Saturday, May 16, 2020

An Interrelated World

Sometimes the idea of starting a large painting feels a bit intimidating, especially because I often am not sure where I am going with it until I am well into it. There is frequently a lengthy process filled with "false" starts before I find my voice. In actuality there is no such thing as a false start as it is really just a necessary step in the process of finding our way.

I've been doing small paintings as a bit of an experiment, kind of like tackling an essay rather than a novel. I thought that I was telling a smaller story, but as I continued working I discovered that all of the stories are interconnected. I've been continuing to work with the theme of global warming and the environment which gives me a broad playing field. I am discovering that means just about everything is fair game.

I began with the two paintings above and wrote about them in Embracing the Risk of Loss.  When I walked with friends pre-pandemic, I frequently took pictures of what spoke to me visually and used them in collages. Now that we are in the midst of a pandemic, I've been doing even more walking and I find that I am much more aware and appreciative of the environment that surrounds me. And not just the environment, but the changes in it as winter moves into spring. I loved the skeletal structure of trees during the winter, their forms silhouetted against the sky and only grudgingly accepted the beauty of their budding branches.

The image in the upper left is based on water reflections and the idea of clean water as a necessity for our environment. The one beneath it has a bee and honeycomb hidden within it. and addresses the risks faced by the bee population. Whenever I paint a subject, I type into Google, "___ and global warming." Fill in the blank-- bees, fireflies, crows, mosquitoes, whatever you wish. Surprisingly something always comes up. It is through that process that I have learned of the projected demise of all of these creatures save mosquitoes who are expected to thrive.

Sometimes other concepts I have painted re-emerge in a different context. When I painted Presence and Absence about my mother, I was thinking about how absence makes a person much more present. Well that is true of trees too. When we had to take down an elm tree due to Dutch Elm disease, I felt like I was at its deathbed, taking pictures of it as if to remind myself of the space it occupied. It made an appearance in the firefly painting, perhaps both slated for extinction.

And tree rings!  I love tree rings, the witnesses and messengers of our climate changing over time. When I began to create a tree ring collage, I kept flashing on images of records and old-style telephones, all vehicles for conveying a message. It also reminded me of American Indian iconography and I began to picture arrows, albeit with the arc of tree rings. I half expected one to shoot into a tree with its tail quivering from the force of impact, accompanied by a message.

When my husband and I went to the Grand Canyon, we watched the sunrise each morning over the canyon. One morning I found a crow perched rather royally in the sunlight,  His black feathers glowed golden in the morning light. I decided to paint him just because I like images of crows, not because I associated him with global warming. Of course once I did my usual search, I learned that global warming will create a climate conducive to mosquitoes who spread West Nile virus. Crows are especially susceptible to it. That then called for a mosquito painting as well.

I tend to work in blues and oranges so my paintings all work well together. I began to group them into various groupings and arrived at the one atop this blog titled An Interrelated World. It is the concept that sums up global warming, but it could just as easily be applied to COVID-19. We are not isolated beings. We live in a broader world and what we do affects not only each other, but the environment that surrounds us. The loss of any element has a cascade of effects that threatens to set still other losses into motion.

Thursday, May 7, 2020

What Kind of Artist?

I’ve been thinking lately about what kind of artist I am. Every year we have a huge open studio event, Art a Whirl. This year of course it will be virtual beginning May 15, so I need to succinctly present what I do in video. It is much easier to have hundreds of people traipse through my studio for three long days and chat with them.  

I don’t think I am a typical artist, but of course there are many kinds of artists. By atypical I suppose I mean that I have many traits that are not associated with artists. I am analytical and “wordful.”  Yes, I know that is not a word. Lest I be unaware, Word underlines it in squiggly red, but I am full of words and I use them to explain and make sense of the world. To paint and experiment, I have to shut that part of me down temporarily and play. I was never very good at playing even when I was a child so it is work for me to play. I need to trick myself into the zone of free association by painting and repainting, by not thinking of anything I do as too precious to paint over again. I have learned to view the seemingly false starts as part of the story of my evolving painting. It is through that process that I discover things I could not find through an analytical process. But then, ah, but then. . .I dust off my words and my analytic side and make sense of what just happened. I write about it. I follow the thread of my process. I use all of me to complete a painting fully, just not simultaneously.

