Sunday, May 14, 2017

Looking for One Thing, Finding Another

I wasn't planning on writing a Mother's Day blog, but something happened last evening that prompted this. It is the second year since my mother died, and in that time I have felt her presence every day. Last night I was looking for a file, trying each flash drive in my computer as I tried to remember where I had recorded it. In the process of looking for one thing, I ran across something else, kind of a metaphor for life, looking for one thing, finding another.

It was a folder titled simply Mom. Within I discovered a video that I had recorded of her with a memory jar I had given her long ago. Originally it had been a gift at a time when my mother's memory was quite good and I never thought of it worsening. I purchased a ceramic jar that had the label "memories" carved into it. I then wrote out memories that we shared or that I had of her, some from our trips together, some from my childhood. She had once told me that she always tried to create memories for us, her children, to carry forward into our lives. It was one of the reasons I took her on trips to Europe, I wanted to return the favor and create memories for her. The memory jar was an amalgamation of both of our efforts, an acknowledgement of the value of shared memory. It was a litany of what I loved in her. 

The jar sat on a shelf, high on the bookcase, until I noticed it on a visit. I took it down and had her draw out each memory and read it aloud. Together we remembered. I've written about this before in this blog, but a piece of the story that I don't think I shared, was the fact that I recorded it. I was just beginning to acknowledge that my parents would not always be there and this felt significant. I knew I would someday, when my mother was no longer with me, cherish this recorded moment,  even though I could not fully conceive of a world without her.

I've told the story of the memory jar many times. Somehow watching this video felt different than the retelling. It was the first time I had watched it, six years after I recorded it, both parents now gone. In it my mother and I sat at the kitchen table, the familiar turquoise blinds of my childhood to the side and the wall behind her with just a glimpse of some memorabilia from our travels together.  My father sat nearby in the gold chair in the living room. That chair now resides in my studio. It was just my mom and me interacting together in a world of our own, my father at the periphery as was often the case. Her smiling face, her voice, all the expressions and nuances we take for granted in another person, the things that create their essence and the essence of a relationship. What struck me was that each memory was an offering, a love letter to my mother, not only mailed, but received and reciprocated. If I ever doubted whether I had let her know how deeply I cherished her, I had only to watch that video.

It was 2011, both my parents together, but the cracks in memory had begun to show. My father had been losing memory for a long time, but we were just coming to terms with the fact that my mother was as well.  At the time, I remember being shocked when she could not recall some memories that I would have expected to be deeply embedded. Now as I viewed it with hindsight, I felt her largely intact, just a few gaps beginning to show. 

As her memory loss progressed over the years, I again went through the memory jar with her. She no longer remembered the story behind it and now gave me that sweet apologetic smile that indicated she really didn't have a clue, this was all new to her. Nonetheless she was happy to play along if I wanted her too. Fewer memories struck a chord the second and third time through. That meant I told her more of the story, reminding her of our shared history. "Thank you for helping me remember," she said. 

I understand much more about memory now than I did then. I understand how someone we love can be housed in our vision, in our heart and in our understanding. I understand how they can become part of the fabric of our being even in their physical absence. I understand how the mere act of writing about them can cause my eyes to fill with tears, not of sadness, but of deep gratitude.

video
I've included a very brief excerpt from my video.  I encourage you to try a similar exercise as a gift for a parent with or without memory loss.

Thursday, May 11, 2017

Lightening Up

I was always a serious person. You know, one of those people who always looks lost in thought and forgets to smile on cue. When I was younger, men I didn't know, used to pass me on the street and admonish me to smile. I'd always be a bit surprised, shocked out of my reverie. I wasn't unhappy, I just wasn't focused outward. I wondered why it would matter to them. When you get older, unless you are a woman running for President, they pretty much stop telling you to smile. It is one of the many advantages to getting older.

Early in my career I was often interviewed on the news. My mother would watch and tell me to smile. Now, mothers can do that. With them it comes from a good place. They genuinely think our smiles are lovely. I replied to her, "I can smile or I can speak intelligently. Which do you want?" Remembering to smile took brain cells I needed to deploy elsewhere under pressure.

