Saturday, January 24, 2015

Favorite Reads

This past year I read 60 books, an all time high for me, but a pittance in the world of literature. Because we are allowed a finite number of books in our lifetime, I choose with care, trying to allot my time wisely. For the past seven years I've kept a list of everything that I read, give it a rating and jot a sentence to remind me of its content. About 60% is fiction and 25% has some Jewish theme as I frequently read on themes related to my artwork. I am in two book clubs, one that has been going for around 30 years and reads a broad range of current literature. The second is focused on creativity and the arts. That assures that I am introduced to books I might not pick up on my own, but which I am grateful to discover.

I am surprised at how easy it is to identify the ones that are standouts. They are the ones that stayed with me, where plot and characters remained lodged in memory. Interestingly several of them are debut novels and all of those have some otherworldly elements. As a child I loved fairy tales and mythology and perhaps these are the adult versions, often weaving mythical creatures and historical fiction.

The Debuts

Three Souls (2014) by Janie Chang is set in China and told through the eyes of a woman who has died and is looking back at her life. It begins with "we have three souls or so I've been told, but only in death could I confirm it". The novel begins in 1935 and looks back upon the politics of a changing China. The main character is guided by her three souls, one stern, one impulsive and one wise. She must make amends before she can move on in her journey. On this premise one is taken into her life as a Chinese woman in search of the matter which must be remedied.

The Golem and The Jinni (2013) by Helene Wecker takes the Jewish theme of a golem made of clay and imbued with spirit coupled with a jinni drawn from Arab folklore. It sets them loose in turn of the century New York and lets them evolve, often testing the limits of their natures. It is an odd premise, but Wecker makes it work, truly bringing them to life.

The Enchanted Life of Adam Hope (2013) by Rhonda Riley also creates one of the central characters out of mud. This creation has the ability to mirror another person in form and being, even to alter gender. It too is a weird premise, but it works. It examines what it is to live life with a secret. Beautifully written, it also creates an unusual and touching love story.


I weigh nonfiction on a different scale. Did it give me information I didn't know previously? Did that information affect me on an emotional level?

The Lady in Gold (2012) by Anne Marie O'Connor followed the story of a Klimt painting of Adele Bloch-Bauer, the life of its owner and the efforts of her descendants to recover the painting. It takes us deep into Austria during WWII and the Nazi reign both during the war and distressingly after. The first part of the book explored Klimt's life and relationships that led to the creation of the painting. The second part was the destruction of both lives and a world under the Nazis. The third part was as disturbing as the second. It explored the difficulties survivors had in regaining their artwork even after the war as Nazis continued to reign, creating countless hurdles and ironically laying claim to this painting of a Jewish woman. A movie titled Woman in Gold will soon come out and I will be interested in how they address the post-war period.

The Birth of the Pill (2014) by Jonathan Eig explores the creation of the birth control pill which placed women in control of their lives. I came of age after this time and sometimes forget the limited choices biology imposed. It is a character driven book for it took a cast of four key characters to make this a reality. The fifth character is the environment in which the Pill's creation unfolded, a culture which was resistant to contraceptives largely because of the Catholic Church. Meanwhile women were desperate for a simple and reliable form of contraceptive. It seems that even today we continue to fight offshoots of this early battle.

Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher (2012) was addressed in an earlier post and introduced to me by my Arts bookclub. It looks at Edward Curtis and his role as both photographer and ethnographer of Indian tribes at a time when their culture was being quite intentionally destroyed. A fascinating exploration of a life driven by a singular passion.

Authors On a Roll

I've read at least two books by each of the following authors and can vouch for their staying power.
All the Light We Cannot See (2014) by Anthony Doerr is my all time favorite this year. While I read it in my bookclub, I had already discovered the author's book of short stories titled Memory Wall. His new book is set in France during WWII. It juxtaposes a young blind French girl in St Malo with an orphaned German boy swept up in the machinery of the war. His task is to trace radio broadcasts of the resistance and that task ultimately causes their stories to converge.

Transatlantic (2013) by Colum McCann is a book that leaves trails of breadcrumbs through time. There are three discrete, but connected stories; Frederick Douglas on an international lecture tour in Ireland in the mid 1800s, two aviators who attempt the first nonstop flight across the Atlantic in 1919 and George Mitchell in 1998 trying to broker peace in Ireland. The stories connect through interrelated generations of women.

And two more authors of books that I've addressed in an earlier post...

Night in Shanghai (2014) by Nicole Mones addressed prewar and wartime Shanghai and the experience of black Jazz musicians within it. I recommend any book by Mones and have read them all.