I am an artist who is intrigued with story. Story is just a way to make sense of the world. To take the things that happen to us and around us and view them through a different frame. My artwork is about story and ideas. I love when there is a idea that a story illuminates. Even better when the story is housed in a painting. One of my favorite examples was when I painted about transformation, Stepping into the Chrysalis. I learned about nature’s story of transformation from caterpillar to butterfly, first consuming itself to turn into caterpillar soup, then drawing on its imaginal discs (stem cells with a very apt name) which contain the wings of the future butterfly. Not too unlike us consuming ourselves with worry as we face change and then finding our wings within. Then I had to find visual imagery to quite literally frame that amazing and metaphorical story.

 When I think of the thread of my work, I realize I started with a puzzle. I began with a series on family history and the cornerstone was a self-portrait called Piercing the Veil. It was of me unveiling my family names with a paintbrush. Using art to tell the story of solving a puzzle. Of course, that’s what I do. It only took me twelve years from that painting to figure that out. 

I followed that series with a body of work called the Silence Speaks Loudly as I tried to make sense of how Lithuania dealt with the Holocaust. I connected stories I gathered and observed while in Lithuania. Again, making sense of this often inexplainable world.

My interest in genealogy is a quest of sorts too, to understand the lives of my ancestors, of people who lived in a different time, but contained within a body, mind and emotions much like our own. What would it be like to live in a different environment? How would it change who we are? How would we experience the tides of history as they lapped up against our life?  I have often wondered about the family members of mine who died in the Holocaust. Who were they as people? What was their day to day life like? What of them echoes in me? I began to explore that when I painted a Hole in Time, an exploration of the Jewish community in Radom, Poland.

Similarly, when I sought to make sense of my own Jewish identity, I interviewed Jewish elders. And after those interviews, I created artwork and then a book as I drilled down further into their stories to figure out how I fit within them.

When my mother lost memory and later when she died, I painted on memory, trying to find a way to make sense of first her loss of memory and then the loss of her. It was one long meditation on a wise woman who I carry within me. Absence and presence occupied me. Absence occupied me with her presence. 

For the past eight years I have participated in a Jewish Artists Lab that takes a topic to explore and then creates artwork on that theme. That has proven to be a powerful engine, introducing me to ideas I might otherwise not have discovered.  Through all of it I explored ideas that I translated into artwork. Memory palaces, transformation, imaginal discs, liminality, illuminating through parallel  stories, identity as a river finding its banks, wisdom of the mothers. 

I bring this lens to everything that I explore. Now I am working on the environment and I explore it through absence and presence, the idea of a 4700-year-old tree sounding the clarion call on global warming, arboreal ghost towns. It is a system where everything connects, a puzzle that we can solve if we can only focus on all of the pieces and each and every piece. And so, I wade into the immense puzzle of our world equipped with my paintbrush and my words.

Friday, April 3, 2020

The New Normal: Frustrations and Gratitude

It is amazing how quickly we adapt to a new normal. A week ago, it felt strange to me when we approached a man on the sidewalk and he stepped out into the middle of the street to give us a wide berth. We’ve begun to do the same now, although I keep picturing a car taking me out as I try to dodge this amorphous virus.

I live in yoga pants as I am far more likely to do yoga or go for a walk if I’m dressed for it. When I have a Zoom meeting, I change my top from my workout clothes to preserve the illusion. I am guessing in a week there will be no illusions. We rearranged the furniture in our living room to make room for two yoga mats which appear to be taking up permanent residence.

We are at a point in time where grocery shopping can be the most dangerous activity we will encounter.  I realize I’m not going into the forest to kill wild game that might decide to attack me, but the same concept applies. In some ways this is more dangerous in its seemingly innocuous and familiar nature.

Ordering groceries online remains an incredibly frustrating experience. I waited all day for a window to open up at Whole Foods and when it did, it had closed by the time I completed the required options. I get that they are filled up for the next two days, but why can’t I order for next week? And Target seems to have toilet paper set up as unavailable for pick up or delivery which means you need to go into the store. What’s up with that? Trader Joe’s which has some of my favorite foods really needs to figure out how to deliver before I go into almond biscotti withdrawal. 

