Thursday, January 16, 2020

The Ghost Forest

I had written in an earlier blog about the meandering process by which paintings are created. I often retrace my steps because the process intrigues me as much as the results. It is a process of discovery, of creating something new as I deepen my own understanding.

I am in an Artists' Lab which is exploring the topic of global warming and the environment. Now I have to confess that my knowledge in this area doesn’t go very deep so I am in sponge mode, soaking up information and ideas that I can translate visually.

I was intrigued with trees and specifically tree stumps. Some of that came from my reading on deforestation, but I was particularly drawn to the fact that trees are storytellers. Their rings tell us the history of the times in which they lived. Story is my medium, as much as painting, so it was a natural attraction. 

I began painting those tree stumps and especially their rings. Trees soak up a lot of water so if you cut them down you increase the risk of flooding.  I began painting tree stumps and then let the flooding begin. Soon my stumps looked like they were dancing in the water. 

The yellow sky was a gift from a prior painting that lay underneath.  Most of my paintings arise from past efforts that left their residue. I like the idea that nothing is wasted. It gave the painting an ancient feeling. I know I've seen that sky in paintings before.

I had been working with the concept of Absence and Presence so I began to think about how I could represent the presence of loss. How do you represent absence?  I thought about separation and began painting trees with a missing slice, leaving a tree stump beneath the phantom tree, literally with phantom limbs floating above. While I liked the image, it didn't leap out at me so I decided to try a different approach, the ghost forest, painting the trees white. I liked the pop of the bluish white against a dark background. It also emphasized the intertwining of the tree branches, creating the sense of a missing community levitating like a Magritte. 

I named the painting Ghost Forest. It seemed like a phrase that might exist so I googled it. In fact there is such a thing as a ghost forest. It occurs on the coasts when  water levels rise. The salt kills the trees and they turn white and die. They often stand in the water, not as cut tree stumps, but as stubs of dead trees. They are a bit like ghost towns, marking the place where living things once existed.

I had written of the small collages I was experimenting with and decided to do one representing a ghost tree. I liked the semi-submerged feeling of the stub tree in water. It reminded me of my dancing tree stumps. Next I hope to turn my ghost tree into a ghost forest working on a bigger canvas.

For more information on ghost forests: 

Tuesday, January 7, 2020

A Decade of Good Books

Every year since 2010, I have written a blog about my favorite books I read that year. It dawns on me that I now have a decade of my favorite reading. It is not a simple process to decide which are favorites. I keep a list throughout the year and rate them. At the end of the year, I review the list for those that made me think. Some are just fun reads, others are thought-provoking and make me work to digest them. I am drawn to the surprises, those that snuck up on me. I especially love when I discover an author that is new to me and read several of their books.

Memoirs and Biographies
One author that I was introduced to this year was Dani Shapiro. A friend had told me about Dani’s book Inheritance (2019) and I was intrigued when she told me that Dani had written a number of memoirs. “How many memoirs does one person need?” I thought. We only get one life!  Well it turns out that Ms. Shapiro has had a very full life, perhaps several in the space of one. Inheritance is about her discovery through a DNA test, that she was born through artificial insemination. The father who she was so close to was not her biological father. This was complicated further by the fact that she came from a Jewish family with an illustrious history that she had taken great pride in. Was it not her family? Her parents had both passed away by the time of this discovery. She begins to explore attitudes at the time towards artificial insemination as she tries to uncover the story beneath this event. It is a story that raises deep questions about identity and our place in the world.

After reading this book, I also read her books Hourglass:Time, Memory and Marriage (2017) and Still Writing (2013) and had the opportunity to attend a workshop by her. Hourglass is about her marriage, a topic I find hard to conceive one writing about while in it, but she somehow succeeds. Still Writing as one might guess is about writing. Much of it felt relevant to me in terms of both artwork and writing. Her emphasis on taking that first step and letting the incremental process unfold echoed my experience with creative work. She, of course, spoke of it far more eloquently. 

The Wright Brothers (2015) by David McCullough was another delightful surprise. Now I knew that anything by McCullough would be excellent, but this was a quiet book about quiet genius. The Wright Brothers were not flashy, but the study of how they discovered flight was amazing. The intent focus that it required, their study of birds and the sheer perseverance and partnership that they brought to the task made me wonder how such unusual people are formed. They seemed like the bachelor farmers you hear about, content with each other’s company, but in their case with a creative drive that changed the world.

To my surprise, I soon found another person who was similar in many respects, albeit a bit flashier, when I picked up the book Leonardo (2017) by Walter Issacson. I found myself imagining a conversation between Leonardo da Vinci and the Wright Brothers. It would have been riveting as they both brought intense observation to their interest in flight and their study of birds. The sheer diversity of interests of Leonardo was so unusual, but what I especially liked about this book was it painted Leonardo not as a remote genius, but as very human, someone who had a habit of procrastination, hanging onto unfinished paintings for years. I made the mistake of trying to listen to this book originally. There are wonderful images in it and it has to be experienced visually.

Creative Inspiration
I’ve written about The Overstory (2018) by Richard Powers in an earlier blog, but it is a hard book to describe. Suffice it to say that it is about trees and has inspired me in my artwork on the environment. It is composed of multiple stories that converge and addresses the theme of deforestation through a human lens.  It was mystical and sometimes confusing.  It is a book that you just have to let wash over you and you are left with the essence, the metaphorical sap. Apparently,  others thought so too as it won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction.