My sister is the funny one in my family. She is the youngest and it seems to me that the youngest often has the most humor and wit, perhaps they hone it in the sibling competition for attention. Middles don't compete on humor.  We have other talents. I'm married to a youngest and he too is quick-witted. I suspect we're together in part, because I appreciate his humor. I've acquired a touch of wit just by living with him for over twenty years, but if I manage to get a zinger in I'm likely to hear, "leave that to the professionals."  For a funny guy, he takes his role seriously.

I tell you this, because after years as a serious person, I've finally discovered how to tap my lighter side.There is nothing wrong with being a serious person, but if you want to engage others you need to learn to lighten up. For some people it comes naturally, not so much for us serious souls. At this stage in my life everything I do has to do with engaging other people, writing, artwork and presenting. I do a lot of public speaking and I've gotten enough feedback over time that I think I can fairly say, I'm good at it. I wasn't always. I used to be terrified of getting in front of people. Somewhere along the line, I grew into my own skin, yet another benefit of getting older. I discovered that being informal and letting an audience really see me, was OK, and in fact desired.  There is a connection that happens when we let ourselves be truly seen. It's like when we read a book where the inner dialogue of the character echoes our own thoughts. It's a shock of recognition that we share something in common. We feel understood.

With this awareness, I began to assume a conversational tone when I spoke and to talk to an audience the way I would a friend, albeit with a little cleaner vocabulary. With friends, I am often energetic. I have strong opinions and don't hesitate to express them. That kind of energy is useful when you have the microphone. You need passion and energy to be good in front of a crowd. Now I still cannot claim to be quick-witted, but I know how to engage. I study other speakers as I try to figure out what makes the good ones good. I think the trick is to not hide behind a serious demeanor or be too pedantic. Instead you need to bring your natural energy and the openness you would offer to a friend.

The same thing that works for public speaking, also applies to writing. I've been working on a book based on oral histories that I did and have written several versions in several different ways. Because it involves history, I first began writing it as one would a research document. I learned lots of interesting things researching and it was filled with facts, but they began to drown out my voice, not to mention those of my interviewees. One of the things I've discovered in writing this blog is my voice. My yardstick, as to if things will interest you, is whether they interest me. I set aside that first version, even though lots of it was good. I realized it was a different kind of book than the one I wanted to write, or to read. I started over from scratch and wrote in the way I write here. I worried that it might be too informal, as if once I put a book jacket on it, I had to dress up a bit and be more formal. In the end, I wrote it the way I would want to read it, in my comfortable yoga pants.

We all love a good story and within my oral histories I had many of them. My challenge was to not smother them under a heavy sauce of facts, but rather add facts as garnish, something to intrigue the reader enough to explore further. Even though this book involves history, it was written for a broader audience. It wasn't written just for historians nor designed to be scholarly, but rather to let my interviewees form the same connection with the reader that I try to form when I speak. I wanted their humanity to come through.

I doubt I'll ever be noted for my quick wit. More often, I will come up with the perfect zinger the following day. Instead I will be happy to engage an audience through story, be it spoken, written or visual. I hope to form a connection grounded in something common between us, to tell stories that engage us in recognizing ourselves in each other.

Monday, May 1, 2017

Stepping Into The Chrysalis

In my last post, I wrote about the concept of liminality, a period of transformation arising from disruption.  I had decided I was going to do a painting on that theme, but where to begin? 


Starting is always challenging, especially when you don't know quite where you are going. I've learned over time that the destination usually emerges once I begin. People often ask me how long a painting takes, a productivity perspective that has little to do with creating anything that doesn't come with a set of instructions.  Painting is itself a liminal process, a series of thresholds to cross and transformations that are often difficult to predict or to time. So, let me take you through the process to illustrate that statement.

 I had picked up three canvases that I thought might be interesting to work with, each was one foot wide and three feet high. In thinking of liminality, I thought I might do a three part piece with the central piece representing liminality.  To kick myself into gear, I did an abstract image on two of the panels using my favorite colors. It looked like a landscape except that the blue along the inside of each canvas resembled a figure which I then pulled out a bit giving it volume. Hmm, looks a bit like someone burning at the stake. While that may relate to our theme of otherness, it wasn't where I wanted to go.