When the Seder we typically attend went virtual, I realized I had something new to stress over. Now I actually had to get Seder food when I can’t even get regular food.  Do I have to go into a liquor store to get a bottle of Passover wine when the 11th plague could strike me as I pick up that wine bottle. And how do I get a shank bone when my husband is a pescatarian? I have concluded that rabbis through time have offered reprieves from such matters under unique circumstances so this certainly qualifies. I could have paper cut-outs on my Seder plate and it would be the thought that counts. After all this is a virtual Seder.

On the brighter side, I have become a big fan of Zoom. When a talk I was to give for the MN Jewish Genealogical Society could no longer be done in-person, I began to review web platforms to figure out how to do it on-line. I settled on Zoom and did it as a webinar this weekend. It was very well-received and played to an audience many times larger and broader than our usual events. I figured out how to pre-record on Zoom to reduce the stress level of a new medium. Later in the week, my Artists’ Lab met on Zoom. We began with a larger meeting and then broke into small groups which actually felt quite intimate and workable. Our use of these mediums is likely to continue even when in-person meetings are once again possible. 

Every change spawns yet another one. That ability to record gave me an idea. I set up a member web page at to house my presentation and I’m thinking of shorter presentations that I and others could record for the genealogy group’s membership. This may be a perfect time to take on such a project.

So, life goes on, albeit in a much smaller physical sphere but a much larger virtual one. I have new frustrations and new satisfactions. I am grateful for the ability to live my life in a more restricted physical way to preserve safety, even as I  expand my world and reach out to others.

Stay home, stay safe and embrace gratitude. Namaste.

Friday, March 27, 2020

Reshaping Our Lives

This morning my husband turned to me and said, “This really hasn’t been so different from normal except you’re around a lot more.”  That is essentially true for him. We live in a household of two, both with lots of interests that much of the time involve only ourselves. But unlike my husband who is content to paint, bike and play guitar, I’ve normally got a lot more on my calendar that has now fallen away.

It was only a week and a half ago that I had a meeting with several members of a family for whom I am doing genealogy research. It seems a lifetime ago. Since then, except for a brief venture to the grocery store and to pick up carry out, my only face-to-face interaction has been with my husband.  The week’s events began to cancel. One by one, the emails appeared. Soon I was up to nine cancellations and was wondering how my schedule ever got so crazy in the first place. The gym was the last place to close and I must admit I was glad they made the decision for me. I felt as if I was entering enemy territory whenever I entered its doors, washing my hands continually, fearful of inadvertently touching my face. I didn’t want to think that hard about how I functioned in a space.
So, what have I been doing since then? The activities that I enjoy are largely solo ones, reading, writing, painting and genealogy research. But after I engage in those solitary activities, I come up for air. Then I exhibit artwork, do presentations and visit with people at open studios. I enjoy those interactions, but now I was faced with reshaping my life with some major restrictions.

Working out and getting groceries have proven to be the activities requiring the most thought. I’ve settled into a routine of doing yoga most days in the living room and walking with my husband around our neighborhood park. I find new appreciation in my local surroundings. On one of our walks, I saw an ornament with a tag announcing Joy and was reminded of the beauty just blocks from my home. And of course I take pictures along our walks, hopeful that I can incorporate them into collages.

As I do yoga, I face our shelf of art books. I fasten my gaze on Bacon or Leger as I hold my tree pose. I can’t recall when I last picked them up and vow that I will study a new art book regularly, not just in tree.

A few days ago, we went to our regular grocery store. We showed up at 8AM which is a feat in itself as neither of us are morning people. It was at least as busy as it normally was midday and this was supposedly the lowest traffic point of the day. The delivery service seemed quite inadequate, but we ruefully concluded we might have to make it work. 

As much as the stock market has tanked, we are aware that our crisis is of a smaller magnitude than that of many. We considered the restaurants around us that we hope will stay in business and committed to occasional take-out orders. We’ve also contributed to support the efforts of medical caregivers and to a fund for artists whose income is  especially vulnerable to these circumstances.

