Sunday, March 31, 2013
Wednesday, March 27, 2013
At the last Jewish Artist Lab we discussed whether we liked explanatory text with paintings. The group was divided, but all were in agreement that they abhorred art jargon, fine words that create nothing of real meaning. I like clearly written explanatory text and try to add it to my work.
The beauty of this show was that they let Matisse speak and give us a view into his approach and thoughts. In his paintings titled Bowl of Apples on a Table and Apples (23rd & 24th image down) he is reported to have said in a 1936 interview, "Why should I paint the outside of an apple, however exactly? What possible cause could there be in copying an object which nature provides in unlimited quantities?" Matisse is as concerned with backgrounds as he is with the subject and used black freely. "Before when I didn't know what color to put down, I put down black. Black is a force; I used black as a ballast to simplify the construction." I found that I especially liked his paintings that made use of black.
I was interested in his process of sometimes working in tandem, repeating compositions to compare effects. He worked in pairs, trios and series. His focus was not just a finished painting, but an examination of the process.
I learned a bit about working in pairs when I prepared to exhibit my Lithuania series in London. I repainted several paintings on canvas rather than the original board to make them easier to ship. The act of painting the same subject twice was a learning process. I often tried to "fix" something only to find that I preferred the original and the "fix" lost something. As I lived with them I became equally fond of the "second child", loving each painting for the features that made it unique. I usually work in series and have observed how my style and process evolve with each painting. I become bolder and more relaxed as I progress, more confident that something interesting will result even if not what I anticipate at the outset.
The text noted that in 1914 Matisse was focused on means of representation, the role of color and what constitutes a finished canvas. I chuckled at the last item as I know too well how sometimes a too finished canvas loses something that existed prior. I have often wished for an "undo" button. I find I need to live with a painting in my studio for some time before I declare it done and I've been known to take a painting down from a show and totally rework it.
Of the paintings that really gripped me visually, one was Interior With Goldfish (18th image down). Matisse was intrigued with using a window as a passageway between interior and exterior space. In a 1914 interview he notes, " When I paint I see (my subject) in relation to the wall, in relation to the light of the room in which it is enclosed, in relation to the objects that surround it." I loved the repetition of forms, both the linear forms, but especially the arcs that formed the bridge and goldfish bowl.
The other one that I found especially pleasing was Interior With a Violin (29th down) in which his use of black so beautifully captured the difference between light and dark. He literally used black to paint light.
One room was totally composed of his process and reproduced a show he had at the Galerie Maeght . In that show he exhibited photos of paintings as they progressed so you can clearly see the experimental nature of his process. a similar progression is shown in photos of his painting The Blue Dress.
I have always loved Matisse's later work and his use of color and form. Interior With an Egyptian Curtain makes use of black to paint light in addition to rich colors.
The show is now closed, but a catalog is available as well as some useful text and images on the Metropolitan Museum site.
Tuesday, March 19, 2013
A recent New York Times article by Bruce Feiler reported on a study that found that children who know about their family history are more emotionally healthy, more able to recover from challenges. It is all about having a unifying narrative, preferably a healthy one. Feiler references the research done on this topic by Marshall Duke and his colleague Robyn Fivush. They work within the interestingly named Center for Myth and Ritual in American Life at Emory. Intrigued by Feiler’s article, I decided to dig a little deeper and read a number of papers by Duke and his associates on the "intergenerational self". Their finding is that through reminiscing and family stories, children develop an "intergenerational self” that defines one’s place within a larger family narrative. By anchoring their sense of self in a larger family context, their sense of self is strengthened.
So this got me thinking about my family’s narrative. As a family historian I have a strong intergenerational self and have learned much about my family going back several generations. My thoughts focused on the more recent generations, what my parents shared with me about themselves and about my grandparents. I know that education and teaching were central to my parents’ narrative. Both were smart kids without resources,raised by immigrant parents in Brooklyn. My father had the benefit of the GI bill which took him to Stanford. He later became a professor. My mother went back to college and became a teacher.
I have a letter that my maternal grandfather wrote to my mother when she graduated from college. In it he wrote a defining statement, “It is good to donate the knowledge to others.” I loved the choice of words, to donate the knowledge, to give it freely. Interestingly my parents both taught, my sister started out as a teacher and both of my nieces are currently teaching. Most of our family also has graduate degrees. Although I didn’t seek out a teaching career, I find that now much of what I do relates to teaching and education. In my family we seek out education and then we donate the knowledge.
I never really knew my paternal grandfather, but I knew many stories about him, a rather telling one from my aunt. My grandfather ran a surplus store and during the Depression they lived behind the store. If you couldn’t afford the rent, the marshals would come and put everything out on the street corner. My grandfather was fortunate to have a truck and if he couldn’t pay the rent, he would pay the marshals a few dollars to load the contents onto his truck and he would drive to his new location. This story conveys a shrewd man and perhaps a little anti-authoritarian, characteristics that would describe my father as well.
My father was not a rule follower and he was very successful by charting his own path. “Don’t let the bastards get you down,” was his refrain, viewing anyone who didn’t want him to do what he wanted to do as one of those bastards. When my brother tapped into the PA system in high school and the school authorities frantically searched for the source, my father was secretly amused. I think it appealed to his anti-authoritarian side and a certain appreciation of creativity. He didn’t sit around waiting for permission and he was a doer. My mom used to say if they had been in a concentration camp during WWII my dad would have likely survived. (I think only Jewish families contemplate such grim "what ifs"). He knew how to take care of himself and rely on his wits. I remember him taking me aside once and telling me that I would be OK because I was a survivor. I felt like I had been knighted into a secret society. I knew something important had been communicated.
Interestingly money was not part of the family narrative. My dad would often talk of how he came from poverty, but his point wasn’t that he achieved great wealth, but rather that he had found a comfortable life doing what he loved. My father chose academia over a corporate world where he could have had a far more lucrative career. And he supported my efforts regardless of whether they were well compensated. He was equally proud, whether I made my career in finance or the arts, and I did both. Both he and my mother loved what they did and they wanted their kids to love what they did as well.
My dad used to tell the story of a coin toss. As one of his university stints was coming to a close, he and a co-worker were both interested in one permanent position.They ended up doing a coin toss for the position. He lost, but ultimately he won. His next step introduced him to a person who would lead him to his life’s work. So one of the lessons I learned was that defeats are often opportunities if viewed through the right lens. If you can’t pay the rent, you can get the marshals to load your truck.
And there are lessons to be learned from defeats.Years ago when I had a career upset, my father remarked, “It was about time you landed on your ass, you were getting entirely too smug”. No one minced words in my family, the message was clear - failure is a necessary step along the road to becoming a full person. If nothing else it teaches humility. Later in my life when I experienced challenges I often asked myself what I was supposed to learn, looking for the lesson that would add meaning to the experience.
So I think there is something to this family narrative stuff. The gifts that I received from my family history are gifts that play out every day of my life.
Saturday, March 16, 2013
It is a strange thing to spend a few hours with someone learning about their life. To get a sense of them as a person and presume you know them based on that slight knowledge. Yet the act of asking someone about their life does spark something, a certain intimacy. Transcribing the interviews, editing them and then letting details bubble up into a painting to tell their story, builds on that. I find that I feel a genuine sense of loss with their passing, as if I knew them better than time would support. Enough so that I decided to stop by the shiva tonight to offer condolences and give his children additional copies of the recorded interview in which he told so many family stories.
The obituary captured his many accomplishments, his engagement in life, his travel and his long marriage. I certainly learned a bit about those topics in my interview with him, but I also learned a bit more by merely observing. Before I met them I did some research. Enough to know of Harold's career and his many accomplishments. I fully expected him to take center stage and wondered how we would draw out his wife's story, afraid that his would overpower. I need not have been concerned. I soon learned that Harold was a very humble man, far more inclined to talk about his wife's accomplishments than his own. He was proud of her and encouraged her to tell her story. There was a warmth and affection between them that was palpable. At one point he reached out to cover her hand with his and I thought this is what it is supposed to be like. This is what we all hope for.
He recounted their joint decision making process when it came to a move to another country. It was clear that they both shared a curiosity about the world and a sense of adventure. He attributed their meeting to "beshert", fate, and perhaps the helping hand of the Jewish community. They were clearly well matched to share the adventures of life.