Instead I moved on to another  image it evoked, that of a cocoon. It was through this path that I began to explore one of the ultimate liminal beings, a metaphor unfolding before our eyes, the butterfly.  Its transformation is not an easy road. First that caterpillar must shed his skin, destroying his being to begin anew. It is through imagination, actually a scientific word imaginal discs, that he reshapes himself, forming wings that were always hidden deep within. 


A figure overlaid
Chrysalis gestating
My figure turned into a chrysalis on two of the canvases. I was  still contemplating a middle section that would represent the in-between of liminal space. In the final stage of a chrysalis you can actually see the wings through the chrysalis. There are gold spots on a chrysalis that add a decorative touch which is also believed to be functional in its development. It makes a chrysalis seem both mysterious and precious. In fact, the word chrysalis comes from the Greek word for gold. I never could quite decide what to put on that middle panel, but I kind of liked that chrysalis so I set it aside to gestate against the wall of my studio.


One day I painted a figure across the panels converting into a winged form (above right). Then decided it would look too divided across two canvases and pulled it back to one. The figure looked like it was opening a door in the middle so I created a door to the chrysalis, feeling a bit like a cartoon character who paints a door and then steps through it. In keeping with the caterpillar to butterfly progression, I dressed the woman in a long caterpillar dress, her feet bracing against the canvas edge as if she were climbing up the chrysalis.


I opened the two panels as if they were doors, contemplating what might lie behind them. I was no longer thinking about an exposed middle section, but rather a hidden section behind the doors. I was intrigued by the words imaginal discs. These house the beginning of wings, antennae, legs. They are the building blocks of a butterfly.  I looked up images of them and decided to fill the panel behind the doors with an abstract of imaginal discs, a caterpillar soup out of which butterflies grow.  


I painted them on a  36"x24" canvas that would be covered by the two canvases of the cocoon. Then I realized I needed a back for the two front panels if I was to make a triptych and allow it to open.  I painted an extension of imaginal discs on masonite that would slide behind the original two paintings.  It is a triptych covered by a diptych, but I anticipate showing it with the doors slightly open. An unanticipated synchronicity, it resembles an ark that would house a Torah, something that also addresses passages to transformation. 

Now my husband has the task of framing this odd structure.  Fortunately for me, he seems to like these challenges. We anticipate framing it with a gold frame with a very thin edging dividing the two central panels.

I like the idea of something hidden, gestating, preparing for transformation. This piece is about stepping into the chrysalis, that cauldron of change, where we strip ourselves down to become someone new, drawing on qualities hidden deep within us.

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Creative Liminality

Each year the Jewish Artists' Lab selects a topic that we study throughout the year. We begin in October and conclude in June. We then have an exhibition and an opportunity to perform in some fashion. I usually do a painting and read poetry or a short story at the performance. It is one painting, but it takes a lot of thought. Of course, each year I hope to come up with something thought-provoking, both for me and for my audience.
Threshold to my ancestors' home in Poland

The theme this year is one that I had proposed, Inside-Outside: Boundaries and Otherness. It is a topic that intrigues me. Most Jews grow up with a sense of otherness, especially those of us who grew up in small Jewish communities where our small numbers helped to underscore our difference from our neighbors. I helped my friends decorate Xmas trees and color Easter eggs, but I was always clear that I was an outsider dabbling in someone else's culture. Part of me has always liked the idea of being an outsider, embracing my differences. I've come to think of otherness as a creative engine. It allows us to see the world through fresh eyes, outsider eyes. 

When I proposed this topic, I didn't imagine it would become quite so...well, topical. In these political times, it has taken on added relevance. It is the year of the Other, the year of boundary walls. Those of us who grew up with otherness feel a deep sense of empathy for those our country seeks to exclude. We were once them. 

It is a broad topic with many parts, in, out and in-between. It is the in-between that interests me.  Maybe it has something to do with being a middle child, my psychology shaped by my indeterminate status, neither here nor there. I don't like the kind of in-between that is being stuck, in limbo, but the in-between of transition leading to transformation speaks to me. In the lab we  have the opportunity to teach a session to our fellow artists. I began to explore an idea for my session and stumbled across the concept of liminality. It was then that my idea for both class and artwork began to come together. 