I have a good friend who is a Holocaust survivor and I have been meeting with her weekly to record her story. We’ve moved that to the phone and are trying to do it a bit more often, a touch point between us. I’ve also been working on how to do a genealogy presentation via Zoom and have that scheduled for later this week. I’ve been finding new ways of doing things and am pushing through the discomfort that accompanies that newness. Along the way, I am seeing new practices that I may want to maintain even when this crisis ends.

There is also unease underlying these efforts. There is a reason for this slowdown and it is frightening. I am suddenly in the age group where risk begins to rise, a rude shock for those of us who are active and engaged in our world. Age is just a number until it isn’t and you feel as if you have a target on your back. I read today that the virus affects one’s sense of smell and taste. I must confess I pulled out a minty shampoo as a test and was relieved to inhale its strong fragrance. We walk in the park each day, eyeing fellow walkers cautiously as they approach, nodding hello, but moving on. We are still trying to figure out this new way of being. We are all in this together, yet others can pose a threat to our health. How do we integrate these two opposing concepts?  The world feels more precarious and more precious. I have a new appreciation for the beauty of my neighborhood park, for the friends with whom I stay connected in this virtual world and for my husband who is my companion in this life raft I call home.

Sunday, March 8, 2020

Tree Time

In my last blog on artwork, I had written of the Ghost Forest, the name I had given a painting until I discovered there really was something called a ghost forest. I've since given it the working title of Ghost Trees. In the painting the white trunks hover overhead separated from the stumps forming a ghost-like community with their branches intertwined with those of their neighbors.

I then went in search of imagery to reflect what is truly known as a ghost forest.  They are often found on the coast where with rising water levels the salt water kills the trees. They stand in the middle of water in various states of decay. Below you will see my effort as I imagined one. It has a bit of a swamp-like feeling.

I still had not yet had my fill of tree paintings. A friend sent me an article on the oldest trees in the world. The oldest is about 4,700 years old and is found in California. It has been named Methuselah. They  posted a sign originally, but in order to keep away the paparazzi who kept taking pieces of wood from it, they gave it back its anonymity. Kind of a witness protection program for trees.

These long-lived trees are bristle-cone pines and are pretty scrappy. They survive in climates that many trees cannot and look a bit twisted and gnarly.  The age is determined through a science called dendrochronology. They insert a rod into the tree and take a cross-section of it where they can count the rings and determine the type of seasons through which it has lived. I love that the meaning of dendrochronology is Tree Time. Trees obviously have a different kind of time than we do. Think of us as more akin to dog years, but on an entirely different scale. Let's assume an average life span of 80 years. While each dog year is worth 7 human years, each human year is worth about 59 years in the life of Methuselah. In addition to age, the rings can detect the changes in climate, rain, volcanic activity and frost.  It is through these witnesses that we know that climate change exists. The trees themselves are often personified with names like sage, elder and sentinel.

I was intrigued by their role as witness and recorder and wanted to do a painting that captured their significance. I began by just painting the tree against white sky.

 The starkness of it appealed to me and I liked the linear elements that formed the tree, but I still wanted to reflect the idea of witness and scribe that the tree plays in recording the seasons of its life and our world. That meant perhaps destroying a perfectly passable painting.  It is always a bit scary to take brush in hand when you like what you have in front of you, never certain if you can recapture what you have successfully if you don't like the alternate version. I have often longed for an undo button. Some people do multiple versions to free themselves up to experiment. I just dive in and hope for the best. I reminded myself I could always paint over the background if it didn't work.  Just as the tree grows in layers that create rings, I often paint on top of paintings, building layers of history as I explore alternate possibilities.

  I decided to create tree rings behind the tree, a backdrop that would suggest the multipurpose role of this ancient tree.  After several iterations, I had created the image below. I'm pleased with the result, enough so that I am wondering if I can find a spot for it in my home eventually. For the moment I’ve named it Tree Time to reflect the longevity of this very unusual tree.

Monday, February 17, 2020

Smoothing the Way for Immigrants

History doesn't make a very sturdy platform from which to project the future. When we imagine the future, we think in terms of what we already know, not the unthinkable. We weigh today's events against our shared understanding of history, looking for common reference points between then and now. But what if the unfolding story of tomorrow is different than anything we could imagine?