Their son and granddaughter also joined us in the interview. Dorothy's son was born of her first marriage, a marriage that ended when her husband died in WWII. Harold was a part of her son's life from early on and the same easy affection and humor colored their relationship. There were strong ties of the heart that connected the family. A gentle recounting of shared visits with his granddaughter, a teasing humor with his son and a son's pride in all his father had accomplished. That heart was big enough to fully embrace Dorothy's son as well as a child they took into their family from the DP camps who became a son to them as well. Together they had one more son to complete their family.
Harold was a storyteller, eager to recount the story of his parents' immigration to America in a manner that brought the listener along with them. I could imagine him as a very effective teacher. He understood the importance of story. So I am grateful that I met him in that final stage of his life and perhaps can help to tell his story. Not so much the one of accomplishments of which there were many, but the one of a gentle and embracing heart.
Thursday, March 14, 2013
Last week we discussed synesthesia. The word literally translates from Greek to mean “together sensation”. It is when one sense stimulates another such as seeing colors when one hears music. Our starting point had been a passage in Exodus that talks of seeing sound. At the most recent session we picked up with that passage yet again and our facilitator noted that when she translated the Hebrew it first speaks in present tense and then shifts to past tense. So the true passage reads “the entire people see the thunder and the flames, the sound of the shofar and the smoking mountain; the people stood and trembled and stood from afar”.
In discussing its meaning we talked about collapsing time with all periods existing simultaneously, especially when thinking of time in the realm of the sacred. We are to read such passages as if we too were present at Mt. Sinai, even though we stand from afar. Ritual is an important element in compressing time as it links us to the past. The question was posed as to whether we addressed or considered time in our artwork.
Now I never had pondered this question before, but anyone painting around the issue of family history and legacy has to address time in some fashion. I did a series titled "A Hole in Time" which was looking back in time through imagery that resembled a pinhole camera with muted colors and a darkened edge, just a little bit of light emitted to allow us to see and imagine the past.
In my recent painting “From Her Mother”, I represented time in overlapping circles meant to represent generations sitting down around the same table, linked through rituals that have been handed down, literally through time. Objects and artifacts survive even as the people who used them pass on. I imagine those artifacts being passed through those circles of time, representing the rituals in which their users engaged, rituals that we may now share and continue, linking us back.
Our discussion shifted to the idea of ritual as a marker of time. Lighting the Sabbath candles delineates the beginning of the Sabbath. The Havdalah ceremony marks the end. I thought of my painting "Fire, Light and Legacy" with its 200 year old candlesticks handed down through generations and used for the blessing of the Sabbath candles. Questions were posed. What rituals do you observe? What time periods do they mark?
Before I begin a painting there are little rituals I engage in to settle into it. For my current series that is based on interviews, I first marinate in story, rereading interviews to put myself back into the story. Then I see what imagery bubbles to the top. I may also research some aspect of the story. Only then do I paint, first building a ground by laying down color while I listen to my favorite painting music, a CD of Sephardic music I found in Cordoba, Spain. I conclude my painting by cleaning brushes, then setting my painting across the room where I can study it and contemplate next steps.
We then turned to the B'rakhot, the blessings of gratitude in Judaism which are also a ritual of sorts. Many of these blessings are around the wonders of nature. One says them when one hears thunder, sees a rainbow or sees trees in bloom for the first time in the year. Even one for when we wear new clothes. Part of the purpose of the blessing is to heighten awareness, not a mindless ritual, but a mindful one. To see through fresh eyes. To recognize and affirm gratitude for life's wonders.
The process of artwork can also contemplate time. When I saw the recent Matisse show at the Metropolitan, they showed a series of photographs of Matisse's work in process and its evolution. I take photos as I work also and it is fascinating to look back at the evolution of a painting which I would soon forget without that photographic reminder. It reaffirms for me that a painting can change in ways I can’t always imagine initially. As can life. It is a process that unfolds. Each step building on those that came before.
Our exercise for the evening was to cut geometric shapes from black paper and create time constructions on white paper. I created the shofar-like shape that I had formed in my painting "From Her Mother" of layers of connected tables as well as the suggestion of a bicycle-like vehicle moving backwards through time, my own personal time machine with a big horn to sound or perhaps "see" the way. With a roomful of artists we had many creative approaches and thought processes, often veering into 3-D constructions.
