Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Welcoming the Community

We recently concluded Art-a-Whirl, the largest open studio event in the country. During eighteen hours over three days, thousands traipsed through studios in NE Minneapolis. Occasionally I weigh the convenience of a home studio with our space in an artist building, fifteen miles from our home. There are winter days when getting in the car to go there seems daunting. Art-a Whirl then rolls around and reminds me of the value of opening our doors to a slice of community we might otherwise not encounter.

I've always said it is a great way to throw a party without the housecleaning flurry that accompanies guests in one's home. We need only complete enough paintings to cover our walls, frame, hang and label them, print cards for sale, send an invite to 300 people, stock up on wine and food and open our doors. Easy!

Many friends do come through and we love their visits. I fill up my calendar with dinner dates for the following weeks. I am a bit chagrined at how poorly I would sustain my network of friends without periodic open studios. I am also reminded of how diverse my network of friends is, drawn from so many different parts of my life and my history.

Every year I have returning guests, people I don't know, but who remember my work from a prior year and are genuinely excited to encounter it again. "l want you to tell my friend the story you told me last year about this painting." one woman says. My work encompasses both story and artwork, each reinforcing the other. I am pleased when it is memorable. So often I wonder if I am spinning my wheels. I work in solitude so much of the time that the response of others is truly heartening, reminding me why I do what I do.

This year I had more work on memory. It falls in three sections: 1) my mother's experience with memory loss and the creativity that she still was capable of exhibiting 2) the experience through a daughter and caregiver's eyes and 3) memories others shared with a loved one who lost memory. The last category is fed by others' contributions to a memory jar.

At last year's Art-a-Whirl I was moved by the many people who shared their story related to memory loss with me. I decided to try to capture that all too universal experience with a memory jar. I invited others to share a memory they had shared with a loved one who lost memory, one for which they are now the keeper of the memory. It got off to a slow start. Last year I had to cajole entries, explaining the concept over and over. This year I had paintings based on others' stories hanging on the wall. Every time I looked up someone was standing deep in thought by the memory jar, pen in hand. I was touched by the love they expressed, the memories of loved ones they honored. I had people thank me for including that, giving them an opportunity to engage and to honor. I think I'm onto something. Ideas start by reflecting on my own experience, but I am never sure if what speaks to me has a broader reach. Now I feel quite certain that it does.


Saturday, May 21, 2016

Becoming Authentic

I've been in a bookclub since the 1980s. We've watched each other grow through all the stages of life. We've also watched each other go deeper, leaving work identities behind as we created lives that expressed authenticity. I hasten to add that this is a pretty authentic bunch at any stage in their life, but there is something about aging that frees us to become more ourselves. Most importantly it is a group that is intellectually curious and seeks to understand the world around us.

So much of my life is about output: painting, writing and speaking. Reading is one of my inputs. It allows me to take in new ideas that feed me or revisit my understanding based on new information. Lately authenticity seems to be a recurring theme.

My bookclub is reading a book called Becoming Nicole by Amy Ellis Nutt. This is a time of states passing laws targeting transgender people and their use of the restroom of their choice. With that in mind we decided that perhaps we should learn more about the broader topic. With a rather laissez faire perspective, I knew where I was politically. It was none of my business and certainly nothing that states should be mucking around in. It seemed like a silly issue for them to even address. As I began the book, I didn't expect my understanding to deepen dramatically. I know of people who are transgender, not well enough to question them about their experience, but enough to be sympathetic to the difficulties of choosing that path. It is not one that people choose lightly.

The book follows the true story of a young boy who identified as female from a very young age. S/he was a twin and her brother saw her as his sister from very early on. I was intrigued by the fact that her playmates also shared that perception. The person who struggled the most with it was her father who ultimately became a strong advocate. Her mother just wanted her child to be happy and saw early on that it would be as a female. Ultimately Nicole received hormones and later the required surgery to become physically female with the full support of her family. In the midst of these developments, the question of which restroom should be used was raised and a lawsuit filed and won. Many in the school system were sympathetic and supportive, but were trying to navigate a difficult course of divided opinion. (There is an excellent NPR interview with the family if you'd like to learn more)

So why was I so intrigued by this book? The book was first of all a memoir that drew me into the human experience. I cared what happened to these people who were traveling a road filled with challenges, yet were both thoughtful and loving. This child had the support of her family, something many transgender people do not. I also liked that it examined the brain science behind the transgender experience confirming that gender identity rests in the brain, not anatomy. I liked that two pronged approach, looking at it both internally and externally. It occurred to me that it was really a struggle for authenticity, an effort to align the elements both internally and externally into what is true and accurate.