I was recently reminded of that possibility when a friend recommended a book on the Jewish immigrant experience. The book History of the Baron de Hirsch Fund: The Americanization of the Jewish Immigrant was written in 1935 by Samuel Joseph, founder of the sociology department at City College in NY. It explores the efforts of the Baron de Hirsch Fund to settle the influx of Jewish immigrants from Russia in the late 1800s/early 1900s. Baron de Hirsch was an extremely wealthy man who was committed to helping the Russian Jewish immigrants. His fund created agricultural communities and trade and agriculture schools focused on turning Russian Jews into American citizens. Much of their work was experimental with no certain outcomes.

I felt a bit as if I had stepped into a time capsule, rocketing back to different points in time on my journey. Published in 1935, the author observed pre-WWII Germany as the German Jews  were desperately trying to get out. He drew parallels to the 1880s. 

The situation at the end of the Eighties (1880s), strange and sad to say, is being rehearsed in almost identical form in our own day. We need only substitute the German-Jewish refugees of today for the Russian Jews. 

He returns to the period of history with which he was familiar. 

‘Whither to flee?’ agitated the Pale.* The question was debated in hamlets and villages, on street corners, in synagogues and wherever men congregated. As in Nazi Germany today there was a confusion of counsel. Should the Jews migrate in masse or demand their rights as citizens and human beings?

Little did he conceive of what was to unfold as he tried to force it into the framework he had known to date. It reminds me that we sometimes don’t have the capacity  to conceive of the scope of destruction that is possible. 

As he compares the flight of the Russian Jews of the 1880s to that of the German Jews in the 1930s, he adds what is meant to be a comforting note, the fate of the Jewish refugees from Germany had become a matter of formal international concern, an improvement over the 1880s. The League of Nations had appointed a High Commissioner for Refugees. We know of course that came to naught as countries slammed their doors to refugees.

Back in the time capsule I zoom back to the 1890s. A time in which Joseph reports that local immigration officials violated the law and interpreted it aggressively to exclude Jews.  Those actions had the support of some key government officials. Immigrants often had to argue their case before immigration boards and sometimes appeal to Washington.  Both the courts and challenges from the fund alleviated some of the opposition.  In 1910/1911, following a large influx of Jewish immigrants, executive actions were implemented under a federal statute which made the actions of immigration officials non-reviewable in court. New rulings were then introduced to require immigrants to have $25 in their possession or be considered a likely public charge and refused entrance. Offers of aid to immigrants from anyone who was not legally required to provide support  were rejected. The fund took these issues to court and got a clarification that judicial review was permitted when there were fundamental errors committed against the alien. The $25 requirement and banning of outside aid were also overturned. 

In response, the efforts of the immigration officials just became more devious.  A new claim was made that if a man’s wife and children remained overseas, that was also his residence, even if he had been in the US for some time. When restrictive quotas were introduced, they did not allow for a man bringing his family to join him. Even a loophole that exempted naturalized citizens from this restriction was in danger of being closed. By the 1930s raids were occurring where aliens were arrested wholesale and deported without an investigation. Only one sixth of aliens were able to make bond or hire counsel.

The fund made arguments that sound surprisingly familiar today, arguing that criminality among immigrants living in the US was less than that of natural-born citizens.

So,what else did the fund do for immigrants?  Aid was given to immigrants at the port. Lost baggage and addresses of family members were located.  Gradually these functions were transitioned to other organizations with support from the fund.  Jobs were found, shelter provided and trades were taught. An agent was assigned to assist immigrants who were threatened with deportation. Other organizations also stepped up, often with funding from the Hirsch fund. The National Council of Jewish Women copied down names of women from the manifest between the ages of 12-25.  Correspondents in 275 American cities monitored their progress in getting situated and finding work. HIAS,  the Clara de Hirsch Home for Immigrant Girls and the Hebrew Free Loan Society all worked to settle immigrants into American society with the de Hirsch money often smoothing the way.

I felt gratified that my ancestors had support from the Jewish community when they stepped on American soil, that they weren't alone in this strange new world. I hope that remains the case for today's immigrants who are often facing not too dissimilar obstacles.

* the Pale was the area of Russia in which Jews were forced to live.

Thursday, January 16, 2020

The Ghost Forest

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For more information on ghost forests: