Sunday, June 19, 2016

Our Imperfect Selves

Father's Day once again. I thought I was done with Father's Day when my Dad passed away four years ago. And yet, here I am with a crate of his papers, sorting through them, scanning them and learning new things about my father that make me regret that I didn't know him more fully. Does anyone ever know a parent fully? As a child I saw but a glimpse, fraught with parental authority and my struggles for independence and approval. I saw the clay feet of the man who walked on water in the eyes of the public. I knew the private person, not the man of accomplishment and eloquence. 

My father was a man of many talents who was often challenged by the everyday frustrations of dealing with children. Fortunately for us and for him, my mother was incredibly gifted with children. I wonder sometimes if he felt a bit like an outsider among us. His world was the world of work where he was esteemed and accomplished. In that world he had an innate understanding of how to assemble teams that stayed together for their entire careers. He could paint a vision and bring others into it by the force of his confidence. But he wasn't just talk, although he did that with eloquence that won my admiration. Where did this man who grew up in poverty, the child of immigrants, learn how to weave words together, bringing people together to create something lasting? He created educational programs, buildings and a public TV station, shaping both ideas and people's lives.

I didn't see that growing up. I was a child in my own world. I remember a child's memories; spinning around in a chair at his office, stomping on the metal flooring down the middle of the old engineering lab as I listened for the echoing sound in response. I remember the smell of his pipe tobacco back when professors smoked pipes. The smell of pipe tobacco still sends me hurtling back through time. 

He was impatient and driven. I imagine those qualities were somewhat tempered in a work world where he was forced to bring others along to accomplish his goals. In the world of family where he was king, we saw those qualities in their more unadulterated form, not always his finest moments. In hindsight I often recognize myself in him. I can imagine those recalcitrant children could be annoying. 

Just as I ask if we ever know a parent fully, I could as easily ask if we ever know a child fully. Did he know me or just the outward manifestations? Was he locked inside a parent's eyes just as I was in a child's? My father was a problem solver and sometimes brought that perspective to his children. That was actually when he was at his best. We taught each other. He once told me that he learned he had to deal with me differently. He couldn't spank me for misbehavior and assume that would resolve it. In fact, I would turn around and do exactly the same thing again to assert that he could not control me. We had warring temperaments, perhaps too much alike. I knew how to fight back, he created me after all. He told me that he had learned he had to reason with me. I silently chuckled. I remember my thought process as a child. "Don't let him think he can control you" I had told myself.

When I went off to college in the 1970s he took me aside and tried his reasoning techniques. He began,"I know you're going to experiment with things in college", his tone calm and rational. "But I would appreciate if you didn't try acid," he continued. "Did my father just say that!" I thought. I was a "good girl" in those days, but a cautious experimenter. He understood my curiosity about the world because he shared it. I was so taken with the respectful tone of his request that I agreed to it and later when the opportunity arose, I thought back to our conversation and took a pass. I must confess to being somewhat relieved that I had promised my father.

So now I go through his career papers to sort out what I will send to the library of the university where he spent his career. I consider what aspects of this man they will be interested in even as I reflect on our college send off conversation recorded only in memory. We are complicated creatures and my father more than most. At best we only get glimpses of each other filtered through one perspective. I am grateful for this chance to see him through other perspectives as well and to acknowledge the sheer complexity of our imperfect selves.

Monday, June 13, 2016

Wisdom of the Mothers

Voices of Wisdom... What does that conjure up for you visually? And what exactly is wisdom? Those were questions that faced me when I began the fourth year of the Jewish Artists' Lab with the theme of wisdom. The lab is a group of about thirty artists who gather twice a month to explore a theme through a Jewish lens. At the end of the year we have an exhibition as well as an opportunity to do a reading or performance piece.

I remember my first year in the lab. In hindsight I entered it with some unease. I looked around at some of the very accomplished artists in our group and wondered where and if I fit within them. And then there was that Jewish part. "Was I Jewish enough?" I wondered. Being Jewish was part of my identity, but more culturally than religiously. I found to my surprise that the group had a wide range of Jewish practice. It has been a welcoming place despite one's personal definition and equally important, an intellectually stimulating place.

I like what I call idea art. Idea art takes a broader concept and uses it to inform the art, to draw the viewer in visually, but also intellectually. There is often a use of metaphor and juxtaposition of ideas. The lab approach grows out of ideas so it often exemplifies this kind of art which has ultimately made it a good fit for me.

So back to that wisdom thing... I began this year's lab just three months after my mother had passed away. She was indisputably a wise woman, compassionate, non-judgmental and intellectually curious. She listened with her heart, understanding human frailty, yet seeing the potential in those she encountered. She was a teacher, but also a learner. When we were asked to define wisdom she was my yardstick, the gold standard.

At the time I was going through her home disposing of belongings, but also looking for traces of my mother, not quite ready to let her go. In my search I stumbled across a file titled Notes on Books Read. In it were excerpts from books that spoke to how we can live a meaningful life, face fears and grow into who we are meant to be. Her wisdom gatherings came from diverse sources and disciplines and held a number of Jewish sources. I've written about their contents in The Roundness of Things Part-1 and Part-2. I knew that she would be represented in my wisdom artwork through the words she had gathered, but had to figure out how to translate this visually. I was an artist in search of a metaphor.

