Tuesday, April 14, 2015

A Willing Accomplice

I returned early in the morning on a flight from the town in which I grew up. I go there frequently to visit my mother, but this was a far more complicated trip than usual. It is the time of the Yom HaShoah, the Day of Remembrance of the Holocaust.

Last year I did a talk in my home town on Jewish genealogy for a Jewish organization. Afterwards I had a casual conversation with the director about the difficulty of finding Holocaust speakers as survivors dwindle. Half facetiously I remarked, "You should get my friend Dora". Now Dora lives in the Twin Cities, is in her 90s and is legally blind so travel to downstate Illinois wasn't exactly feasible. Except...

I had known Dora for only six months when we went to Poland together. Not exactly what most would expect with a new and rather senior friend. Dora is from Radom, Poland as was my grandfather. In 2011 we traveled there together where I exhibited my artwork on the former Jewish community of Radom. Dora exhibited photos from before the war and the time of the ghetto, photos that had been hidden in the shoes of family members during the camps.

Now Dora tells me that I make things happen and I seem to, often much to my own surprise. Partially that is because Dora is a willing accomplice. She says yes when most would say no and in combination we do seem to find ourselves in unexpected places. And so I asked if she might be interested and she said,"Maybe".

Logistics were the obstacle to resolve. The limitation of impaired sight was our biggest challenge, but I love to solve puzzles so I began to assemble these pieces and see how they might fit. Dora has a grandson in Chicago and I fly in to Illinois regularly to visit my mother. Dora just published her father's memoir of his 2 1/2 years in Auschwitz so was speaking more actively about the book. A flight to her grandson who in turn drove her downstate and an early morning flight back with me took care of the logistics. I acted as her eyes in booking flights and coordinating information.  We took advantage of the presence of her grandson to have him interview her at the Yom HaShoah and the result was quite magical. Their humor and enjoyment of each other were apparent and spoke to the involvement of the next generation in carrying the stories forward.

I was invited to share my artwork on the Jewish community of Radom, A Hole in Time, which felt very appropriate when lit by the light of memorial candles, commemorating that lost community in which both Dora and I share roots. In an odd way this work has traveled full circle, from the Minnesota town where I live to the Polish town where my grandfather came from and now back to the Illinois town in which I grew up.

On the plane, still not fully awake we began to plan our next venture, another Yom HaShoah talk next week in my community. This time I will interview Dora as we partner yet once again.

Saturday, April 11, 2015

Layers and Juxtapositions

I am visiting my mother in the town and the house in which I grew up. I find I don't sleep well on my visits. Overactive brain, stimulated by memory. One memory connects to another which in turn leads to another until I feel as if my entire memory is unwinding in one continuous coil.

I drive by a house and remember someone who lived there. Names come rushing into my brain from forty years ago. I Google them in the middle of my sleepless night, curious of what has become of them. Often no traces remain, only the residue of memory. They have moved on just as have I.

I am struck by the countless changes to the town itself. Nothing stays the same. Our memories of place are multi-layered because places carry layers of history. So often I still picture a former building in my memory, juxtaposed with its newer incarnation.

I took my mother to a restaurant and when we entered I had an immediate sense of déjà vu. I knew this place. I asked a waitress if it used to be a restaurant we frequented when I was a child. She confirmed my hunch. The location on a busy street and the shape of the room were the only clues, everything else was different, but I could look over at our usual table and see the family of my childhood, watch my father dip his spoon into the whipped cream from my hot chocolate as I protested, guarding my mug carefully with my hand, albeit a little too late. It had a very Ghost of Christmas past feel to it.

Except for a brief break for college, I lived in this town until my mid 20s, my young adulthood, my early marriage, my first real job. My mother has lived in her home for close to 60 years. I moved away 36 years ago, fearful that I would turn into my parents if I stayed. For many of those years I returned only for a Thanksgiving visit. It is only as my parents began to age that I stepped up my game. When my father passed away I began to come for more extended periods to visit my mom. I began to connect with a few old friends who offered me a needed respite. As I drove around the town I found new haunts and rediscovered old ones, often in a new incarnation. I suppose I was as well.

