Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Birthing a Concept

I've been thinking about a new series of paintings and it occurred to me that it would be interesting to trace its development within this blog. There is a process by which work develops, from concept to execution. By the time I look back on it, it feels rather magical. "How did this happen?" I wonder. I hesitate a bit to report on its beginnings, thinking perhaps I should "knock on wood" lest I jinx it, but then you will have a glimpse into one of the false starts that are also part of the process.

First I look for a topic that inspires me, encourages dialogue within a larger community and lends itself to a visual medium. I don't want to just paint pretty pictures for people to hang on their wall. There has to be more to it for it to sustain my interest.

The concept is the hardest step. I don't always know what comes next, but I've learned that each body of work births the next. I often look back to look forward, to find the patterns that will take me to my next step. In 2007 I began with a series on family history. Gold metallic paint and language were my approach, layering with glints of what was hidden, heavily figurative. Text, always text accompanies my work, stories embedded and in this case words also embedded.

Language became my stepping stone to the next series. Off I went to Lithuania to study Yiddish in hopes of using it in my artwork. Along the way I was struck with the silence about the Holocaust and did a series on the silence surrounding it, using language and collage-like imagery. Less figurative, a departure. Stories of murder, silence, memory.

The Holocaust, the subject on which I now balanced, finding my footing on this new stepping stone, stepping carefully, gingerly. Off to Poland followed by a series on the former Jewish community of my ancestral town. In the style of a pinhole camera, small, figurative, limited palette paintings edged with darkness. Together they formed a larger whole. A lost community.

Community my new stepping stone. From that lost Polish community to my own Twin Cities Jewish community. Identity and legacy, the theme. I interviewed Jewish elders. Where did they come from? Who were they? What made them Jewish? What was their legacy to subsequent generations? Once again collage-like imagery to capture the depth of story, Each painting, a new experiment growing out of story. I found I preferred larger imagery, fewer details, a strong focal point. Each painting captured memories, a time capsule of stories.

And now I perch on two stepping stones, one a continuation of memories, stories sourced by interview, the other the Holocaust, I paint the Holocaust stories of a close friend, a survivor from my grandfather's Polish town. How do you paint stories of horror, of fear?  You find the human response, how people preserve their humanity in the face of horror. In this case the relationship with her mother became the story. Simplified forms, figurative, a connecting narrative, limited palette. Each memory vividly expressed. Together they form her identity, her sense of obligation to tell the story for those who can't.

If memory and identity are connected, what happens when we lose memory? Do we lose ourselves? My mother in her 80's is losing memory, but I still see her, the person inside this new self. Her identity seems intact, a reader even if she no longer reads, a lover of art even if she can no longer remember her favorite artists. As I recently wrote, she still retains and develops the ability to make art, creating without conscious thought. She described for me how it flows, perhaps better than for those of us who think too much. I am fascinated by this new passage.

How does one paint the absence of memory? How does one paint absence? But not complete absence, things surface, elements remain. Conversely, how does one paint a presence, but a different one than that to which I was accustom. What do we lose? What do we retain? What changes?

It seems a natural step to go from memory and identity to the loss of memory and all that goes with that. I begin to list ideas. What would I paint if I were to paint this story? What are the underlying stories, the themes that this work would raise? I paint for a purpose. I want to create dialogue around topics that call for it. What do I know about this subject? What have I observed? What can I learn? When I work on a series I read widely about my topic. My research begins to stir associations that in turn suggest approaches. And so I begin.

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