Thursday, December 20, 2012

Setting the Table

In the last post I wrote about “happy surprises” and thought I should perhaps give a little color to what that means. I don’t know how to create the magic spark that sets them in motion, but I have learned how to set the table for them and hope they show up.

When I first left my career in finance, I decided I was going to focus on my artwork and family history, but really didn’t know how that was going to happen. Sometimes the most important thing we can do is decide that we are going to do something and announce it to others.

When I turned 30 I realized that I had invested “other people” with a lot of power. I was intrigued by overseas travel, but had never done it. I thought it was something that “other people” did. That was when I resolved to become “other people”. I began to announce to everyone that I was going to Europe that summer. Now at the time I had no idea how to put such a trip together, but as luck would have it I announced it to a new friend who said she had never been and asked if she could join me. Soon another friend joined up and the trip took on life.

Several decades later I found that deciding I was going to focus on my artwork and family history had some of the flavor of that early announcement. I didn’t know quite how I was going to do it, but the mere act of committing began to move me down a road.

I’ve learned over time that if you don’t know how to take the next step it is sometimes important to take any step. I researched what organizations existed that dealt with family history and discovered our local Jewish Historical Society. When I told them I was interested in volunteering, they quickly drafted me into delivering their annual genealogy talk. At the time I was no more fond of public speaking than most of us and soon began to wonder what I had gotten myself into. Despite those hesitations, I did the talk and had a great time doing it.

The talk was at the local JCC. After the talk, I walked out the door, my head buzzing with family history and noted that there was a gallery next door, the Tychman Shapiro. My first thought was, “That would be a great place to do a show on family history”. I soon headed to my studio and began a series of paintings on family history.

Now here is where it begins to get strange. One day my husband told me that someone he knew had recommended a show at the gallery and we decided to stop by. The gallery director was in the gallery and advised us that they had an opening later that day as well as an artist talk and we should stop back. The theme of the show was related to family history. When we stopped back, there were my friends from the Jewish Historical Society. They asked me what I was up to and I told them about the series I was working on of family history artwork. In my pre-ipad days I used to carry around photos of my paintings so with some prodding from my husband I shared them. My friends from the Jewish Historical Society gave me an enthusiastic push suggesting that I show them to the gallery director who in turn suggested that I should submit a proposal for a show.

Up until now I had entered paintings in shows, but had never thought in terms of a solo show. Emboldened by our conversation I put together a proposal, submitted it and then put it out of my mind.

I took off on a month-long trip to China. One evening I was checking my e-mail at an Internet café, beaded with sweat in the sweltering July evening. Among my e-mails was one from the gallery director. “We’d like to have you do a show in January,” she wrote. In the e-mail exchange that followed I asked, “How many paintings does it take to fill the gallery?” “Twenty” was her reply. At this point I had 7 paintings done. I began to map out paintings in my mind, diptychs, triptychs, anxious to return home and get to work. When I returned, I also began to develop a workshop on family history collage that they had asked me to teach. By January I was ready and in fact had more than enough to fill the walls. The show received a favorable review, the talk I gave went well and I was launched.

So when I examine this experience, looking for the mirrors within the magic trick, I come up with this. Taking the first step was important, volunteering opened up a door and it was important to step outside of my comfort zone. It also formed connections with people who proved to be important to my story.

Next I took action, beginning my paintings as a personal exploration. At the time I was stuck in my family history research and thought coming at it from a different angle might open up a different perspective. Once again I was trying to solve a puzzle.

When I commit to something, a talk, a workshop, a show, I work hard. I often think about a business concept, branding. I want my brand to be that I can be counted on to deliver and to do it well.

I didn’t forget to market my work, even if it was shyly and occasionally needed a push from others. I had photos on hand of what I was doing.

Now I didn’t have control over whether they chose to exhibit my work and it was pure chance that we showed up at that exhibition. That’s where the magic spark came into play. Some call it beshert which is Yiddish for fate. Whether predetermined or not, there is something other worldly, magical about how these things occur.