Past and present juxtapose. Last night I got together with a friend. Years ago she and I together with a small group of women had worked to create a domestic abuse shelter. It grew out of a volunteer gig on a rape crisis line. I used to go to the hospital in the middle of the night to assist women who had been assaulted. My stomach clutched when the phone rang late at night.

Up the street from the restaurant at which I met my friend, was the insurance company that was my first job during the summer between college. I failed two typing tests, but they hired me anyway. The prior secretary filed a pillow under P and took a nap each day on the boss's couch. Why does this trivia take up real estate in my brain?

My friend and I spoke about her visit to her former home and I remembered my first home in this town as a young married woman. I could vividly recall every room, every piece of furniture. We laughed about the spool table in the living room and the orange crate end tables. I thought I was living well.

This morning I was reminiscing with friends over breakfast about a music venue/bar in an old barn that my ex-husband used to play at. We couldn't remember the name and I texted my sister who had once waitressed there. "Second Chance" she replied. I drove by there afterwards and chuckled at its reincarnation, now Second Chance Church.

So often this whole process of memory runs like a TV in the background. We don't pay close attention to its triggers. Because I am working on artwork on the theme of memory, I am hyper attuned. How did I get from here to there? What was the trigger? Where did it take me? I suppose I needed to live long enough to acquire the history to fully appreciate the layers and juxtapositions, the collapsing of time, the sudden jolts of the long forgotten.

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Making Fear an Engine

This weekend I attended a Seder. Not the kind we had at my childhood home where we awkwardly stumbled through this ritual. No, this was a Seder where many read the Hebrew words with confidence and familiarity. They even knew the Hebrew version of "An Only Kid"! There were points where I felt as vermisht (Yiddish for confused) as my non-Jewish husband.

I started to describe it as a "serious" Seder, but it wasn't quite that either. We acted out the story, made up songs and haiku and limericks and laughed a lot in the process. It was a thoughtful Seder. We discussed oppression and freedom and heroes. We came with assignments. One of them was to bring one of our heroes with us. Now this was an imaginary hero, no place setting required, unlike that mystery man Elijah who actually merits a glass of his own.

I discussed this assignment with a friend and told her I didn't like the term "hero". If I were to play a game of word association, I would come up with such words as hero worship and superhero. I've never been one to idolize anyone. If there is one thing I know with certainty it is that close up we all have feet of clay. It also echoed a childhood school assignment to write about a hero where I felt that same inner resistance. I ended up writing about my mother.

Hmm, I tested the idea. Yep, still works. And so as it came my turn to speak, I introduced my mother to the room. Now I anticipated lots of traditional heroes from others, but by the time it came to me we had many imaginary mothers at the table along with some choked back tears from those who no longer had their mothers in the flesh. Some spoke of their mother giving without expectation. While that is also true of mine, the reason she is my hero is her sense of purpose, and especially her sense of purpose in the face of adversity. My mother, not unlike Moses of yore, always had a lot of fears and worries. She learned to push through them and in doing so taught me to do likewise. We have a similar makeup and from her I learned to make fear an engine, to use it for the energy to take a running leap and tackle the unknown. Now everybody's unknown is different, but fear can paralyze or energize and I am grateful I learned the latter. I thank my mother for that lesson.

When I was growing up my mother returned to college. I remember coming home from school with something I wanted to tell her only to recall in disappointment that she had a class. I also remember my follow up thought, how proud I was of her for returning to school. She decided what mattered to her and pursued it wholeheartedly. In doing so she set an example I hope to honor.

Now she is in her 80s and struggling with memory loss. But purpose remains. I've written in these pages of how she creates collage art each day. Life is harder for her, but she still seeks to live it purposefully. For that she will always be my hero.

