Friday, April 11, 2014

Exploring One Possibility

Back to the studio for round two. This is more difficult. The first day of painting is hard in a different way. I have to tackle virgin canvas, make that first mark. With acrylic or oil however, I have some forgiveness. I can always paint over it. My expectations are lower. All I need to do is cover the canvas, block in forms and color where I expect them to go. Day 2 is when the real work begins.

Day 1
Preparatory small painting
I had begun by roughing out a small painting of the forest so some of this had already been attempted. Now I had a bigger canvas and had to incorporate additional imagery.  I was losing the peacefulness of the forest image and part of me mourned that loss, the loss of possibility, closing one door to open another. I held my hand before my right eye, covering the side with the chimney and imagined all forest, all peaceful, no disturbing column of death.

 But I accede to my friend Dvora's insistence that they should co-exist and forge ahead. Today I fine-tune and develop, gaining and losing. The gain of definition, sharper focus, the loss of other possibilities without destroying this possibility.

Where to start? I laid out a roadmap in my last post. Listen to yourself I remind the painter. First those clouds of smoke. I like to paint smoke, but more isn't always better. Then I shift to flames. How do I make them more flamelike? I add streaks of white and then glaze it with my favorite iron oxide to add some brightness. 

I build the structure of the trees, adding shadows, limbs within, a trunk, greenish segments between dustings of snow. I step back and observe the image as it begins to emerge.

Day 2
Back to the chimney with reddish brick tones and a darkened side to echo the dark side of the train cars. Are the train cars too short? Should I combine them? A quick search on Google finds cars of all lengths. I remember the one at Auschwitz was short. I decide to leave them, besides I like the shapes it creates when one car abuts another.

Figures. Dvora insisted on figures. I knock a door into one of my train cars and sketch a row of figures entering the car, first in black, then white modeled over it. Dvora told me they wore dresses so I sketch in the form of women in dresses. On the other side of the train I do a more random gathering of people. Hard to make them look up in a little sketch, but I make their heads a horizontal oval in the form of one looking up.

Remember I wrote of using the letter aleph (א) to represent the sparks in the fire and the stars above. I took a pointed tool and dipped it in white paint and began to inscribe alephs in the sky, representing hope and souls. I glazed over the sparks with transparent yellow until they are subtle forms. Finally the moon. I imagine a full moon peeking from the smoke. The same moon shines over both horrors and beauty, but I draw its moonbeams down into the forest. Beams of hope, a blessing.

Then back to shadows. I add a shadow for the chimney, brighten the snow in some areas, darken it with shadow in others. So what next? Is there a to do list?

 In my omnipotent role in this universe I've created, I can move stars around. Having plunked the moon in the midst of my already created universe, I think I need to give it some room to breathe. Perhaps I will have my stars echo the pattern of the people below, a subtle repetition of pattern. Beyond that I need to live with it for awhile. At this stage changes emerge more gradually. When I return to my studio I will view it through fresh eyes and adjust as necessary. One of my favorite things to do in analyzing a painting is to segment it on my iPad and examine it in sections. Can each segment stand alone and create an engaging image. Here are a few of the segments. So far it holds promise.

Entering Boxcar
In the Forest

Fire and Moon
Moon and Trees

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Under Construction

I haven't written lately, but not for lack of activity. Yet many of my efforts feel as if they are in process, not ready to share until I arrive at a more finished state that I can unveil with a flourish....Ta da! I remind myself that much of our life we are under construction, preparing for that final Ta Da. Why do we focus so much on a finished state when so much of our life is really about process?

I have many efforts half formed. Speeches to prepare, grants to write, shows to enter, projects to propose and paintings to paint. Often the initial step has been taken as I await response. The Artists' Lab show is fast approaching and I am struggling with what artwork I will exhibit. Of course first I have to create it. The theme is light and it is almost too broad. I circle around it, trying to decide where I should alight.

I started by doing some brainstorming with my friend and sometimes muse, Dvora. In the lab exhibit last year I had told one of her stories from the Holocaust coupled with poetry. That had gotten me working on a series based on her stories which I hope to use in Holocaust education. Now she recounted her experiences with light during that time. She noted that sometimes light was frightening for it meant exposure. Darkness by contrast provided a sense of safety, a place to hide.When I asked her about images of light and darkness that stayed with her, she recalled that the crematorium at Auschwitz spewed fire at night and they saw flames ascend through a small window at the top of the barracks.