At the same time I was re-reading the Chosen by Chaim Potek. I had read this many years ago, but as my understanding of Judaism had deepened, my appreciation of the book deepened as well. The book looks at the friendship between two Jewish boys in New York in the 1940s. Both have learned fathers who influence them greatly. One of the fathers is a Hassid, a Tzaddik, a leadership role for Hassidic Jews that is passed down through generations. This weighs heavily on his son who wishes to pursue another path yet feels constrained by centuries of expectations. He too was seeking authenticity, a life that aligned with his intellectual understanding.

One would not typically link these two stories, and yet that search for personal authenticity permeates both. It occurs to me that life is an effort to attain authenticity in whatever form it may take. We start with biological and familial constraints and acquire cultural constraints as we move beyond our families into the broader world. Then we spend much of our life shedding unnecessary constraints to find authenticity. Some people are perhaps much closer to their authentic selves early on, but for many of us it is something we move towards as we age. There is something quite miraculous about finding our place in the world, feeling that we are aligned with what we are to do and how we represent ourselves in the world. It is a universal story and we all share the search, yet because it is about authenticity each of our outcomes is uniquely our own.



Sunday, May 8, 2016

The Last Mother's Day Card

This is my first Mother’s Day without a mother. It snuck up on me. Well that’s not strictly true, I’ve been ignoring it. I wince at Mother’s Day ads, move quickly past the aisles of cards. It is no longer relevant to me.


I bought my last Mother’s Day card last year. It ended up in the collage book my mother was working on before her death. When I went through the house after she died, I found decades of old Mother's Day cards celebrating our relationship. I always looked for cards that spoke of our genuine friendship in addition to that lucky accident of birth. As my mother’s memory faded, her artistic sense remained. Then I began to choose cards that I knew would appeal to her visually, taking it as a compliment if it ended up collaged into one of her artistic creations.


This year I am a motherless child. How forlorn does that sound? And yet that exaggerates. My mother is always with me. Over the last few years, I would think about how I could store up the affirmation that I received from her regularly, suddenly realizing that she would not always be there, my best cheerleader no longer leading the cheers. Does a tree fall in the forest if no one hears it? Do I do something of worth if my mother isn’t there to do her mom thing? If our mothers do their job well, we do carry them within us. Their presence is so strong, after years of support, that we just know what they would say and we say it for them.


Oddly enough, for someone with no shortage of words, I don’t have a lot to write about this topic. I think it is because this was a relationship fully lived, love fully given, no loose ends or unfinished business. Sometimes we have the opportunity to do things right and when we do there is a sense of fulfillment, completion. It is both rare and precious. Most relationships have more complexity, more strife, more left unsaid lest we rock the boat.


And so on this Mother’s Day, I have only gratitude, both for all I was given and for the opportunity to give back. May you all be as fortunate.


Monday, April 25, 2016

Through Her Eyes

What has changed for you since last Seder and how will that affect you this year?  This was the question that was posed to us at a recent Seder. I remembered last year when we were asked to bring a figurative guest to a Seder and I brought my mother. Mothers were a frequent Seder companion; ghostlike, they populated the table, many no longer alive but figuratively present. Several choked on tears as they wished they could truly have them by their side. I remember being grateful that I still had my mother. Later I told her that she had accompanied me. "I did?" she asked, perhaps wondering if this was yet another thing she could no longer remember.

This year I spoke of her death, of how I was still learning to live in a world without her. I think of her often, but not in a painful way. I had no unfinished business, no angry words, no hurt feelings. My thoughts of her are loving ones and often occur at unexpected times.

I think of her when I count out 25 blueberries for my yogurt in the morning. I used to count out 20 until one day we compared notes and learned that we each had this counting ritual. I upped my count to match her less parsimonious number, reaching for more sweetness in life.

I look out the window between the glass plates I took from her kitchen. Through them to the budding tree that they frame. My mother was a nature lover. She would have appreciated that tree throughout its changes, from buds, to green leaves, to orange tinged with red to the delicate lines of branches touched with snow. I look out at Spring, a season during which she was still with me. I see it through her eyes.

I incorporate her into my life, into my vision, into my rituals. It is as if she had bequeathed me her eyes, the simple joys she embraced in living. It is a strange process, adopting another's eyes. Seeing the world in a slightly different way. Feeling their presence as you do so.

