These past few months I’ve been immersed in everything except painting. My time has been consumed with video editing for my interview series, public speaking about my artwork and a smattering of family history consulting. I finally decided it was time to venture back into the studio and begin a painting on my more recent interviews. I’d forgotten about the feeling of anticipation tinged with a little anxiety that I experience when I begin a painting.
I often have people ask me how long it takes me to do a painting. There is no simple answer to that question. Paintings begin long before brush meets canvas. Even then they are started, erased and begun anew. So I thought I would track the process in this blog and give you a flavor for at least how one painting develops.
Artists begin paintings in very different ways. Some do careful sketches and plan out the composition. Others like my husband start putting paint down until they have an abstract from which they then develop the imagery that they see within that abstract. The first is a careful planner, the second draws more on subconscious. I am at neither end of the spectrum. I begin with an idea so in that sense I have some view of where I am going. I have a story to tell. The question is how I am going to tell it. Sometimes it is representational, sometimes it has elements of free association and veers towards semi-abstract.
My current painting began in yoga class as I lay in child’s pose. My overactive brain never quite rests, but as I slowed my body down I began to think about my interviews and the imagery they conjured. I’ve written about my more recent interviews in these pages and the act of writing and editing them has forced me to find the kernels, the details that best define the story. As I thought about Hanna and her story of coming over on the Kindertransport, I thought of her Red Cross letters. These letters had been her only way of communicating with her family still in Germany. They were transmitted through the Red Cross, but she told me that one couldn’t say much because other eyes were watching. Hanna showed little affect as she talked about her family and the war. She carefully managed her emotions. Her story was best told in what wasn’t said. In answer to the question of how she knew her parents were no longer alive she replied, “everything stopped”. Her parents had been very good about sending Red Cross letters to her, fondly signed Vati and Mutti, until they could no longer send them. Her father, mother and brother all died in Auschwitz and Hanna had to carry on. And carry on she did with strong survival instincts noted by her daughters.
The letters represented a different life and the embrace of family. When they stopped, that life ended and another began. I knew that the name of the painting would be “And Then Everything Stopped”. So the challenge with a painting about stopping is where to start. I’ve learned it doesn’t much matter as I can paint it out if I don’t like it. The important thing is to start and get things flowing. Then the process will take over. I have also learned that I am an experiential person. I have to do and see things to evaluate them. Some people can picture a dress out of a bolt of cloth. I would need to make it and then remake it if necessary. That is the way I paint as well.
I reviewed the imagery that I had from Hanna. She had many photos of her prior life and all of her Red Cross letters in an album. I had taken pictures of some of them as her granddaughter leafed through them. I had a picture of Hanna’s hands as well. I decided to begin with the Red Cross letters and did a rather abstracted painting of the pages, one folded open and emphasizing the many colors embedded in a seemingly white page. Blues, purples, yellows all tinted the page. The painting looked quite abstract until I inserted the red cross at the top with some identifying print.
So what next? I looked at the picture of Hanna’s hands, very square, purposeful hands. I imagined the many times they had touched those pages longing for her family. Touching the handwritten “Vati, Mutti” thinking of when her parents last touched that same page. With that thought I began to sketch in the hands. After four hours of painting I had a fairly representational painting with hands that still required some work to be captured fully. I took a picture and decided to come back and view it with fresh eyes. I track the progress of my paintings through photographs to remind myself how much they develop and change. Were it not for photographs I could easily forget the stages through which they pass.
When I leave my studio I frequently set up the painting I am working on so it faces the door. This is so I can see it as someone stumbling across a painting in a studio and test my reaction. The next time I entered my studio I was less taken with the hands, too representational. I had just been reading Levin’s book on Lee Krasner, an abstract expressionist, which no doubt influenced my reaction. Before I could second guess myself I painted out the hands.
OK, hands off, now what? I played with the writing, recording it, then covering it with a glaze of medium and white. Scratching into it, then scraping away with a palette knife. I pictured a void of silence. Nothing coming, a black hole and began to paint it in the corner of the canvas. As I painted that black hole it reminded me of an ear, the dark center of it, listening anxiously for word that doesn't come.
It occurred to me that there must have been a long period of waiting, listening, before the finality of "everything stopped" was acknowledged. It would have been a gradual, horrifying realization. By thinking of Hanna's experience at that time, the concept of the painting began to take form. It was to be of that moment before full comprehension of loss, when one anxiously awaits the word which doesn't come.
The form around the hole began to take the shape of an ear, not necessarily recognizable as such because blues and purples seemed like the right colors to balance the painting. And blue is the color of sadness, loss, so perhaps it is fitting in an emotional sense. Above it the scratched in words, Mutti, Vati, Halo, their pet name for her.Because these paintings are to tell a story, I don’t want to let them get so abstract that the story is lost. But it is possible for some elements to be abstracted as long as the story works with them. By now I had spent six hours actually painting.
The painting was beginning to take shape, but it didn't look quite finished to me. I reread the interview with Hanna and was struck by her statement about being careful what they wrote because other eyes were watching. I added eyes above and began to sculpt the ear below. Soon I had the image above.
So how much time has passed? By now I've invested eight hours of painting, but painting isn't the only time involved. Remember I create my own source material so before I could paint, I had to do the interview, transcribe it, video edit and write a blog entry to pull out the key elements. All of that is part of the process by which I internalize the story. So add on another 26 hours before I can even pick up a paint brush. I'm not sure if I am done yet, but to get to this stage it has taken 34 hours of work. Each painting is unique and the time it requires varies, but the various stages and evolution are fairly representative of the process. You can see how much a painting evolves in just a few days. When I live with it for awhile it often invites editing and further changes.