She also told me of a contrasting moment of beauty amidst darkness. When she arrived at Bergen Belsen they were released from the box cars. . Before them was a pine forest, a blue black sky studded with stars and a dusting of snow on the trees. It was the first time for many months that they were in the outdoors and the sheer beauty of it reminded her of a world with hope.To help me find my way into the imagery I began to write poetry. Sometimes I paint first and then write poetry to distill the painting. In this case, I wrote poetry first and then moved into painting.

I did a small painting of Dvora's image of the forest, but decided I needed it to be tall to create the sense of majesty that I imagined. I was considering a painting of the forest, but she felt it was important to juxtapose the flames of the crematorium with the beauty of the forest. I was having a hard time imagining how I could meld the imagery together, but decided to begin painting and see where it would take me. But first I had to decide what size canvas would suit this image. I settled on two feet by four feet, high enough to allow for box cars, trees, chimney and sky, small enough to fit within the three feet of wall we have been allotted.

I've written a series of poems that address light and darkness from two perspectives, the Holocaust and sight. Dvora is now legally blind and I have been intrigued by how one preserves one's inner light in the face of darkness, a concept applicable to both perspectives. It also creates an interesting process as she describes an image to me from her inner eye which I then try to create and describe back to her. It reminds me of an experience I had painting my grandmother and sending my iterations to my mother. She had told me that my painting didn't reflect the work worn nature of her mother's hands. I worked on the painting and sent an image to her multiple times until her mother stepped out of the image to her. It is a filtering through the memory of another person expressed to yet someone else.

Here's the segment of poetry that speaks to the Holocaust imagery Dvora described.

On the Eve of Your 21st Birthday

Light was often your enemy
Furnaces spewed fire
in the night
As souls escaped
in final release.
Darkness your friend
You flattened yourself
against the wall
of the darkened stairwell
Safe from the probing tongues of bayonets
And sometimes hope emerged
Hidden in the guise of darkness.
On the eve of your twenty-first birthday
You stepped from a boxcar,
A sky of midnight blue,
Stars shining against its darkness,
Evergreens dusted with snow
Bent to bestow their blessing

And here's my initial attempt after four hours of painting, basically trying to cover the canvas before I begin to fine-tune. I take a photo of my work before leaving the studio and study it, seeing elements I want to change when I return. For example in hindsight I got a bit carried away with the smoke and will work on that again. I still have some figures to add to the painting. Dvora imagined people entering and exiting the train. I am picturing them entering on one side in the far right corner, but exiting from the other side of the train, forming an S curve to draw your eye in. And they will be looking up, their attention focused on the sky. I also need to develop the sky and decide if I am going to include the moon and if so where, perhaps peeking through the smoke of the chimney.

In the Lab we talked about Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Horowitz (1760-1827) who considered the letter aleph which represents the name of God. He linked it to mankind in a surprising way, noting that it echoes the form of our face. If we break it down to its component parts we see two yuds and a vav, two eyes and a nose, figuratively holding God before us in our own face. I think of it as a metaphor for light and think I may try to form the stars out of alephs as well as the souls escaping through the chimney as sparks.

I don't often share my work in process, it feels a bit like being caught half dressed or running into someone you know at the grocery store when you're looking pretty scruffy. In the next few entries, I invite you to go through this process with me. Keep in mind, it has been known to end with me painting an image out and starting anew.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Research in the Midst of Change

With a number of genealogy talks on the calendar, I am dusting off past talks and updating for changes. Genealogy is not a static pursuit as access frequently improves, except of course when it worsens due to privacy constraints. New York recently restricted access to probate records which had helped me crack the code on a family mystery. A document on my grandmother's aunt, the person for whom I was named, listed her surviving children's married names and addresses. Since most were female, I had hit a dead-end until that breakthrough. Now that source will no longer be available unless one has a direct interest in the estate. I don't think my relationship to my great-grand aunt would qualify.

Despite such limitations, it does continue to get easier to obtain many records digitally. Most researchers start with, but offers a surprising number of digital records all for free. Coupled with that is the ability to contact the Family History Library and request copies of specific records that are listed, but not available digitally on line. I frequently do research for others and have often been able to obtain records in this manner where I would once have had to order the film, a more time consuming and costly method.