Friday, April 22, 2016

Be Grateful

I am participating in a writing group and as part of our weekly session we work with writing prompts. This past session we read a piece on advice to the author's 22 year old self and we were then asked to write our advice to who we were at that age.

It is an interesting exercise. Many advised their youthful self to appreciate the package of youth that they took for granted. Others cautioned about upcoming bad relationships. I thought what I wrote was interesting in what I left out as much as what I put in and I began to consider what I omitted and why. For some reason I didn't pick up on the appearance aspect although I have often been surprised as I look at photos of that pretty girl I barely recognize. And it is not that I didn't have my share of bad relationships in which I stayed too long. I am a bit older than many in the group and I think that might color my perspective. I've had more time to come to terms with my history and the changes we go through as we age.

I am someone who needs to find things out for herself and I think I needed those relationships to learn lessons I needed to know. To wish them away might leave a lesson unfinished, me unfinished. I also have found getting older freeing. There is a certain sass that one has when you are young and look good and know it. You have a sense of power, but you find that it doesn't stand up well under pressure. The problem is you still care too much about what other people think, especially men. Your power is predicated on their approval of something over which you have little control. There is so much more power in no longer caring what people think and that comes with age.

A little background...When I was 22 I was newly married in what proved to be a starter marriage. I had kept my own name at a time when people didn't and I chaffed at the idea of restrictions on my independence. Balancing independence with marriage was a tough balancing act. I was in my first real job and reveling in it, discovering talents I didn't know I possessed. And yes, I was a little full of myself.

So this is what I wrote.

I think back to you, that twenty-two year old, newly married, struggling to preserve your independence, delighting in the discovery of your own power and creativity. What I would tell you has much to do with preserving who you are today. Surprisingly, it is easy to forget when the world begins to impinge. Right now you have nothing to lose so you can take risks. You don't know the things you can't do so you do them anyway. Those are enormous gifts. Soon you will worry about looking foolish, about whether you know enough. You will become fearful and constrained.

Don't let those fears gain a foothold. Take risks, don't impose limits, trust your gut. Don't let anyone else control you and your choices. Believe that all is possible if you put one foot in front of the other. An amazing amount will be. Remember that work should be entertaining. When you look in the mirror in the morning and wonder if you will always delight in your work as you do in this moment, know that it is possible. Maybe not with the pure joy that comes with newness, but with the deep pleasure of using your talents and making a difference in your piece of the world. Take that piece of the world and make it shine.

There are some things you don't yet know. The world is not black and white. Your father will tell you one day when you fail that "It was about time you landed on your ass, you were entirely too smug". He will be right.You will succeed and you will fail and out of loss will come insight and understanding and compassion. The world will become much more gray. You will become kinder and less judgmental.

Get out of your own way. Don't be afraid of failing, don't be afraid of the world. Just move forward and say yes to the unknown. It will open up opportunities you could never imagine. Don't tell yourself you are too busy as an excuse for not welcoming something new. Use your time wisely, but leave space for surprises. Don't plan so much order into your life that you don't leave a doorway for the unknown.

Love your mother and let her know it. She won't always be there. You are very fortunate to have such a wise woman as a guide in life. Pay attention. Live your life so that you have no regrets. You will find a capacity for love in giving to another, something you don't yet know. It will bring a richness into your life.

Use your creative talents and imagination throughout your life, read, write, paint. Those talents will be your old friends when others are wondering what to do in the next phase of life. Be grateful. You have so much: talents, choices, time. Be grateful.


Tuesday, April 12, 2016

A Bird's Eye View

I love travel, that opportunity to see the world through fresh eyes. I savor the sheer pleasure of resting weary feet at the end of a day of exploration, a day of trudging through museums and city streets, studying shop windows and the attire of the locals. Ahh, but home, an equally satisfying journey. We sit aboard our plane taxiing on the runway back to the comforting routines of our life. There is comfort in the ordinary, in expanding beyond packed bags to the untidy clutter of everyday living. Periodically over the past few weeks my phone would flash reminders of yoga classes, reminding me of that life that felt so distant, soon to be embraced once again.

We have been traveling the past several weeks in Israel with a chaser of Paris. Our travels to Israel with the Jewish Artists' Lab afforded us the opportunity to meet a number of Israeli artists and to travel with fellow artists and arts aficionados. I am normally a bit leery of traveling in packs. I like to be in control of my time so usually shoulder the planning and lugging of bags in exchange for that control. This time I let go of control, trusting that the Israel portion of the trip would offer experiences beyond my capabilities to create. I was not disappointed. It had the added benefit of an extremely compatible group of fellow travelers, really good companions. Our travels were booked before the spate of terrorist attacks in Paris and Israel and we noticed tightened security along the way, soldiers with guns, screening equipment at every museum. Still everyone continues with their life. It is hard to be too much on guard and live normally.