As we discussed boundaries, those lines that divide us from each other, I found myself thinking of our own internal boundaries. They are the lines we must traverse in order to experience the many changes we undergo in the course of a lifetime. That in turn led me into the concept of liminal space. Liminal means threshold. It is the space between boundaries where the old rules no longer apply, the new yet to be mastered. It is an anthropological term marking rites of passage. Liminal space is often a place of change and transformation, a place of challenge as we face the unknown. While the word resembles "limbo" which derives from a word meaning "border," its focus on passage and transformation is the important distinction. In limbo we are just stuck.

There are stages to liminality. First we must let go of the familiar, deciding what we can take into this new environment and what we must leave behind. Then that difficult stage of transformation, neither here nor there. Finally we learn how to adapt to our new environment. Disruption is often a trigger.  Our lives may be touched by change when someone close to us dies or we divorce. Perhaps we move to a new environment or lose our job.  All the elements that turn our life upside down are also triggers for what may prove to be transformative. I have a friend whose husband died unexpectedly, still a relatively young man. She spent a difficult year adjusting to this new reality and when we met after a time she told me that even though she missed her husband, she was learning to like this new life. She had moved through liminality to transformation.

Liminality can happen to a broader society as well.  War and natural disasters are often disruptions on a much broader scale. I would argue that our recent election was also an exercise in liminality, disrupting the things we believe about our country and our neighbors, the form of transformation, yet to be fully revealed.

Marking our crossing of boundaries with rituals is a concept found in our everyday life. When a guest enters our home we might offer them a drink.  A school bell and perhaps the pledge of allegiance marks the beginning of a school day. We have markers, rituals, that highlight the fact that we are entering a new environment. 

Religion uses rituals to honor such passages. In Judaism a mezuzah might be found at the door entry. It actually means "lintel" and marks our entry into a home. A bar or bat mitzvah marks our entrance to adulthood. The Havdallah ritual marks the end of Shabbat. 

While ritual marks the entrance or exit, Jewish holidays recognize the passage. What could be more liminal than the 40 years in the desert that we celebrate at Passover? In Judaism we celebrate the journey, the preparation to receive the law, a period of transformation.  Purim has as its heroine, Esther. As a Jew masquerading as a non-Jew she has a foot in both worlds. As I analyzed each holiday I found they had a liminal state at their center, with the period of transformation central to the story. In fact as any writer knows, the period of transformation is the story.

People can be liminal as well. Immigrants and refugees have a foot in two worlds. So do those who are transgender. Many of those who are viewed as "the other" don't fit into the tidy boxes in which many like to see the world.  Ah, but no one can escape liminality if they have a teenager, caught between childhood and adulthood, the ultimate liminal being.

I think many artists and writers are liminal. Living in our world, but seeing the world with outsider eyes. It is what enables us to do what we do.  Part of creativity is often about connecting two seemingly disparate ideas into a new whole.  As artists we need to work through that transformative stage every time we create, leaving the familiar to enter something new. So with that teaser, stay tuned for what I plan to show at the Artist Lab show in June.

Monday, April 17, 2017

A Time of Remembering

And a stranger shalt thou not oppress; for ye know the heart of a stranger, seeing ye were strangers in the land of Egypt.  (Exodus 23:9)

It is that time of year when we speak of freedom, the time of remembering.  Last week we attended two Passover Seders, each different in flavor, but embedded in each was the idea of remembering our experience and history, and applying that awareness to others. In both, our focus was on the immigrant and the refugee. I suspect that was true of many such gatherings. 

This feels especially meaningful in today’s political environment where some too readily see strangers rather than our shared humanity. I am glad to be a part of a tradition which instead reaches out and does so with a certain wisdom.  I believe that we respond from the personal and that it is out of our personal experience that we understand that of someone else. Passover reminds me that this belief has a long tradition.

The first Seder we attended came with assignments. We were to bring something that signified freedom to us.  My husband brought a newspaper and spoke to the need to preserve freedom of the press and the important role it plays in a free society. I brought one of the many protest signs that populate the trunk of our car these days, sharing the importance of our freedom to protest injustice. It is one of the things that gives me a sense of solidarity with others in this time of uncertainty.