Monday, March 23, 2015

A Model of Hope

A few days after I returned from the museum conference in San Francisco, I attended a conference on dementia in St Paul. While the CAJM conference was small, a little over 100 rather hip attendees, the dementia conference had around 1300 people and a lot more grey hair. Many of us in our 60s were attending to learn more about how to support parents coping with Alzheimer's. Because I am doing a series of artwork on memory loss, I also wanted to see if I could learn some facts on which to build my work. Ideally each piece supports a relevant aspect of the disease.

One of my initial questions for exploration was what happens to identity as we lose memory. My sample of two, composed of my mother and late father, seemed to indicate that identity is persistent, remaining even as memory fades. My mother, the former first grade teacher, "cuts and pastes" each day. My father, the college professor, used to make his rounds to tell his stories at the university.

My observation of persistent identity was supported by our speakers. One shared several anecdotes. One was about a gentleman who each day would get up and then pull himself under a bed. What was he doing? Finally someone asked him and he reported that he was fixing the drive train. A former mechanic, he was reenacting a familiar role. They in turn entered his world suggesting he might want a pad because the floor was oily and offered him a blanket.

Another gentleman would poke his head into each room at a certain time of day and check on the residents. A former doctor, he was making his rounds. They asked if he would like a nurse to accompany him lest he start examinations and he happily agreed.

I especially appreciated a talk by John Zeisel, author of I'm Still Here and President of the I'm Still Here Foundation. Zeisel spoke about choosing the model of hope rather than despair for dealing with the disease. The public narrative is largely one of despair complete with social stigma. It is the perspective that it is all downhill from here and results in withdrawal from the world.

I remember when my father was losing memory, a friend of his suggested that his frequent presence in the world in his diminished state would tarnish his legacy. Like an aging beauty, it was presumably his time to retreat to preserve the perception. I think that is often how families respond and I understand where that comes from. My father however was never one to retreat. He would have responded with a none too polite expression.

Zeisel proposed that if we approach with hope we get curious. It occurs to me that my exploration through artwork accentuates my curiosity. When my mother speaks of feeling that she is in a wilderness, I begin to contemplate what that wilderness looks like. It has begun to bring me into a different place.

In a model fueled by hope we see the person for who they are, not her remaining skills, but her essence. We do things together, go places. Our loved one feels less lonely, as do we, for we forge a connection with the person who is there and appreciate their abilities.

He noted that a lot of programs are inspired by Montessori programming.

He spoke of how much of our brain is hard wired to appreciate nature, use landmarks, facial expressions, visual expression and respond to touch. An awareness of these facets can help us in creating meaning for our loved one.

There were two points that he mentioned that tied closely to my observations of my mother. The first was about identity that remains and can continue to be expressed in their environment.

The second observation is that even while they may not remember the particulars about an experience, they remember how it made them feel. My mother associates me with doing things from our prior travels. When I come in to visit she says she looks forward to the fact that we do things. No, she doesn't remember what we do, but that isn't the important part of the experience for her.

A program within I'm Still Here is ARTZ which focuses on arts programming, developing collaborative programs with artists and museums that engage those with Alzheimer's.

Sean Caulfield, director of ARTZ, spoke about their programming and the principles that underlie it. There are three parts of the creative process.

Imagination-freeing one's self from mental constraints

Action -perception, sensory reaction

Reflection - how can we do it better

The first two are unaffected, also consistent with my mother's creation of art. I have often envied her ability to suspend judgment and just create. It is a state artists often struggle to achieve. The ARTZ program works with both the visual arts and poetry and many of the artists create work that both surprises and delights.

I was especially touched by artwork Sean shared from a person who could no longer speak. It was of a tree with the word "mad" written by it. When asked why the tree was mad she wrote "No longer in the forest".

I thought of an elderly person isolated from the world, no longer able to communicate through speech. I'd be mad too. Artwork remains a vehicle for expression. If we listen carefully we might just learn something.





Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Creating Delight

At the museum conference I attended in San Francisco there was discussion about how we create delight. What creates salience and experiences that stay with us? I remember similar discussions in the business world, focused on creating delight in a customer experience, something that happens far too seldom. While a museum or a business may make a conscious effort to create delight, delight often arises organically.

