I realized that my process of developing a painting around a story closely relates to what makes a good story. A good story is visual and sensory. If you can picture it, odds are it will stay with you and the people with whom you share it. Just as our memories are visual, stories that have legs can be easily visualized. If they can be visualized, then they in turn provide good source material for painting.
I shared with the class a story that my friend Dora told me about a death march that she was on during the war. She told me that they were given three things, a can with a picture of a chicken on it, a blanket and some bread. The first thing they did was discard the can as they had no way to open it. The road was strewn with cans of chicken. Then they tied the blanket around their neck. First they put it over one shoulder, then the other. Quickly it became a noose around their neck and some abandoned the blankets as well. The bread of course was precious and they ate some and saved the rest for it meant survival. When she told me that story I found I could easily picture the road strewn with cans of chicken. I could feel the tug of the blanket around my neck as I imagined it first on one shoulder, then the other. It was the sensory elements of the story as well as the theme of three things that helped me to retain it.
The stories that stay with me often have some small detail buried in them that I’ve never heard elsewhere. It is the details that make it memorable. One of my paintings is called Bricks for Bread. It is about how the Nazis not only destroyed the Warsaw ghetto, but then sold the bricks to the Poles, a detail that I had never learned prior to the interviews I did as part of the Identity and Legacy project. Another detail that stayed with me was the fact that the Germans had fled the Russians, abandoning their homes. Survivors from the camps often became squatters in those homes as they sought shelter after being freed.
In addition to artwork, the Identity and Legacy project has also generated some video. I often share a brief video of a survivor’s story and then discuss how I developed artwork around that story. In this way I can open up the creative process taking them into the source material and how I decided which elements to focus on in the subsequent artwork.
I have come to realize that my focus in all that I do is story. Artwork, writing and speaking are all just expressions of that common theme. Story is universal. We grow up having stories read to us and a well-told story never fails to captivate.