I became a fan of Chimimanda Adichie this year when I read Americanah (2013) in my bookclub and intrigued, followed with her earlier book Half of a Yellow Sun (2009), set during the Nigerian-Biafra war. Americanah was a look at the experience of a Nigerian woman in the United States, examining our culture, both white and black, through outsider eyes. There is also an excellent TED talk by this author.

Saturday, January 10, 2015

A Perfect Memory

 "All water has a perfect memory and is forever trying to get back to where it was". -Toni Morrison

I have two projects ahead of me with my artwork. One is a body of work on loss of memory which I will be exhibiting at a conference mid-year. The other is a piece on the theme of water for the Jewish Artists' Lab exhibition. Ever frugal, I am trying to find a way to knit the two together so I get some additional use out of the piece for the lab.

In this year's Artists' Lab we have a series of artist led sessions. Along with another artist in our group I led a discussion on the topic of metaphor and memory. We examined how water is used metaphorically in both the Bible and our language. I soon discovered that I had stumbled across a rich topic. Metaphor by its nature lends itself to artwork, creating layers of meaning.

In researching this topic I ran across the quote at the top of this page and found it quite thought provoking. Morrison talks of how for writers the act of imagination is bound up with memory and equates it to flooding, trying to find our way home. Here's what she says:

"Because, no matter how "fictional" the account of these writers, or how much it was a product of invention, the act of imagination is bound up with memory. You know they straightened out the Mississippi River in places, to make room for houses and livable acreage. Occasionally the river floods these places. "Floods" is the word they use, but in fact it is not flooding; it is remembering. Remembering where it used to be. All water has a perfect memory and is forever trying to get back to where it was.

Writers are like that: remembering where we were, what valley we ran through, what the banks were like, the light that was there and the route back to our original place. It is emotional memory - what the nerves and the skin remember as well as how it appeared. And a rush of imagination is our 'flooding'."

So how does this relate to loss of memory? One of the things I've observed in my parents as they lost memory was the way they clung to their prior identity. As I explore the question of what happens to identity as we lose memory, I have concluded that identity is very persistent. Even if they no longer possess the capability to do the tasks of their prior identity, it remains an important part of how they see themselves.

My late father was deeply involved in technology in his day, a man before his time in many respects. Then time passed him by. His identity as a tech savy person was deeply embedded and in his later years he had a propensity to purchase technology even if he could no longer comprehend it. He returned to the path he once carved.

Similarly my mother who had been a first grade teacher collages every day, but she calls it "cutting and pasting". She has a wall on which she has pictures of things that interest her that she calls her "bulletin board". She returns to deeply engrained aspects of her life as a teacher. Their world narrowed as they aged, just as the river's path was straightened, yet they flood its banks, seeking the life they once lived, the person they once were.

I've begun to play with some paintings on the theme of water. I've been away from painting for awhile so I have this barrier to crash, an uncertainty about where to begin. I find the best way to push past that gatekeeper in my brain is to just start, no research, just paint the imagery in my head, reminding myself that I can always paint over it. The images in this blog entry were a means to jump start myself and are likely to go through many iterations. The one above is on the concept of Flooding as Remembering.  I may write the quote over it when it is further along.

When I first thought of memory and water I was reminded of language that links the two, how we talk of memories bubbling up and streams of consciousness. Have you ever followed how a memory arises? Sometimes it can arise quite obliquely. Something triggers a tangentially related memory which in turn triggers another and another until there is a wave effect. The small paintings were an experiment in stepping into my mother's mind and creating waves of memory, Each image associated with one nearby.

She has been pondering lately if her father was left handed. A thought of her father might trigger a thought of her brother who her father asked her to look out for or of a dress he made for me as a child (he was a tailor). Memories move like water, fluid, wavelike, taking us places that may be far removed from our starting point.

Sunday, January 4, 2015

An Annual Ritual

cc courtesy of Win Naing- floating bnw  on  Flickr
Any resolutions this year? I've long given up on them. The fact is I do what I want to do anyway. Instead I build on the natural patterns in my life through my annual number counting ritual. We are what we count and what I count is telling, revealing the focus of my efforts and the gradual shifts of emphasis over time...books read, paintings completed, exhibitions of artwork, blogs written, speeches given. Expression in its many forms. And once I start tracking an activity it begins to grow.