I began to think about my experience with delight and realized it had a lot to do with the unexpected, something happening that I hadn't anticipated that created a special moment. Many of those moments happen when I travel, perhaps because I am often literally in foreign territory and more open to viewing my experience through fresh eyes. Many years ago when traveling I used to make a list each evening of surprises, those magical unexpected moments that delight.

As I contemplated the question of what engenders delight I realized I need only look to my recent travels. We had started our visit in the LA area visiting family. We then rented a car and drove up the coast to San Francisco.

Delight #1. About fifteen miles outside of Cambria we saw some unusual rock formations gleaming white in the sun. We pulled over into a roadside lot and I walked over to a fence to get my photo when I happened to glance down. Covering an extended area of the beach were hundreds of elephant seals. Lying almost motionless, the seals had mastered the fine art of relaxation. Occasionally a flipper would flick sand onto their corpulent bodies or they would wriggle over to warm their other side. They snuggled close to each other, one resting his head on another. We were fascinated by this unexpected discovery. So what caused delight? Certainly the unexpected nature of our discovery. If we had known about them and been looking for them, it would still have fascinated us, but wouldn't have packed as much of a punch. There were sign boards and information that educated us about the seals, also an important component. We liked learning about something that we didn't know. There was a sensory aspect to this experience as well. The sound of the waves rolling in, the barks of the seals. Their presence was interesting visually as we learned to identify males and females by their snouts, applying the information that we had learned. It engaged both our senses and our minds.

Delight #2 One such surprise would have been delight enough, but our trip was to be graced with many. We began one of our San Francisco days at the farmer's market by the water. It was a sunny warm day with a statue of Ghandi overlooking the market booths. Gulls perched on the railing by the water, hoping for a bite of our breakfast. After breakfast we walked along the Embarcadero towards Coit Tower. Many years ago we had seen the WPA murals and hearing they had recently been restored we decided to check them out. When we reached Lombard we looked up at the tower perched high upon a hill. "How in the world do we get up there?" I asked my husband. We soon found the beginning of the seemingly never-ending steps which took us past homes and gardens as we rose high above the water.
At last we arrived at the tower. The murals on the first floor were free to the public, but the 2nd floor required a guide who was not available. We examined the first floor murals and read about the artists on the signboards, then decided to wait on the sunny lawn for the guide to return.

Eventually we were introduced to our guide, a young French woman. We entered the private entry and ascended a curved stairway surrounded on both sides by paintings of street scenes from the 1930s. Artwork in a different style from the first floor surrounded us, somber faces on all. We were told the artists decided no smiles were permitted.

Our guide invited the director to speak with us and we had an opportunity to ask questions on what we had read below. He shared many anecdotal stories with us. Apparently our interest in the paintings was unusual as most visitors came for the view.

We confided to our guide that we were artists and learned that she was a musician. She asked if we'd like to hear her sing to which we eagerly assented. Her voice echoed within the tower as her rendition of La Vie en Rose took flight. You can hear her at virginiemarine.

Again this situation presented us with an unexpected surprise, a private concert in a unique setting and an interaction with interesting people. The meeting with the director offered new information as he told us of interviews that were recorded with many of the WPA artists. There were dramas between the artists and rumors that had been recorded as truths. I think there was also something to the journey, climbing steps through gardens, turning around to see views of the ocean below framed by unusual trees and flowers. Then a wait for the guide. All of these events framed a unique experience that we had to work a bit to find. As most things in San Francisco, it was a sensory experience spanning both landscape and artwork.

The qualities that created delight were something new and unexpected, information and the opportunity to apply it, an experience that used our senses and our minds and a journey that framed the experience. While these experiences were organic, I suspect the same qualities within a museum experience would create the delight museums so desire.