I recently was doing some work for a client who was trying to verify a great-great grandmother's name and the town they came from in Bohemia. I always begin my search with census records and build a database, then I use that information to calculate the year of birth, marriage and immigration. Often these vary in different census years, but it begins to define a range and some data points against which to cross-check potential records. Census records are also useful when they have in-laws living with them. A mother-in-law listing can reveal an unknown maiden name or conversely the married name of a daughter.

After building this database, I began to search on individuals. I don't just search on one name. I search on all of them as some may offer little information while other may be more generous. In this case the mother's name was only listed on one child's death record. I ordered it and several other vital records from the Family History Library and had digital copies within a few weeks.

Referencing the dates provided in the census, I limit the immigration period and begin to search immigration records, usually making use of the enhanced search functionality offered by In this case I had several records that were close, but one which matched on birth and immigration dates. It also listed the town of origin.

If you know how to leapfrog from one source to another you can often solve the puzzle fairly quickly.

And speaking of changes....Anyone involved with genealogy has had to consider the fact that borders are often quite fluid, far more so than we often think. Poland in particular, the early home to many Jews, had extremely flexible boundaries which was also reflected in the changing language of civil documents. Russia's current day grab of the Crimea echoes Germany's grab of the Sudetenland region of Czechoslovakia which was populated by ethnic Germans. Now of course Czechoslovakia is yet another change as it became the Czech Republic and Slovakia.

A link is floating around that covers 1000 years of European border changes and is quite fascinating. I was particularly shocked to see the amount of territory held by Germany during WWII. There is something about watching the map change that is particularly jarring.

Note: I've since learned that the time lapse map is from Centennia Historical Atlas software. The software tells you what historical events were occurring as borders changed.

And the word is that NY probate records are just restricted after 2009 although death certificates in earlier files may no longer be available.


Saturday, March 8, 2014

Passing the Test

A recent article in the Huffington Post examines the characteristics of creative people and offers some interesting insights. When I read such articles, I am always curious as to whether I possess the traits they identify. Am I really creative? Do I pass the test? It was somewhat reassuring that my experience seems consistent with their descriptors.

Daydreaming or mind wandering is one of the traits they note as involving the same brain processes as imagination and creativity. Apparently daydreaming is connected to our ability to recall information when distracted. That might explain why ideas often come to me while driving or doing yoga. That's when my mind relaxes and begins to free associate, making connections that don't always follow a linear path. Sitting down to try to come up with a creative idea is guaranteed failure. You have to sneak up on your quarry when it least expects it. In this case our quarry is our own subconscious.

I especially like the trait, "they work the hours that work for them". I actually do my best creative work very early in the morning, usually when I can't sleep. Now my studio is 20 minutes away and I've never tried driving there pajama-clad and half-asleep, but the ideas that fuel my painting often arise in that semi-somnolent state. My brain is in a different form, more fluid, not yet sharpened into the tighter analytic shape it assumes by day. Poetry and writing flow best early in the morning and I often write in bed for an hour before rising.

Conversely I work best late at night when the challenge is some complex spreadsheet puzzle or even word games. Often this is creative work as well, albeit of a different nature-numbers and patterns. I am beginning to understand why I found traditional work hours so frustrating. The times I work best fall outside of the normal workday!

Many of the traits they identified exist in a constellation. Creative people are curious, they observe everything, take risks and seek out new experiences. Those characteristics go together with intellectual curiosity as the bedrock. When you are curious you pay attention, looking for new inputs to feed your curiosity. If not enough is going on in your immediate environment you seek out new experience which is a form of risk-taking, interjecting something unfamiliar. For me travel, learning new skills and volunteering have often proved important in generating new experiences. I've referred to them as elements in my process of setting the table, laying the groundwork for the unexpected and serendipitous moment that often proves important in the creative process.

I was especially interested in the trait of "getting out of one's head". Here they discussed the process of stepping into someone else's shoes and in doing so, out of one's own. When I paint someone else's stories, I find myself trying on their experience, not just what they were thinking, but what they were feeling. I have found that sometimes it helps to write poetry on their experience as a way to distill it. Its imagery often gives me a door to find my way into a painting.