*The Jewish Artists’ Laboratory is an arts initiative through the Sabes Jewish Community Center featuring 17 artists exploring the theme of Text/Context/Subtext through study and art making. The project is funded through The Covenant Foundation and similar projects are being done in both Milwaukee and Madison. Artists explore how the theme of Text/Context/Subtext is relevant to Jews and non-Jews, to religious and non-religious, to the community and to the individual, to the artist and the non-artist.
Tuesday, March 12, 2013
The CAJM conference in NY was a great opportunity to explore the experiences of the city as well as its museums. It was appropriately named The City as Muse. While there, I had the opportunity to revisit the Lower East Side Tenement Museum. When I was last there I visited the residences within the building, located around the corner from where my father once lived as a boy. I recall how fascinated I was with how they reconstructed the stories of the residents who once lived there. This visit was somewhat different in that we visited the shops and bar that were once housed on the ground floor beneath the residences.
We entered what was once a German bar around 1870 when the area was largely German and traced the lives of its owners and the community that gathered there. Newspaper articles and documents aided in its reconstruction and painted a picture of the role it played within its surrounding community. Next door was another shop, actually a variety of shops over time from a kosher butcher to an auction house to an underwear discounter. The museum was faced with a choice, which store would they choose to represent? Their creative response was to represent all of them using technology that allows the viewer to place an object on a white board and pick up a phone which tells the story behind it. Documents appear on the board that expand on the story. This use of technology allows them build a story from an artifact, much in the way they reconstructed spaces themselves from documents and items found in the fireplace.
On another day we visited the Chelsea home of artist/architect Allan Wexler where he shared his work with us. Later he led us on a walk along the High Line, a former elevated railroad track that affords views of the city and soon will be the site of the new Whitney Museum expansion. Much like the Promenade Plantee in Paris, it is basically an elevated park and walkway. Public art can be found along the High Line and for the third time in my visit I saw the wonderful work of El Anatsui (Broken Bridge II Western wall between West 21st and West 22nd Streets on the High Line), a Ghanaian artist who makes use of aluminum, bottle caps and copper wire in his museum work and pressed tin and mirrors in the work along the High Line.
On the same visit I admired a beautiful piece of his at the Metropolitan Museum and many works which filled a huge area within the Brooklyn Museum.
I had the opportunity to visit the Brooklyn Museum with CAJM during the museum's Saturday event which is open for free to the public. The Brooklyn Museum has an eclectic collection and juxtaposes pieces that I would not always expect to be side by side. It was full of surprises and I suspect that helps to introduce people to the museum that might not normally seek it out. The Brooklyn Museum has been very successful in reaching out to the surrounding community and doing programming that invites them in.
On one floor they house the Judy Chicago dinner party, a triangular table with individually designed plates and tapestries that speak of the women that the creator imagined inviting to a dinner party, women who were pivotal in history and especially women's history, but frequently not adequately recognized. While I had heard of it for decades, this was my first opportunity to see it.
Earlier in the day I had been at the Metropolitan Museum where I observed films from the early 1900s. Similar films were at the Brooklyn Museum near the paintings from the same period. I was especially intrigued by these as I was reading the Inventor and the Tycoon, a book about Eadweard Muybridge and his creation of moving pictures. I could understand the delight and amazement of people as they watched images of their time as I felt a similar delight watching a windy day at the foot of the Flatiron building a century later where early NY residents grabbed their hats to save them from the wind. At the Brooklyn Museum I watched a 1901 film by Thomas Edison, who elbowed out Muybridge in the moving picture game, capture a Marilyn Monroe moment when a woman of the times walked over a grate with a gust of wind as she held down her skirt, then burst into laughter in her turn of the century garb.
On the last day of my visit we walked over to the 9/11 memorial. The design of it is both beautiful and moving. Each tower has a pool of water that echoes its footprint. Around it are the names of those who perished in its collapse. The names are grouped by logical groupings, firemen together as well as specific businesses. They are cut out of the metal so at night a light underneath illuminates them. A waterfall descends from all four sides forming rainbows. Ultimately it pours into a 20 foot square and disappears in much the same way that the towers did. The name of the memorial is Reflecting Absence.