Sunday, March 15, 2015

The Memory Jar

Where do ideas come from? So much of what I do is about communicating through story. I do that through writing, painting, public speaking and video. Before I can do any of that I need to take in content, to fill my mental gas tank with fuel. I need both inputs and outputs lest I be running on fumes. Input comes from observation, interviewing, reading and education. Often that education occurs in the form of conferences and the past week I attended two of them, one in San Francisco and a later one in St Paul. I've since settled in back at home and am considering those inputs, what I learned that I might carry forward into my work.

The San Francisco conference was put on by the Council of American Jewish Museums. It is a fun conference even for non-museum professionals because we visit museums, some Jewish, others broader in scope.

The theme was Open Source. So what does that mean? It is a techie term from the most techie region of our country. Open source promotes universal access by offering a free license to a product's design and universal redistribution of that design. It incorporates subsequent improvements to it by anyone. Think Wikipedia from which this definition comes.

Now carry that concept over to museums. For museums it means relinquishing control to let other voices and audiences in and engaging audiences and communities in an interactive process that changes the offering. In that process transformation can happen.  The question of the day is how do you become an agent of transformation? Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimlett of the new Museum of the History of Polish Jews spoke to that concept. At her museum they try to change the conversation, stepping out of the shadow of the Holocaust to engage audiences in understanding the integral role Jews played in the history of Poland. It is a reclaiming of 1000 years of history. She noted that she is often asked why the museum is in Poland. Her response is that is where there is an opportunity for transformation.

The other hot topic is engaging Millenials. Never did a baby boomer feel so passé. Lots of focus on how to reach an audience that commits last minute, has a much broader definition of what is cultural and seldom would go to a museum alone. One of our speakers was a young woman from the Academy of Science in San Francisco who has the unique title of Nightlife Coordinator. She throws parties with science content that attract up to 2000 young people. They have themes such as time capsules, robots and sharks. How cool is that?

So what does an artist take from a museum conference? A concept I've already been developing in my work happened to dovetail nicely with a presentation on an exhibition of memory jars by Nina Simon, Director of the Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History.

I've written in this blog of a gift of a memory jar I once made for my mother many years ago. It was at a time when her memory was quite good and I never thought of it worsening. I purchased a ceramic jar that had the label "memories" carved into it. I then wrote out memories that we shared or that I had of her, some from our trips together, some from my childhood. The act of doing it touched me. It was a litany of what I love in her. The jar sat on a shelf high on the bookcase until I noticed it on a recent visit. I took it down and together we drew out each memory and remembered it together. Some she recalled, others took some assisted remembering. When we had gone through all the memories she thanked me for helping her remember.

My sister lives closer and goes in weekly. On one of her recent visits she heard a noise in the kitchen and poked her head in. There was my mother laughing at a memory from the memory jar.

In May I will be sharing several pieces on loss of memory at a caregiver conference and had been thinking of calling the series The Memory Jar based on a painting/collage with that title.

When Nina spoke she told us about the exhibit they did of memory jars. They invited visitors to fill a mason jar with objects tied to a personal memory. They also wrote a label that described their memory. Over three months they collected 600 jars.

As I sat in the session the wheels were turning. Was there a way I could make my exhibition interactive?

By the next session I had decided to include a memory jar with the exhibition and invite attendees to contribute a memory about their loved one, a memory perhaps no longer retained by their family member. The memory would represent the fact that they were now the keeper of the memory. With their loved one they could remember it together just as I did with my mother.

By a later session I was contemplating how to turn the memory jar into an art piece on its own and still later how I could work with the contents of the jar to create yet another art piece. This is a bit of a test, more limited in scope because of the short duration of the conference. A lengthier exhibition could invite more extensive participation similar to that of the Santa Cruz museum, but focused on the theme of memory loss. I returned a few days ago and the first thing I did was purchase a jar and paint it.

One other concept that was discussed at the conference was the Pop Up Museum. The Pop Up Museum is a temporary exhibit that is created by the people who show up to participate. They may bring objects such as the memory jars, but the concept is often very time limited and in unorthodox settings. I was chatting with a new museum friend about the fact that I wasn't employed by a museum when she looked at me and observed,"You're a pop-up museum".

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.