Creative people view all of life as an opportunity for self expression. I am in an artist's lab. Of the 24 artists who participate, most engage in a variety of media, all vehicles for self-expression. An artistic presentation may also be incorporated into clothing. In my own experience, I have found that painting and writing essays complement each other. Poetry plays a different role, serving as a gateway to other forms of creativity, a tool as well as a complement.

Interestingly, the research reports that a creative person is both introverted and extroverted, a combination which is unusual. We've all heard of the shy actor who loses that shyness on stage. As the "artist formerly known as introverted", you will find that with a microphone in my hand, a whole other side emerges. People who have seen me in my performance mode just don't perceive me as introverted, a subject of considerable bemusement to my shy inner self.

And happily, creative people are intrinsically motivated to follow their passions, not for external rewards, but for the sheer pleasure of bringing their skills to a challenge that intrigues them. This is an engine that I know well as it has led me to the path I now pursue.


Sunday, February 23, 2014

The Psychology of Story

As a bit of a ruminator, I can chew on ideas for a long time, a useful attribute for a blogger. Eventually I find myself in need of new inputs which often come from books and lectures.  The University of Minnesota does a day-long gathering where professors talk on a variety of topics and my interest was piqued by one entitled The Cultural Psychology of Storytelling led by Moin Syed. As story is central to what I do, I was hopeful I might gain some new insights and was not disappointed. Syed is a developmental psychologist which is a branch of psychology that focuses on how people change over time. While many think of this area as focused on children, it is actually much broader. He noted that for a long time many people did not think much happened later in life in terms of development. I beg to differ, I thought. As one in that later stage I am often surprised at how much one can develop and grow in this very fertile period.

Syed began with a brief review of Erik Erikson's lifespan theory which posits a theory of development that contains eight tensions. It begins with trust and mistrust as infants learning to deal with the world. By adolescence we are struggling with identity or confusion and by my stage in late adulthood one is confronting generativity (legacy) or stagnation. These stages are not really linear, but at different stages in our life specific stages are more the focus of our energies. Erickson's focus was on identity and in fact he coined the phrase "identity crisis".

So the focus of developmental psychology is on who we are, what we are about and how we make sense of our past. So how does this relate to storytelling? We create story to make sense of something that is ambiguous. Storytelling is an innate practice. Syed shared a film of two triangles, one slightly larger, and a circle, moving within and outside of a house like structure. Take a minute to watch it and think about what you see. This was created by Fritz Heider in the 1940s, before you could so easily call it up on YouTube.

He asked us what we saw in this and the answers all related to relationships in one form or another. People often see bullying, domestic violence or custody battles. The finding of the study was that people project people, they anthropomorphize as their effort to make sense of the ambiguous.

I thought of the relationship of this to artwork. It is especially appropriate to the way my husband Martin Arend works as he begins his paintings with an abstract from which he identifies figurative imagery and develops it. What he sees is a reflection of his own life experience. Often others construct other stories about his imagery and his artwork may speak to a viewer in an entirely different way than he intended. Much of our response to figurative artwork is because it relates to a story that is meaningful to the viewer and the more ambiguous the imagery, the easier it is for them to project into it.

There is very little research on story, but tools that present ambiguity are often used to elicit story and hence the perceptions and experience of people. The Thematic Apperception Test picked up on my reflections on artwork as it uses visual imagery such as drawings that focus on themes of power and relationship. The viewer is asked what they see. The Rorschach blot presents an even more visually ambiguous abstract image.

Syed turned his attention to the Labovian Diamond which looks at what attributes make a good story. Created by Labov and Waletzky in 1967, he noted wryly that you don't want to be the second name as you tend to get overlooked. I can relate, I thought, often bristling at the perceived neutrality of alphabetical order. The Labovian diamond starts with "orientation" along one side. To be a good storyteller you need to create some background and orient the listener. Then you move into a "complication". This is the heart of the story, something has to happen. At the point of the diamond you "evaluate" the circumstances, before moving into "resolution", concluding with a "coda", a summary that brings it back to the orientation.