 Our hostess noted that last year she had spoken of optimism. This year the emphasis has shifted to hope, a subtle but telling difference. "What gives you hope?" she asked. Many spoke of the next generation as a source of hope.  I understand and often agree with that sentiment, but sometimes it doesn't seem to go far enough, as if we put it solely on the shoulders of the next generation. It makes me want to say, "Hey, I'm still here!" as I wave my hand in the air. It doesn’t absolve each of us, regardless of age, from opposing oppression and speaking to the values we share. In some odd way, the anger I feel gives me hope.  I am stirred to act because my sense of what is right and fair is offended. I look around and am heartened to see that I am not the only one who feels that way.

And speaking of generations to come...Small plastic green frogs populated our table, 
evoking the plague of frogs upon the Egyptians. The youngest child at the table was quite fascinated with them and periodically popped up with a frog mask to declare that he too was a frog.  There is something quite heart-warming about a child at a Seder. It adds some leavening, even without yeast. The four questions recited by a child are a reminder of that future yet to come.

We embraced some theater, imagining what our life would have been like as a slave, speaking in the first person of our daily life. Our hostess questioned us about our experience and what it felt like. It was hard for some to speak in first person, still looking at the experience from the outside. When my friend Dora spoke, we all listened closely, knowing that she spoke from her experience as a survivor of the Holocaust.  Of all at the table, she had the clearest sense of what it meant to have no control over one's life and no sense of what future, if any, awaited. She inhabited the part, bringing a sense of reality into the room. It was not just in Egypt that we were slaves.

Usually the Seder is a celebration of Spring, a time of new beginnings that we celebrate with poetry. This one was a bit unusual as we watched the snow fall, coating the branches of trees with a wet heavy snow and creating rutted paths of slush, reminding us that winter had not yet fully departed.

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Chance Encounters


This month we had Dog Days at our monthly open studios. Visitors were invited to bring their dogs. Dogs of every shape, size and color came through our doors. Small dogs were pushed in strollers, dogs the size of small ponies, dogs with bows, rich brindle coats, striped like tigers, all with a human at the end of their leash. There is something quite humanizing about dogs and it was a happy crowd. 

While not every open studio goes to the dogs, we do hold open studios every second Saturday. We open our doors and people are invited to wander through. Some are return visitors with whom we have an ongoing conversation about our developing work. Others are new visitors who I would otherwise be unlikely to meet. For me, this is the benefit of having a studio. I get to talk to people I don't know. 


I have friends who are very gregarious. They talk to people at neighboring tables in restaurants, to people on trains and public transportation. They cross personal space boundaries that I would never think to cross. I am insular and self-contained, a shy person still lurks at the core. There are certain settings; however, where I can discard that shyness and let my natural curiosity come to the forefront. Studio visits seem to free my gregarious self.

I frequently trade book recommendations with visitors. Often, we talk of loved ones who lost memory or of how one comes to term with loss of loved ones. Many tell me of their genealogy searches, their personal heritage and their family stories. My paintings are stories that touch on human experiences and they draw stories from my visitors. Because I share my personal stories it gives them an opportunity to share theirs. There are often very real connections made without even an exchange of names. 

I never know if these contacts will lead to an ongoing connection, but I believe in the magic of the chance encounter. It is how many things happen. You go into it with an attitude of openness, open to possibility, but without expectation. You bring your curiosity and interest and along the way you learn about what others are doing that might touch what you are doing.

Two interesting connections arose at this open studio, both out of my Jewish Identity and Legacy Series. A little bit of background if you are new to this blog...in 2011 and 2012 I did a series of interviews with three groups of elders at Sholom Home. While my focus was on identity, I soon realized that immigration was a central theme. The first group grew up in early immigrant communities, typically their parents were immigrants. The second group were Holocaust survivors who immigrated in the 1940s and 50s and the third were immigrants from the former Soviet Union who came over in the 1970s through the 1990s. I then developed artwork and video on their stories and have been exhibiting the work and talking about it ever since. More recently I've been working on a book that combines both artwork and the oral histories. I hope to have it out by the end of the year. I have some of my favorite paintings from the series on my studio walls and have found that it's a topic that engages many people who come to my studio.