I settled on the apple, that classic gift from a child to their teacher and the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge. In fact in Genesis it notes that the fruit was desired to make one wise. As I dug further I found rabbinic literature that referenced the time from the Exodus until the giving of the Law as the same time frame for blossoms to mature into fruit. Developing wisdom is a maturation process and I liked this juxtaposition. So now my question was how to express that visually. There are artists who plan ahead, doing sketches, thinking through ideas and then executing their vision. I'm not one of them. I start with a kernel of an idea, dive in and see what comes to me in the process.

So I started painting, apple trees and apples, thinking about the light source, polishing my apples with light and shadow. I had people come through my studio who liked that simple image of the apple tree. "Don't do anything else" they said. I knew I had to ignore that advice. When you paint you can't be afraid to ruin it. It is something we struggle with, when to push it, when to stop. I still had ideas to express so I knew I had to keep going. I wanted to incorporate my mother's words and decided to do that through a book that fans open in the corner. I wrote out her words on thin decorative paper and added pieces that folded creating a three dimensional feeling.
So now what?

I added a few books in a niche of the tree, then named them. One is titled the Pirkei Avot-Ethics of the Fathers, a Jewish text of wisdom which is studied in the period from the Exodus to the giving of the Law (between Passover and Shavuot), another juxtaposition with the apple and our maturation into wisdom. Then I added a book titled Notes on Books Read. In a moment of whimsy I hung a book over a branch with pages spilling out. Those pages curled into a fluid movement, born on a wind upward and out of the image. Smaller open books out of folded paper were added, taking bird-like shapes and adding to the movement. Apples sat on some of those pages, symbols of wisdom carried out into the world on the wings of books.

As we neared the end of the lab, we met with others in our group and discussed our work. I was asked about the as yet unnamed open book hanging over the branch. "What is its name?"

"I don't know." I confessed.

The next day it came to me. It would be the complement to the Pirkei Avot, which is the Ethics of the Fathers. My book would be the Pirkei Imahot - Ethics of the Mothers and contain their wisdom. On its front is written the name in Hebrew with the English on its spine. No such book exists, but it touches our lives through mothers everywhere. For me it represents the wisdom I witnessed daily in my own mother. What wisdom did you get from your mother?

and for those of you in the Twin Cities, stop in to see the show at:

Voices of Wisdom
Tychman Shapiro Gallery
and Shared Walls Exhibition Areas
Sabes JCC

4330 Cedar Lake Road S, Minneapolis
June 16-August 28, 2016
Opening Reception: Thursday, June 16 from 6-8
Art Beat Event: Sunday, August 28 from 5-7

Monday, June 6, 2016

Tendrils of Story

Minneapolis Bridge Collapse (cropped) by Danielle Bora

I read an article in the paper recently that sounded like the outline for a book, one of those composed of separate stories that miraculously converge at the conclusion. The first story would begin with a swim trip for children. Their school bus ride home would end with the yellow school bus perched precariously at the split of a collapsed bridge, hanging half over water. It is 2007 and a bridge has collapsed in Minneapolis during rush hour. The story would focus on a handful of those children on the bus, both during and after, the injuries, the nightmares. Then it would zero in on one family with several children who were aboard that bus.

The second story would be eight or nine years later and explore the rise of ISIS and its impact on the Somali community of the Twin Cities. It would tell the story of young boys suddenly disappearing, reappearing in Syria with the intent to join ISIS, the families left behind puzzled and fearful.

Then back to the bridge, one boy in that family years later, receiving a settlement from the bridge collapse, using it to board a flight that takes him to Turkey, then Syria, funding his friends' journeys as well.

Stories surround us, but we need to pay attention. Reading a lot helps us to recognize the tendrils of story as we walk into them like cobwebs, but it was not until I was writing or painting that I seemed to encounter stories everywhere. It is like a second ghost-like world that always existed, but suddenly becomes visible.

My artwork tells stories and my starting point is to find the story. I began story gathering when I began family history research.  I've learned to step into old photos. To feel the person viscerally. Needless to say I've always loved well-written time travel because in a sense I try to step back in time through imagination. The essence of people is not so different despite our more modern conveniences.

When I went to Lithuania I began to collect stories that in turn became paintings. Some came from books, some I collected from others, some I observed and constructed out of threads. Some were fully formed, but others were poetry and vignettes, gaps left to be filled in by the viewer. I remember one of the old shops in Vilnius with Hebrew lettering on its storefront. In the dust on the window someone had written in Yiddish "You did not die, the nation of Israel lives".  As the viewer I had to identify the juxtaposition of ideas to paint the story.

 I remember the writing on the wall at the Ninth Fort near Kovno, a killing field for the Nazis. On the

I Was Here
wall were carved the names and towns of origin by the Jews held captive on the eve of their execution. It needed something more to complete the story, the sense of the person who carved it into that wall.  I had a painting of a person that I had painted over with just the ghost of the person remaining.  That became the base for the painting I Was Here. 

When I did a series on interviews with elders, I focused on their stories, looking for themes and the personal story arc that informed their life. I wrote poetry to enter their story, to feel it before I could paint it.

And my most recent series on memory loss... This returned me to the personal as I watched my mother go through that most personal of losses. Story was everywhere and told through motifs of memory jars and birthday greetings. I seem to have become more adept at seeing story and perhaps the personal is where it is most easily present. Ultimately story is how we explain and understand the world, how we step into someone's experience and feel it.

Thursday, May 26, 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)

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.