Now at home I sift through our experiences putting them in some sort of order. I had let them wash over me so am left with fleeting images and impressions. When we concluded our trip in Israel we were asked about our experience. Then it was too soon for my response to take shape. I need to let things simmer, then go to my mental mountain top and get a bird's eye view, finding the common themes that echo and weave throughout.

Some impressions...Israel was filled with Purim revelers. For the week before Purim we passed groups of young people, faces painted, cat whiskers and superheroes, a young man with angel wings and a halo in the market. We went to a service on Purim. The rabbi stood at the pulpit with a large sombrero on his head as a family of ladybugs sat nearby. We too came in costume. My husband improvised with mask and shower cap creating a superhero vibe while I went feathered mask and jewelry bedecked.

And cats everywhere, real cats, not revelers in dress. Tel Aviv once had a rat infestation so in the 1930s the Brits brought in cats. Cats soon proliferated. Residents put cat food on the streets and clusters of cats dumpster dive. We look for ones like our ginger cat who craves attention as much as food, not the temperament for a wild cat. He would certainly never survive to his 20s on the street.

Tel Aviv is also known for its over 4000 buildings built in the Bauhaus style or the International style. We explored a segment of these buildings on a walking tour of Tel Aviv. Ironically this defining architecture migrated to Israel along with the Jewish architects fleeing the Nazis, the spread of ideas on the wings of persecution.

We felt as if there were many Tel Avivs as we experienced three different areas of the city. Our favorite was by the port the night before we departed. We strolled Dizengoff Street where store windows could easily pass as galleries, filled with sculpture and sculptural clothing. A charming restaurant at which we ate could easily have been in our next destination, Paris.

Another stay in Rehovet, just outside Tel Aviv, allowed us an opportunity to visit the Weizmann Institute of Science, an unexpected treasure. With clever use of interactive technology they allowed the nonscientist to appreciate often unexpected interconnections. I thought about our Artists' Lab theme of wisdom and the way in which one discipline often informs another, how wisdom of necessity must embrace interconnectedness. I was also struck with the familiarity of video statements from scientists about what drew them to their profession, how it satisfied their appetite for discovery. It was so similar to what an artist might say, a curiosity and exploratory nature is common to both.

We had many artist visits, Lisa Gross' whimsical work created out of found objects, Sabena Saad, who integrates the papers in which oranges are wrapped into her artwork. For both everything was grist for the mill, a repurposing from one source to another. A theme begins to emerge not too unlike what we observed at the Weitzmann. We are surrounded by creative sparks if we learn to view them as such. It is in how we view our surroundings, how we see the world around us. Those found objects are all around us waiting to be discovered and connected in different ways.

We had an opportunity to discover some found objects of our own as we participated in the Temple Mount sifting project, a project that allows visitors to sift through dirt removed from the Temple Mount. Pottery shards and even an ancient coin were among our discoveries. We were even allowed to take some of the rejected discoveries which were to reappear later in our trip.

In the course of our visit we went to Zippori, a Jewish city that did not revolt against the Romans, but rather incorporated elements of its art and culture into their own. There we observed mosaic floors that incorporated mythic elements. Even the synagogue floor included birds, animals, people and the zodiac.   Jewish culture has often incorporated elements of other cultures. Even Yiddish borrows from many languages. Similarly the art.

When we visited the extensive Judaica collection of Bill and Lisa Gross, Bill had pointed out the Hanukkah lamp from Vienna in the shape of a Biedermeier sofa. A Dutch lamp echoed the Dutch buildings. Another lamp was made from a Hessian Grenadiers hat, a found object repurposed.
At the studio of David Moss and Matt Berkowitz we learned to create a symbolic language to tell a story, borrowing Moss' approach to his retelling the Binding of Isaac.

And so we borrow, incorporate ideas from others and integrate disparate concepts finding the synergies and points of connect.  We find objects and ideas wherever we go and draw on them for inspiration, repurposing them to find new meaning.  And we carry ideas into new realms like those Bauhaus architects. 