Character Studies
I had read the original Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout in 2008 when it also won the Pulitzer Prize.  I had enjoyed it at the time but had been lukewarm on other books by Strout in the interim, too quiet for my taste.  When I picked up Olive, Again (2019), her continuation of Olive’s life as a woman in her later years, I was captivated. Perhaps I needed to get older myself to truly appreciate it. Olive is a strong personality and this book captures that, but it also captures her vulnerability as she incurs the losses of old age.  It is a character study that succeeds beautifully. I felt as if I knew Olive and perhaps recognized parts of myself in her. And it wasn’t just Olive, but the characters that surrounded her, particularly her second husband who was a late life surprise for her as she was for him.

Feast Your Eyes (2019) by Myla Goldberg is an unusual book, written in the form of a photography catalog for a retrospective of a female photographer who had passed away. It is told in multiple voices, but especially that of her daughter who had once been the subject of her lens to some notoriety. The use of multiple lens was especially effective in creating the person out of the fragments that remain. It is indeed a retrospective on both person and photographs, described, but never seen. The subject is a struggling single mother, a driven photographer, with a close, but sometimes challenging relationship with her daughter. I especially found it interesting for a daughter to view her mother retrospectively, piecing together her story as she came to her own understanding of her.

Essays from a Cross-Cultural Lens
And I have one last recommendation, a book of essays called Objects of Affection (2018) by Ewa Hryniewicz-Yarbrough. The author is Polish by birth but lives in the United States and writes through outside eyes, both of the United States, but also of Poland as she no longer fits so neatly into that culture. She is a translator by profession as well as a writer and her thoughts on translation were especially interesting to me. It is much more than language that is translated as language resides within a culture and contains it. I love the form of essay and found the structure and content compelling. As my genealogy research has taken me frequently to Poland, I was particularly interested in that cross-cultural relationship.

It occurs to me that my appreciation of certain themes has changed as I go through changes within my own life. Certainly getting older, travel, artistic explorations and interest in identity and purpose, feed my choices. They open me to literature that might not have been as relevant to my earlier experience. With that in mind, I'll be curious what I am reading ten years from now.

Other books worth reading:
The Masterpiece by Fiona Davis- historical fiction based on an art school that was once housed in Grand Central Station
Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens -story of a young woman who grew up in a swamp, an outcast, and constructed a meaningful and purposeful life.
That Churchill Woman by Stephanie Barron- the story of Jenny Jerome Churchill, mother of Winston Churchill
Before We Were Yours by Lisa Wingate- historical fiction based on  an orphanage that stole children and placed them with wealthy families
The Library Book by Susan Orlean- tells the story of the 1986 fire that destroyed millions of books in the LA library. An ode to her mother who introduced her to the library.

*initial photo by poojasingh123456 at

Tuesday, December 31, 2019

Embracing the Risk of Loss

I’ve learned over time that creativity requires space and time to emerge. That runs pretty counter to my tendency to fill my life full of activity. Last year I went against the grain. I consciously cut back on nonstop reading and on regular blog writing. What I really wanted to do was focus on my artwork and some broader writing objectives and those are things that fall to the bottom if my life is too full. 

We do what comes most easily to us. For me that is my analytic side which is fed by the genealogy research I do for others.  I’ve also learned that it can crowd out those quiet creative pursuits if I don’t make sufficient space. I certainly don’t want to abandon those analytic pursuits, but I am always working to balance the analytic and the creative. Both are strong threads within me and I try to honor them with my attention and energy.

Many creative people speak of establishing a practice, a time and place where one writes or paints. It is something I’ve done in fits and starts, but not, I must admit, with the real discipline required. “Next year,” I think. “I’ll do better with that practice.”   

This year I did some painting, but not with the focus I sought until later in the year. I worked with a project where I partnered with an Israeli artist and began to experiment with collage as a means to incorporate her work into my own. I liked the results and decided to do some small collages (12”x12”) as experiments. I sold one of them recently and even as I hated to part with it, I was delighted at the connection the buyer felt to the piece that also spoke to me. 

Now I am working on a project within the Artists Lab that is focused on the environment, global warming and climate change. I am finding some themes I was exploring about people – Absence and Presence, might also bear a connection to climate as our world changes around us. I am often taking a step back to see the still larger and all-embracing theme. It is in part about loss, a theme built into life itself. But it is not just human life, the bigger theme of loss embraces everything in our world. Some loss is natural, part of a natural life cycle. Some is hastened by our actions and has broader consequences for the world in which we live. 

I began with the familiar, with paintings overlaying past paintings and have created several that please me. Then I decided to continue with my experimental collages, but with themes related to nature and its elements that are under threat. 

As I work with collage, I think of my mother. She became a collage artist late in life as she lost memory. She had been an avid reader and could no longer retain the thread of a story. Loss created a space that she sought to fill with new purpose and meaning. I consider whether loss well-used is really a gift. We just need to recognize it as such.

One day as I sat with her at the kitchen table watching her collage, I asked her how she got into this and why she did what she did. “Everybody does something,” she said. “This is what I do! And you could do this too, Susan,” she added.

I chuckled at the time, but now I find myself wondering if she knew something I didn’t as I experiment with collages, forming semi-abstract imagery that speaks to something within me. It begins with photos, whatever captures my eye. I walk each week with friends and am often taking photos of trees, clouds and reflections. I have a file of photos titled Trees, another Clouds, and often draw on them as I begin a collage. I must confess that when I embark on a collage, it makes me a bit nervous, definitely a sign that it is forcing me out of my comfort zone. Once I glue it down it is harder to remove or cover than paint. I remind myself that worst case it is only a small loss of canvas and an unsuccessful effort could result in a new and interesting base as I sand and scrape it away. Creation and loss are two sides of the same coin. Sometimes you have to let something go, to re-create. There is a subconscious process involved with working with form, image and color. I am finding that it can result in great satisfaction when it succeeds.

So as the year concludes, I look forward to building on what I've begun, exploring a process that makes me nervous because I can't control it, unless I learn to embrace and build on the risk of loss. 

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, others 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)