Yes, I know this is a bit compulsive and yes I am. I've learned that I need to feel a sense of movement and this is my way to track my efforts. When I first left my job I think I was fearful that I would lose my drive and dissolve into a pile of mush. Hasn't happened yet. I've learned that driven people are driven no matter what the circumstances. The only difference is that now I find my own path on which to drive. Because I write about my path in this blog you will likely be hearing more of some of these themes this year. So here is both a preview and post view.

This year I hit a new high in books read, 60 of them. Now to confirm any thoughts you might have of my compulsiveness, I not only counted books but pages, about 24000 of them. A separate blog entry will address those books that left the deepest impression. Books often feed ideas that I address in these pages and in my artwork. They are an important element in offering me new inputs when I run out of internal inspiration.

I've been busy exhibiting my past artwork from the Jewish Identity and Legacy Project (JILP) in both solo and group shows. If you missed their development in these pages, you need only click on Interview Project at the top of the page. I just hung the work for one more solo show and am winding down this series that has occupied the last several years. It will feel official after I send off some paintings I sold when the show comes down. My new show is called Capturing the Stories and my talks about it will explore the oral history aspect behind the artwork. I've added in paintings from the Dvora Stories which also grew out of interviews.

I make prints of paintings I sell so I can continue to exhibit them which of course fails to free up any room in my studio. This year I solved that problem by adding space. My husband and I had shared a studio for many years in a building of artists' studios. Recently the space next door opened up and we leased it and inserted a door between. Side by side studios, an artist duo's dream. Now I must commit to making the space my own. I am still adjusting to it and mentally taking ownership.

My new series of artwork that I have begun to rough out is focused on loss of memory. I have a show scheduled for May so I need to dive in and tackle this subject, one I've often written of in these pages. It is a personal theme in many ways as much of it is based on my mother's loss of memory. Writing and painting is how I process the events in my life, trying to find both meaning and understanding. As I develop the artwork, I will share the work and underlying stories here.

This year I again serve as the Resident Writer for the Jewish Artists' Lab which involves writing yet another blog. The Lab has a theme of water, a subject that is frequently used metaphorically in the Bible. I am considering how to marry the theme of water with my other theme of memory, an association our language often makes. Things bubble up in memory or we experience a wave of memory. It offers some rich material for both artwork and writing which you will hear more on.

My genealogy consulting continues to grow as I did research for a number of clients in Australia, Israel and the US. Often their focus is on their Jewish Polish roots, an area I've become rather adept in. As I've largely concluded much of my own research, I enjoy applying what I've learned to others' puzzles. I've written about some of the puzzles in this blog and I often use them as examples in talks I do on genealogy. Family history has been the engine for much of my artwork and will always be an important thread in my explorations.

My public speaking continues to expand in scope along with my interests. I do genealogy talks, talks on oral histories with elders, talks on my artwork and talks on the Holocaust, the latter in conjunction with a dear friend who is a survivor. I am beginning to work in association with the Mn Historical Society and have a series of talks scheduled through them. If you had ever told me I'd be on the speaking circuit I would have stared at you in amazement. Oddly enough I enjoy it and find the feedback and interaction informs my other efforts.

Writing is something I pledged to explore more deeply in 2014. I write this blog as well as the one for the Lab. Between the two of them I am writing every week. Blog writing is practice in both thinking and writing, something one does with some consistency which is an important element in practicing. I am often surprised when I encounter someone who reads this blog and has knowledge of my life. As an inward person I sometimes forget that I am also rather public. Your comments and likes are always appreciated and help sustain the effort of writing.

This year I took several writing classes and workshops at our local writing center and found that essays are very much my medium. I hope to take those learnings and carry them into a writing/art project that will grow out of my last series of artwork and interviews, or perhaps my next series. I think a deeper marriage between art and writing is a direction I will test over the coming years. As this deepened focus is new to me, I seem to be circling it unsuccessfully thus far, trying to muster the discipline required to tackle a new direction. I remind myself that every endeavor started with that toe in the water. I think the trick is to do it without outcome in mind as that creates too much pressure. Once you are floating out there in the middle, it is easier to add in your arms and legs and voila, swimming!

I actually have the gift of time. At the end of 2014 I left a board I have been very engaged in over the past eight years and calculated that it frees up over two entire work weeks of the year. That is just shy of two hours a week. I am framing my challenge for this year as what would I do if I had two extra weeks? Or two extra hours per week? Paint, write, read? Perhaps float in the middle of painting and writing?

Those tasks I used to think I'd get to, organizing my home, working out more often...You know the list, we all have it. They used to be resolutions that never got done and may well continue as such. The reality is we do what interests us and fortunately I have no shortage of interests.