At the conclusion of our trip we had the opportunity to create mosaics, often from the very found objects we had gathered along the way. Pottery shards from the Temple Mount were integrated into our mosaic of our experience in Israel, a fitting metaphor for our travels into a world of interconnection, exploration and discovery.

Monday, April 4, 2016

A Family Picture

Recently I made my way to Haifa to visit my cousin. Now this is no ordinary cousin. In genealogy speak she is a second cousin once removed. That means her father and I are second cousins and share a common great grandfather. She is one generation removed from the second cousin relationship. Have I lost you yet? This is usually where people's eyes glaze when we delve into genealogy speak,but stay with me as the story is a good one.

My cousin Zehava and I didn't grow up together. There were no family reunions and I never knew of her on our visits to family in Brooklyn. I tracked her down the hard way, my researcher nose hot on the trail. Many of the genealogists I know tend to fall into one of two categories; they like the research side of things or they like the connection with living cousins. I actually tend to fall in the first category. I always feel a bit shy once I track down a living relative, a bit like the dog who caught the car and doesn't know quite what to do with it. When I found and met a third cousin in Paris all my high school French fled in a panic. It is an odd interaction. You have no shared history, only a family tree in common. The more gregarious tend to fare better in these interactions, but sometimes my sheer enthusiasm carries me across that gulf of the unknown and unfamiliar.

I met Zehava through Yad Vashem. More precisely, I met her through her father's testimony on his grandfather, David Weinberg, a victim of the Holocaust. David was my grandfather's brother, a brother 18 years his senior. So let's follow the trail. I had interviewed a survivor in New York. I had always known her as part of the couple who rented my aunt's condo in Florida. When I had first interviewed my aunt she advised me-"Talk to Phyllis, she can tell you more about family". I soon learned that Phyllis came from the same town as my grandfather, Radom, Poland. She had an aunt Chana Rosenberg who married David Weinberg. Our families worked together in the milling business. While not related directly we had connections by two marriages. David and Chana were one. In addition the one survivor that we knew of in our family was the son of my father's aunt and Phyllis' uncle. He was a cousin to both my father and Phyllis.

My aunt was right. Phyllis knew quite a bit about family and with the information on these marriages I turned to Yad Vashem's records. Virtually all of my Radom relatives were murdered in Treblinka. Yad Vashem is a museum in Jerusalem that tells the story of the Holocaust. It is also an archive and is trying to document the lives of those who were murdered in the Holocaust. To that end they accept testimony that documents those lives. As I perused their records I found one that made my pulse quicken. There was my grandfather's brother, all the details Phyllis had provided checked out. I looked to the bottom of the page. There it noted that his grandson had provided the testimony and fairly recently. When I did the math I remembered that 18 year age difference and realized that grandson would be closer to my father's age than mine. And yet another wrinkle. The address on the testimony was in Hebrew. "How did a letter travel through the US Postal Service with a Hebrew address?" I wondered. It was then that I contacted the Israeli Jewish Genealogical Society. My questions were "Is he alive and if so how do I contact him?" A day later I had confirmation that he was alive and an address in English. I wrote a letter.

A month went by and a thin letter arrived from Israel. It was from Zehava and was polite, but brief. She thanked me for my letter, but noted that her father remembered little. I chuckled at her recall of this first contact over our recent dinner in Haifa. I had wanted more. And so that enthusiasm I mentioned carried me forward. I googled Zehava and tracked down an email. Now this is the delicate stage of these interactions. You want information, but you don't want to be a pest. We began a correspondence.

When she advised me that she had a conference in Montreal, I replied, "I'll meet you there." I booked a flight and a hotel for a Montreal weekend. It occurs to me that most people don't do such things, but genealogists go where the search leads them and Montreal is a nice place to spend a weekend. We met and I was intrigued by this striking woman just a few years older than me, an academic. I also met her cousin who came from Israel and was the head of the Radom Society in Montreal. All interesting, intelligent people. I once had a friend comment, "I don't like the relatives I have now. Why would I want more?" In fact those that I've tracked down have been lovely people.

We had a second meeting in Chicago where she spends part of the summer and a third in New York. That gathering was quite unusual. Zehava came with her adult son and daughter. By now I had become friends with Phyllis' son and daughter and they joined us as well as Phyllis' granddaughter. There we had both sides of the family of Zehava's great grandparents. I was on the groom's side. My friends, Phyllis' children, represented the long-gone bride. Together we represented a new formation of family, once sundered.

And now Haifa. We told her of our travels in Israel. She shared pictures of grandchildren and her son's new wife. As we left we took a photo. A family photo.