That pattern repeats itself over and over, always beginning with an exploration. My next journey was to Lithuania to study Yiddish at the Vilnius Yiddish Institute, again an outgrowth of my interest in family history. There I was disturbed by the rewriting of Holocaust history that I observed. I returned and began a series of paintings that addressed that topic. Again it was an exploration of something that puzzled me. Similar to writing, painting is a way for me to sort things out.

While in Lithuania I had watched a film of interviews with survivors and was very moved. I wrote to the people who had created the film to ask if I could get a copy of it to show with my artwork. Of course I included a link to my website so they could see the work. It turned out that they had a gallery in London and asked me to exhibit my work and speak at International Holocaust Day.

Now the work I was doing was going to be cumbersome to ship so I redid a number of paintings on canvas to make it easier. I had a painting that was six feet tall that I redid on two canvases connected by a hinge. I did intensive research into shipping as well.  It took a lot of work to respond to the opportunity.

Again I had no control over their response and didn’t know that they had recently opened a gallery. That is where the magic came in.

And yet another opportunity.

I had decided to learn about my family that once lived in Poland. At the same time I had begun a volunteer effort of creating a website (a Kehilalink) on that ancestral town for I contacted 400 people who were researching family from Radom seeking content for the site. Then I made plans to visit Radom. I did extensive research before I went and connected with a young man at the Arts and Culture Center to get the key to the cemetery.

In response to those 400 emails, I heard from an Israeli gentleman. He sent me a 1937 film of the former Jewish community. I took stills and put them on the website and decided I needed to be doing a series of paintings based on this.

I then received another email from my new Israeli friend who advised me that he knew someone in Israel who knew someone from my ancestral town who lived in my community. Now here I dropped the ball and failed to follow up, but magic can be persistent. I gave a speech at a local organization about what I was working on and another person came up to me and told me they had just been at a dinner and met a woman from my ancestral town. Same woman! This in itself has become part of the story I tell, fate tapped me on the shoulder and I ignored it, then it came along and poked me in the ribs.

I contacted Dvora, the woman who shared my ancestral town. We became very good friends and have done many talks together about my artwork and her experience in the Holocaust. She had shared with me photos that she had of her prior life, hidden in the shoes of family members throughout Dachau.

As I worked on the website I coordinated with my Polish friend at the Arts and Culture Center on photos. When I told him about my artwork and Dvora he invited me to show my work at an annual focus they do on the former Jewish community. The idea of showing my artwork in the town of my grandfather’s birth was too rich a concept to pass up, but there was little time to complete enough paintings to round out a show.

I had a brainstorm, what if I included Dvora’s photos with my paintings of that former Jewish community. The idea was welcomed and Dvora and I traveled to Radom where we showed my artwork and her photos. Dvora took me around the town from which my family came and told me of the once thriving Jewish community in which they lived.

Now each of these stories has some common threads. I could never have fully planned for them as they each contain an element of synchronicity that created the spark of magic. Synchronicity is when unrelated events that would not typically occur by chance occur together in a meaningful way. I walked out the door of my talk and saw the gallery, just as I was thinking of family history. I asked for a copy of a DVD to show with my artwork with no knowledge that they had opened a gallery. I connected with a survivor from my ancestral town in my own community, then got to know the Arts and Culture Center in Radom in the course of tracking down a cemetery key. These disparate events began to connect into a meaningful whole to create my story.

Even though I can't create the synchronicity, I can create opportunities for it to occur and be prepared to welcome it. And while I await its often untimely arrival I do the following:

1) Begin an exploration, often as part of a volunteer or learning experience.  In these examples it involved a presentation, creating a website and learning a language in an overseas program. All of my projects involve a lot of front-end work. As you may note, family history is often the engine behind them.

2). Begin a series of artwork. Just as family history is the engine, artwork is the vehicle. The artwork is a continuation of the exploration, sometimes a meditation of sorts. I often read on related topics as well so I am immersed in a topic.

3) Reach out to others, often in connection with the volunteer effort. The important part is widening my network around a topic in which I am actively engaged.

4) Let others know what I am doing.  I do this in part by having a current website. By the way, I learned to do my own website by taking an on-line course to create my ancestral website. One thread feeds another.

5) Work very hard to seize the opportunity and make it happen.  Sometimes that means taking on something that at first blush seems daunting, but say yes to opportunity and then figure out how to do it.

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