Local photographer Steve Ozone came through my studio and shared with me his work in interviewing Japanese Americans who were interned in the camps.  A while back I had heard Sally Sudo speak, one of his interviewees, and became intrigued with the parallels to the first steps of isolation and concentration that many Jews experienced prior to the Holocaust. I had begun to research the topic and wrote about it in a blog entry. One of the things I've been considering in relation to sharing my book is reaching out across groups. I’ve realized that there are echoes of similar experiences in different groups. Some of those experiences relate to isolation as the "other", or the common challenges most immigrants face. Steve and I talked about the interviewing process and some of the parallels in the experiences of our interviewees. We also shared the fact that neither of us had originally sought to use our artwork to explore our personal heritage, yet somehow fell into doing so. Here was a case of similar projects with different populations which shared some parallel experiences as well as parallels in the experience of the artists.

A second interesting connection came in relation to a painting in this series related to the story of the first Jewish grocery store in Minneapolis, Brochins. I had chatted at length with a woman, who like me, was intrigued with genealogy.  As we spoke, her friend was studying the painting. After the open studio concluded I came home to an email from her friend, Amanda Hughes, asking me the name of the store in the painting. It turned out Amanda writes historical fiction and had just written a story partially based in Minnesota. She had written about Brochins in her draft that she was just preparing to send off to her editor. I keep photographs of much of my research, so sent her an article I had found in the archives from the 1920s which painted a vivid picture of the store. I look forward to finding it captured in her book.

You never know who will walk in when you open your doors. 

Stop by at an open studio
California Building Studio 407/409
2205 California Street NE
Second Saturdays
11AM-4PM
or by appointment




And don't forget Art-a-Whirl
our big open studio event

Fri, May 19th    5:00pm-10:00pm
Sat, May 20th   Noon-8:00pm
Sun, May 21st  Noon-5:00pm

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Raining Blue

It has been awhile since I've written about artwork, but I've been hard at work preparing for two shows and continuing to develop work on memory.  I've been asked to participate in a show called (Re)-Telling which takes the source material for artwork created by a Holocaust artist and asks contemporary artists to respond to it in their own fashion. Now I've done artwork on the Holocaust, but usually responding to a story by a survivor friend. I had a hook that wasn't totally mired in death and destruction.  She survived after all. There was an element of overcoming hardship, of survival. 


As I read through the selections on which Fritz Hirschberger based his work, there was little to soften this material. His work addressed the Holocaust in all its sharp and ugly edges. Finally I settled on one that while it invoked a pit in my stomach, was easy to visualize and spoke to an observation I have often made.  Horrific things have often happened in places that can appear quite innocent today, dare I say visually pleasing. In some ways that juxtaposition adds to the power of place.


I have a painting I did of the killing field of Ponar outside of Vilnius, Lithuania. Beneath the image of a forest glen are Yiddish letters meant to figuratively recall the bodies buried in the pits. They spell out the Yiddish word which means "remember". It is a pleasing image that many remark upon. I warn them that it is not an easy story before I launch into it.There is an element of bait and switch. I seduce them into a difficult story.

Place is an important marker on history. It is easy for history to be rewritten and forgotten. Remembering the events that occurred matters.Remembering where they occurred gives a heft and weight to memory. The incongruity of beauty and horror fix image in memory.


So here is the passage I selected.


Shamefully the blue fills rooms with death color, it swirls amethyst-crystals to paint death onto canvas forgetting the blue of the sea to pour death through sky to take away breath, deceiving with the most beautiful of blues, raining death blue. 
-Alice Rogoff, San Francisco 1991 

When I read this passage, I remembered my visit to Majdanek and the rich blue on the walls of the gas chamber, not aware at first of its origin from the poison that was used to kill. That moment of realization is shocking. Quiet forest glens were once killing fields, an inviting blue comes from the materials of death. 

There was a peephole into the room so they could monitor death. Light outlined the door as if the door led to something mysterious. I chose to use breath as the metaphor for people, picturing it as clouds, yellowing, absorbing the blue into its billows as death rained down upon it, gradually taking breath away.

Re-Telling
April 14-June 1
JCCTychman Shapiro Gallery
Reception: April 19 6PM