I found myself thinking of my interviewees who spurred my recent body of artwork on Identity and Legacy. Earlier this week I went to yet another funeral, an occupational hazard when you interview people in their 90s. Fannie Schanfield was one of my best storytellers and lived an amazingly full life until age 97. I thought of her stories behind my paintings and began to lay them out along the diamond. Fannie had told me about how as a child her mother designated her to preserve her stories. She would pull her in from play and tell her stories, then advise her to write it down. Ok, that's orientation. She didn't write them down and one day as an adult she came home to her mother burning papers on her history. Hmm, complication! When Fannie asked what she was doing, she retorted, "Did you write it down?", expressing concern that no one cared to retain her history. Fannie evaluated this, got her to stop and when Fannie was in her seventies she began to record her mother's stories. Aha, resolution. She ended her story with the coda, "Ma, I wrote it down". Write down your legacy lest it be forgotten. A perfect fit. (Listen to Fannie tell her story).

Ok, let's try another. Fannie told me a story about her father that the rabbi retold at her funeral. The background was that in 1926 there had been a fire in the building next to the synagogue. Her father was disturbed by this because he thought that they needed to use electric lights instead of candles, a clear complication. He considered what could be done and brought his neighbor, a tin smith in on this. The tin smith gathered spare metal from work and Fannie's father drew a template. Together they found resolution by constructing two electric candelabras that stood at the synagogue for many years. And now the coda...About fifty years later the candelabras were in poor shape and moved to a back room. Fannie paid to refurbish them so they could be at her daughter's wedding, silent sentinels who embedded the legacy of her father, shining light on yet a later generation.

Interestingly this framework for story can vary culturally. Syed related a study of children and story based in both Chicago and Taiwan and how the coda can differ. In America we tell transgression stories with humor, at least sufficiently after the fact. The classic one in my family is of me as a toddler forced to sit on my booster seat until I ate my peas which I despised. My resourceful early self announced I was done and left the table, only to have my mother lift the booster seat to a layer of smashed peas. In my family the coda is bemusement at this resourceful child with a mind of her own (but obviously not the foresight to realize how quickly her subterfuge would be discovered). That is typical of the American orientation. In Taiwan that story would likely be told with the coda a lesson on how not to behave. Don't be a bad girl and smash your peas.

Some cultures may drop the coda entirely. Japanese storytelling is more open-ended and lets people draw their own conclusions. There is actually a Rashomon effect named after a Japanese film which shows multiple perspectives.

We reinterpret our own past constantly. Syed talked of a longitudinal study which interviewed a woman at 8-10 year intervals and asked her to reflect on the same relationship. They found that she kept reinterpreting the relationship based on her developing life experience. Interestingly we change our memories, but don't remember we changed them as we lose the ability to access our prior conceptions. I mulled over some tumultuous relationships in my mind and felt that I could recall my evolving perspective, but realized the difficulty in challenging this finding without video proof. How do I know what I forgot?

Syed closed his talk by introducing the concept of Master Narratives. A Master Narrative reflects our expectation of how things work. A Coming of Age story is a master narrative. Another common narrative is the Redemptive Narrative. Here Syed presented a curve that started high, dipped down into a trough and then rose upward above our starting point. We start with a good person who falls, but ultimately turns this negativity into something positive, a typical Hollywood rehab story. The contrast to this is the Contaminated Narrative where things go from bad to worse. Clearly the division between those who perceive a glass as half empty or half full.

These narratives vary culturally although there is not much research to date. Syed related that in working with Swedes the Redemptive Narrative didn't resonate. Instead they have an Unsung Hero Narrative.

Interestingly a study of Israeli and Palestinian youth found that Israeli youth had a redemptive narrative while Palestinian youth had a contaminated narrative.

After 9/11 our master narrative was a redemptive one codified by "united we stand". We began with innocence, it was damaged by 9/11, but it brought us together. There is of course an alternate narrative of exclusion as many moved towards exclusion of Muslims, a contamination narrative.

Syed reminded us that a narrative may be one portion of a larger curve. One attendee proposed the Lance Armstrong narrative which began with a redemptive narrative as he overcame testicular cancer and then moved into a contaminated narrative as he fell from grace. Whether his story arc includes yet another redemption remains to be seen.

I am intrigued with how story and psychology relate. It builds upon the concept I've written about previously on the "intergenerational self" where children who know their family history deal better with challenges. No doubt it relates to a master narrative passed on within their family. I also found myself thinking of the two descriptors I use for my diverse activities of finance, genealogy and artwork. I've described the common threads that bind them as solving puzzles and telling stories. Perhaps there is a closer relationship between the two than I've previously identified, with telling stories as a vehicle to explain those more ambiguous puzzles of life.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

The Progression

I am often captivated by process. Lately I have been thinking back on the progression of my creative process. Years ago I used to sit on my living room couch and draw from photographs with pencil. It was the beginning of learning how to see.

Eventually I felt competent enough to go public and I enrolled in a life drawing class at the local art college. I was in my late 20s and had just gotten an MBA. I have always had a need to balance myself between opposite polarities, salty-sweet, arty-business. I recall I also took a class in palm reading to add some leavening. I grew up in a generation where going into business was frowned upon so after an intensive business curriculum I felt a need to bolster the other me.

Each week I would go to the ivy covered art building where I straddled a wooden bench called a horse. A plank jutted upward, the horse's neck, and against it rested my drawing board and paper. I would pull out my conte crayon and kneadable eraser and prepare for the model. A robed model would appear, gracefully emerge from the robe and step up on a platform, holding poses that we intently tried to capture. I'd steal glances at my fellow students' work, often quite skillful, and bemoan my ungainly marks. This was much harder than drawing from photographs. And the other students looked so arty. I felt as if I were masquerading, an imposter.

I still have the drawing that captured my eureka moment. The model lay upon the platform, perspective foreshortening his limbs and this time I got it. Something shifted within me and I began to see what was there rather than filling in with a shorthand for what I thought a person looked like. It was not unlike riding a bicycle. I was learning to see just as we learn to balance. I began to go to three drawing co-ops a week. I saw the world as if I was drawing everything. If I spoke to you, I was mentally drawing your face. Each week I would go to the campus art store after drawing and buy a new pencil. That pencil had a very high return on investment thought the MBA in me.

Eventually I fell back to one drawing coop a week and twelve years later I met my husband there. He was more focused on being an artist and more ready to define himself as such. By then I had a career in finance and art was an avocation. He got a studio with several other artists and they began to have a weekly painting coop. I took a morning off from work each week to paint, hurrying back to my other life afterwards, checking carefully for telltale signs of paint on my fingers. In a back room I set up a print making studio and bought a small press. When we moved to our own studio I began painting in earnest. Often I painted from photographs, images of family and random strangers. I did a series of people on subways and buses, still some of my favorite images. I painted steadily and quietly, no ultimate goal in sight. I painted for my own personal pleasure. It absorbed me and immersed me and often delighted me.

So what makes one an artist? In its most elemental form, making art. But if art is a form of communication, does it need a viewer to complete the circuit? At that time I was my own audience, often surprised at my creations, almost as if another hand had painted them. I knew this was part of my process even with no clear destination or audience beyond me.

When I left my job seven years ago I decided to focus on my artwork. I am a purposeful person so I always expected that if I brought energy to it, it would go somewhere, but I wasn't sure where I wanted that to be. I wasn't seeking to make a living at it. That would have changed how and what I painted. I was accustomed to painting for me and I knew that had to be at the core. My interest in family history took me down the rabbit hole, first family history, then Holocaust history and then Jewish identity. Each topic was an exploration of something I needed to figure out and was often accompanied by intensive reading on a topic. Story became central and the way in which I painted began to change. I recently realized that my last three paintings, while based on story, are created out of my head. No model poses for me, no photograph is my source. I imagine the image based on story and try to create it, often painting over many false starts until I arrive at an image that speaks to me. And those painted over versions are an important part of the process. I need to see something to know if it is right and conversely I need to see something to know that it is not quite there.

I've learned many lessons from creating artwork. When I first left my job, I thought I would paint every day, bringing the same commitment to it as I did my job. I soon learned that artwork has a different rhythm. Now I paint in brief spurts, then live with it for awhile to decide next steps. I've learned to have a conversation with the artwork that unfolds over time. And I've learned not to be afraid of destroying a work to create anew. I have more trust in my ability to recreate.

Somewhere along the line I began to share my work with others. I went from being a private artist to engaging others in my exploration. Much to my surprise I found I enjoyed that aspect and particularly enjoyed talking about my work and the stories within it. I also began to widen my scope. Now I paint and write and talk about the things that intrigue me and each action allows me to delve more deeply into a subject. Had you told me seven years ago of this rather organic path I've followed, I would have been quite amazed and probably a bit intimidated, but step by step I have charted a satisfying course. I still believe that creating art is the fundamental definition of an artist, but I have come to believe that interacting with others around the work makes the process much more enriching.


Thursday, February 6, 2014

The Exchange

On rare occasions paintings emerge full blown. More often they are like awkward adolescents who have to incur a difficult struggle to find themselves. I have been working on a painting that seems like it has been such an adolescent for far too long. I was beginning to despair as to whether it would ever emerge, but am now seeing a glimmer of hope. It is the third that I have done in my Dvora Series and the fourth in the chronology.

As you may recall, Dvora is my very dear friend and often muse. Dvora is from the same town in Poland as my grandfather, but unlike him was still there when the Nazis invaded in 1939. At age 15 she was thrust into a world that turned her life upside down, first a ghetto and forced labor camp, later Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen. One day Dvora suggested that I paint her stories which I have gotten to know quite well through our frequent conversations and my travel with her back to Poland.

I am envisioning a series of five paintings that carry her through her experiences during the Holocaust. I will couple the images with a video interview in which she tells the stories and am interested in exploring how to use this material as an educational tool. The images have been selected in part because of Dvora's suggestions as to those that lend themselves to a visual medium, but they also include the stories that seem to carry the most emotion. It is no coincidence that three of them involve her mother who played a central role in her survival. Chronologically they carry her from the forced labor camp, to her entrance to Auschwitz, to the death march towards Bergen Belsen and conclude in Bergen Belsen and finally with liberation.
The first was in the forced labor camp. She was ill one day and didn't go in to work. Nazis raided the apartments like truant officers looking for anyone who was not at work. The penalties for truancy were quite severe. They lined up those they found and shot every tenth one. Dvora successfully hid beneath the stairs as the boots of the Gestapo thundered over her head. I captured her story in a painting called Beneath the Stairs.

The second painting is one that I've just begun. As she and her mother stood naked before Dr Mengele at Auschwitz, he pointed their fate with his crop. Those who would live another day were sent to the right, the others to the left, to the gas chamber. The older women were usually sent to the left and their daughters cried out to join them. As they approached the immaculately dressed Mengele, her mother thrust Dvora ahead of her. They both passed his scrutiny, unusual for her mother who was over 40, an age considered old at that time and place. "Why did you do that?" Dvora asked. "I didn't want you to try to follow me" her mother replied.

A few days before Auschwitz was liberated, Dvora and her mother embarked on a death march to Bergen Belsen. I've painted this story in We Walk Together. Dvora described the march, the three items they were given and her ultimate despair. As she weighed sitting down and receiving a bullet, her mother countered with a proposal that she sit down with her. "Not you!" Dvora replied and with that found the resources to forge forward.

And now we come to the painting with which I struggle, The Exchange. Here's the story. The setting is Bergen Belsen where piles of corpses mount, building from starvation and typhus. Dvora became ill. She recovered, but was still quite weak. One day she fell and was unable to rise. Her mother returned from work and found her missing. She had been taken to the infirmary which was but a way station to the pile of corpses. Two people lay in each bed, 30 inches across.

Throughout the war her mother had a pair of burgundy shoes, each with the heel hollowed out. Within each heel was a small diamond ring. Through Auschwitz, two death marches and Bergen Belsen they had held this property, often weighing if this was the time to exchange it for a loaf of bread. Now her mother pried off one heel and extracted the ring. She strode to the infirmary and held it out to the Polish woman who was in charge. "Give me my daughter!" she said.

How to paint this? I pictured the Polish woman with an attitude of resistance blocking the way, Dvora's mother with a firm line to her mouth forcefully thrusting her palm forward, the ring cupped within. First I envisioned the walls of the infirmary dividing the space, the suggestion of bodies outside, beds holding bodies within. I wanted to show the shoes, but that would compress the figures. I find that I prefer larger images for greater impact so wasn't quite sure how to do that. The fact that she had walked in those shoes through two death marches without accessing the rings felt like an important part of the story.

Ultimately I removed the division of space and put a figure in with the red shoes as background. The Polish woman's arm blocks the way. Behind it I added the figure of Dvora to highlight the idea of an exchange. The painting has gone through many evolutions and may still continue to change, but is beginning to approach completion.