Sunday, March 10, 2013
The session covered the gamut of low tech to high tech approaches. For most students The Diary of Ann Frank is their primary exposure to the Holocaust. Alexandra Zapruder sought to expand on that with publication of the book Salvaged Pages , a compilation of diaries by young people trapped in the Holocaust. Alexandra read a very eloquent passage from one of the diaries and talked about how she would work with a class of students in more deeply understanding the text. She felt that it was important to have a teacher mediate discussion, but weighed the benefits and detriments of using technology to explode topics and add enhancements. She raised the question of what point visuals begin to stifle the imagination and become overwhelming and distracting. When she teaches she slows it down from the pace to which most students have become accustom. They focus on specific words and she felt it important that process be preserved.
Linda Mills of NYU shared yet another approach through her film Auf Wiedersehen: ‘Til We Meet Again , an often comic view of her journey back to Vienna with her mother and ten year old son to retrace her mother’s life prior to her 1939 escape.
The session concluded with Stephen Smith of the USC Shoah Foundation who presented the most high tech approach in which they spent five intensive days filming a survivor named Pinchus.
They interviewed him on a variety of topics and connected the video of him with classrooms where through voice recognition they were able to have the students ask questions on a variety of topics and create a seemingly live dialogue as if he were actually present in real time. Stephen noted that in 18 months they expect to have a holographic projector which would create an even more real sense of the speaker’s presence. The result is extremely powerful, but because the filming is so intensive it is a process that would not work for many survivors.
Stephen also shared a learning approach where they had students take survivor testimony from their vast collection and cut words away, distilling it to poetry. The objective is to get students to engage with survivors’ stories and understand the essence.
I came away from this session greatly encouraged at the creativity that is going into assuring a level of personal engagement that I had not thought possible. The ability to leverage new technology presents options that just a short time ago were unavailable.
Saturday, March 2, 2013
How does one find inspiration? For me inspiration often comes through the ability to see through fresh eyes. That is why travel has often inspired artwork, taking me out of my everyday. I pay attention, I notice things that may not have garnered my attention on familiar turf. Seeing in fresh ways can come through changing surroundings. It can also come through new inputs and experiences from books, workshops or discussions.
I recently began participating in an Artists' Lab* called Text/Context/Subtext sponsored by Sabes JCC. Funded by a grant from the Covenant Foundation, this project is being done in Milwaukee and Madison as well as in Minneapolis. The lab is run by several facilitators, a rabbi, an educator and several arts facilitators. It includes artists of various mediums from painting to photography to poetry and more. At its meetings we discuss a text which can take many forms, it could be a religious text, a TED lecture or a film. That discussion is followed by an arts exercise and discussion of what we learned from it. One of the valuable things I hope to get from it is the opportunity to interact with other artists around topics that we all tend to address in isolation, behind the closed door of our studio.
At the last session the rabbi led off with a passage from Exodus 20:15. The passage starts with the Ten Commandments, but ends with this curious line. "The entire people saw the thunder and the flames, the sound of the shofar and the smoking mountain; the people saw and trembled and stood from afar". We discussed the curious part, seeing thunder, seeing the sound of the shofar? Ah ha I thought, thinking of the reading from Kandinsky that had been sent out. He had painted music, using one sense to tease out another. I began to think about how I would paint that passage, creating a vibrational feeling with a repetition of echoing forms.
The rabbi then introduced the Early Morning Prayer which he translated as "praised are you Adonai our God, Master of Space and Time, who opens the eyes of the blind. I liked the phrase "opens the eyes of the blind". I thought of how creativity calls for seeing the world through fresh eyes. Not a bad prayer for creative efforts. Let me see through fresh eyes.
The Kandinsky passage that we read spoke of how a creative person uses one sense to leverage others. All of our senses are passageways to creativity. Music is by its nature less representational so can offer other pathways to capturing the essence of one's subject without necessarily relying on more literal means.
The second half of the session we tried a Kandinsky-like exercise, painting to music or perhaps painting music. In this exercise we began our effort and then passed it to another person who contributed to it before passing it on to yet another person. What I found interesting was that by giving up possession, I felt that I was more free to play with it and risk, perhaps less invested in outcome. New approaches were offered by other artists that often took me off in different directions than if I were working in isolation. I often find that when I let go of control and outcome, I arrive at a more successful painting, Sometimes I paint over my first attempt and then work with what shows through. It is easy to get too invested in a painting that isn't working, but be too afraid to let go of it and start over. Not too unlike life.
So already a thought-provoking introduction. Later in the year we will do an exhibition that grows out of these discussions. I look forward to seeing where it takes me.