationship than a beginning. And yet, I may make an exception to my inclination to gloss over such events. This summer is the fortieth anniversary of my life in Minneapolis and it seems to warrant some kind of acknowledgement. After all, I’ve spent most of my adult life in the place that was my FIRST big move away from home.

It was meant to be the first of many. I envisioned a life of adventure and travel in my desire to become a worldly woman. While I did in fact find some of that, it was from a solidly anchored berth. After college I had returned to my mid-sized hometown in Central Illinois for my first job. There I married my now ex-husband, bought a house and began to build my life as an adult. After several years it became apparent to me that if I didn’t move away, I would become my parents, rooted in one place for most of my life. I was to learn that it was as much a matter of internal geography as external. I convinced my then-husband he would benefit from a move and announced my intentions to my mother on the phone. I remember looking out my dining room window as I twisted that phone cord around my fingers. Yes, that was the age of corded phones. It was one of those moments frozen in time, one which you know is momentous. “Oh, SUSan!” she replied as if I had just told a distasteful joke which she found disturbing. No doubt she did find it disturbing, I realize in retrospect.
With my thumb on the map atop my home town, I traced a five-hundred-mile radius with my index finger. Five hundred miles represented a one-day drive back, my tether to my family. I considered Chicago, St. Louis and Minneapolis, cities that fell within that radius. I already knew I was a city girl although I had little experience with large cities, but I wanted what cities had to offer.  My criteria included a city with a good university, a climate supportive of the arts and a good employment environment for our future careers, a city big enough to embrace the unknown and small enough to navigate. On my first visit, I fell in love with the Minneapolis landscape. I had a visceral response to the lakes and expanses of greenery and all those people so energetically enjoying them. It opened something deep within me.  I wanted in. Minneapolis felt accessible to me in a way Chicago could never be. Having an old college roommate in Minneapolis cinched the deal. I subscribed to the Sunday paper and began my job search.
Three months after that phone call with my mother, I was in Minneapolis for good. I still think of it as my “first” big move away from home. Perhaps it is time that I accept that I am someone who puts down roots.  I am but one repotting away from my parents after all. I didn’t get very far. I am chagrined to admit that I have lived in fewer cities than my parents.
We had fewer belongings in those days, less to tie us to one spot. A U-Haul carried it all to a second-floor duplex in Northeast Minneapolis. A stained-glass window cast its pattern of light on our new life.  After six months we bought a home in South Minneapolis on Columbus Avenue where I lived for sixteen years.  Now in my subsequent home, I have a room I’ve named the Columbus Room. It holds many of my belongings from that earlier home. I am not easily uprooted and carry the echo of my past in my physical space, slightly altered by new surroundings, but familiar at the core.

Today I am an artist and Northeast Minneapolis, where I began, is once again a home of sorts to me. For seventeen years my husband and I have had a studio in the California Building where we paint and invite the community in to visit during open studios. I tell stories through my artwork and that allows me a special access to the community in which I live and work. As I explored the topic of loss of memory, tracing my mother’s journey through that wilderness, I set out a memory jar and invited visitors to share a memory. I asked them to tell one that they once shared with someone whose memory had fled. Visitors sometimes tearfully shared their stories of loved ones and the treasured memories that they held close. I have learned that it is through story that we find connection and expand our community.

The trains pass beneath our window that overlooks the church towers of Northeast.  I often run to the window when I hear a train, turning off the lights if it’s evening, to fully savor the sense of mystery it still rouses in me. And sometimes I drive by that first duplex and crane my neck to see if I can spot that stained-glass window of memory.