Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Paintings: I Speak for Them and Tombstone Braille

I’ve been slowly working my way through my follow-up on my travels in Eastern Europe. Travel is never an isolated event for me. Rather it gives birth to a number of expressions in writing, artwork, lectures, media and now web design. Each expression of my experience, enriches and deepens what I take away from it.

I just proofed an article I wrote for Avotaynu, an international Jewish genealogy journal. It will be published in their upcoming issue and talks of my trip preparation, doing research in the archives, visiting Dunilovichi and some of the cemetery research that I’ve addressed in this blog.

Over the past few months I learned how to build websites and out of that designed and created a ShtetLink for Jewishgen.org, the major Jewish genealogy website. A ShtetLink is basically a website for a former shtetl or Jewish community in Europe. My initial focus was Dunilovichi in Belarus, the town from which one branch of my ancestors came and which I visited this summer. Learning to build the website was one aspect, but then I needed to develop the content. That meant making use of some of my research, but also contacting other researchers of that town to gather material. You can find the site at http://www.shtetlinks.jewishgen.org/Dunilovichi. Now that I’ve mastered my initial site, I’ve moved on to one for Radom, Poland, birthplace of one of my grandfathers and the next place I’d like to visit in my travels. I’m finding that developing a ShtetLink is a great way to connect with others who are researching the same town whose research may inform my own.

In the past few months I’ve also done several genealogy lectures and a radio interview, often weaving in my family history artwork. My photos unfortunately are languishing at the bottom of the priority list with periodic half-hearted attempts to organize them. In fits and starts, I am working on my painting series. I’ve been slowed a bit by the demands of some consulting work, but will be able to resume my painting full throttle in late January.

One of my recent paintings is called “Tombstone Braille”.
It is of our wonderful guide Regina who accompanied us to shtetls in Lithuania. There she read the worn letters on tombstones by closing her eyes and tracing the letters with her finger. It was a very strange thing to observe, a communing with something spiritual. One could almost feel the energy, a spark, bridging worlds as she deciphered the text.

The other painting I’ve been struggling with is of Fania, our guide to much of Vilnius. Fania is now in her late 80s, but as a young woman she escaped from the ghetto the day it was liquidated and her family murdered. She went to the forest, a two day walk from Vilnius, where she joined the partisans. One of the visits she took us on was to Ponar, the forest where the Jews of Vilnius, 45% of the city, were murdered. Her family lies buried in the pits. One of the people in our group asked her how she could come there and tell the story knowing her family was murdered there. Her reply was “I speak for them because they cannot speak for themselves. I speak Yiddish because that was their language”.

The name of the painting is “I speak for them”. It is of Fania in the forest telling her story. I first did a portrait of her and then darkened most of it so the focus is on her face and hands. Behind her are trees between which are the Yiddish letters spelling out her statement. The letters are embossed into gel medium and unfortunately this textural component doesn’t show up well in a photograph. I may add additional layers and deepen the embossing. The roots of the trees, also embossed and with a golden cast, fill the lower half of the painting, partly wrapping around her as she was rooted to that area by her family who lies buried there. The painting has gone through quite a few iterations and may have a few more to go.

I’ve just begun a painting called “The Jews Liked Blue”. Not yet ready to show, but hopefully will be in a later blog entry. It will be more abstract, but with writing. When we first arrived at our apartment in Vilnius, our landlady took us through it. As we were admiring her husband's wonderful artwork, we noted that there were some rectangles on the wall with mottled browns and blues. She told us that as they were scraping down the walls they came upon these surfaces and with their artistic sensibilities decided to keep them. It is a common practice in the city to retain a section of exterior walls as they once were when they redo a building, but this was the first time we had observed it indoors. She told us that Jews used to live in the apartment which is in the corner of the small ghetto. Commenting on the dominant color in the preserved section, she noted that “the Jews liked blue”. We studied the wall and were sure we saw Hebrew letters.

Thus the inspiration for my current painting which will be layers of browns and blues with Hebrew letters spelling out “The Jews Liked Blue” and then scraped away and obscured. It will symbolize the ghosts who shared that space with us during our month in Vilnius.

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