I have many efforts half formed. Speeches to prepare, grants to write, shows to enter, projects to propose and paintings to paint. Often the initial step has been taken as I await response. The Artists' Lab show is fast approaching and I am struggling with what artwork I will exhibit. Of course first I have to create it. The theme is light and it is almost too broad. I circle around it, trying to decide where I should alight.
I started by doing some brainstorming with my friend and sometimes muse. In the lab exhibit last year I had told one of her stories from the Holocaust coupled with poetry. That had gotten me working on a series based on her stories which I hope to use in Holocaust education. Now she recounted her experiences with light during that time. She noted that sometimes light was frightening for it meant exposure. Darkness by contrast provided a sense of safety, a place to hide.When I asked her about images of light and darkness that stayed with her, she recalled that the crematorium at Auschwitz spewed fire at night and they saw flames ascend through a small window at the top of the barracks.
She also told me of a contrasting moment of beauty amidst darkness. When she arrived at Bergen Belsen they were released from the box cars. . Before them was a pine forest, a blue black sky studded with stars and a dusting of snow on the trees. It was the first time for many months that they were in the outdoors and the sheer beauty of it reminded her of a world with hope.To help me find my way into the imagery I began to write poetry. Sometimes I paint first and then write poetry to distill the painting. In this case, I wrote poetry first and then moved into painting.
I did a small painting of the image of the forest, but decided I needed it to be tall to create the sense of majesty that I imagined. I was considering a painting of the forest, but she felt it was important to juxtapose the flames of the crematorium with the beauty of the forest. I was having a hard time imagining how I could meld the imagery together, but decided to begin painting and see where it would take me. But first I had to decide what size canvas would suit this image. I settled on two feet by four feet, high enough to allow for box cars, trees, chimney and sky, small enough to fit within the three feet of wall we have been allotted.
I've written a series of poems that address light and darkness from two perspectives, the Holocaust and sight. My friend is now legally blind and I have been intrigued by how one preserves one's inner light in the face of darkness, a concept applicable to both perspectives. It also creates an interesting process as she describes an image to me from her inner eye which I then try to create and describe back to her. It reminds me of an experience I had painting my grandmother and sending my iterations to my mother. She had told me that my painting didn't reflect the work worn nature of her mother's hands. I worked on the painting and sent an image to her multiple times until her mother stepped out of the image to her. It is a filtering through the memory of another person expressed to yet someone else.
Here's the segment of poetry that speaks to the Holocaust imagery my friend had described.
On the Eve of Your 21st Birthday
Light was often your enemy
Furnaces spewed fire
in the night
As souls escaped
in final release.
Darkness your friend
You flattened yourself
against the wall
of the darkened stairwell
Safe from the probing tongues of bayonets
And sometimes hope emerged
Hidden in the guise of darkness.
On the eve of your twenty-first birthday
You stepped from a boxcar,
A sky of midnight blue,
Stars shining against its darkness,
Evergreens dusted with snow
Bent to bestow their blessing
And here's my initial attempt after four hours of painting, basically trying to cover the canvas before I begin to fine-tune. I take a photo of my work before leaving the studio and study it, seeing elements I want to change when I return. For example in hindsight I got a bit carried away with the smoke and will work on that again. I still have some figures to add to the painting. My friend imagined people entering and exiting the train. I am picturing them entering on one side in the far right corner, but exiting from the other side of the train, forming an S curve to draw your eye in. And they will be looking up, their attention focused on the sky. I also need to develop the sky and decide if I am going to include the moon and if so where, perhaps peeking through the smoke of the chimney.
In the Lab we talked about Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Horowitz (1760-1827) who considered the letter aleph which represents the name of God. He linked it to mankind in a surprising way, noting that it echoes the form of our face. If we break it down to its component parts we see two yuds and a vav, two eyes and a nose, figuratively holding God before us in our own face. I think of it as a metaphor for light and think I may try to form the stars out of alephs as well as the souls escaping through the chimney as sparks.
I don't often share my work in process, it feels a bit like being caught half dressed or running into someone you know at the grocery store when you're looking pretty scruffy. In the next few entries, I invite you to go through this process with me. Keep in mind, it has been known to end with me painting an image out and starting anew.