Monday, July 17, 2017

Thank You Universe

I've mentioned in past blogs that I've been working on a book, but haven't shared too many details.  In those in between stages I've been reluctant to say too much, perhaps out of superstition as much as anything else.

The book is the final stage of a project that began six years ago called The Jewish Identity and Legacy Project.  It began quite by chance when I contacted Sholom, an organization that provides a continuum of care to elders across the Twin Cities. My purpose was to explore showing artwork in their facility. As we spoke, I found myself considering that Sholom was filled with stories and in an impulsive moment I blurted out how interesting it would be to interview elders and develop artwork on their stories.  They took me seriously and soon I did as well.  
I wrote and received grants for Sholom to fund the interview project and did a series of seventeen interviews. I videoed them, transcribed them and edited video. Then I did paintings on the stories and began to exhibit them and give talks, playing short video clips from the interviews. The theme was identity and legacy, but it also was an immigration story, encapsulating the stories of the three groups of Jewish immigrants who came to the US in the 20th century. The topic was well received and I enjoyed talking about it, weaving together history and story to bring it to life. 

Eventually I was ready to move on to new work and considered setting this series aside.  Over half of my interviewees had passed away and I had gone to a lot of funerals.  Something in me balked at ending this work.  It felt like yet another death. The interviews were in the Jewish archives at the university, where they were most likely to be seen by historians and archivists.  After talking widely about these stories, I realized that they were meaningful to the broader public. I decided a book was the final step in this project, one that shared history through the personal, the way I have often wished I learned it in school.

The process has been quite fascinating and I've learned a lot about myself along the way.  What I've learned is that there are many books one can write on a given topic, so first I had to decide which one this would be. It is not unlike paintings where you must choose a direction and let go of other paths, at least for the moment. They are small deaths of opportunity that we must accept in order to move forward.
 The path I chose was to combine oral history and artwork, each telling the story in complementary ways. 
In the process, I've learned a lot about my personal style, the kind of writing that reflects me. I read my work aloud and realize that I love the rhythm of words, that certain words feel natural to me and others don't. As I work with my editor, I am surprised at my clarity about what works for me and what doesn't. Things come out of my mouth like "that word is too foufou for me." I'm not even sure what foufou is, but it somehow describes something I'm not.  I like clean language, direct and uncluttered. When I met with the designer, I realized that I have visual preferences as well. Yeah, I know, duh, I'm an artist, of course I do. "I'm not a pastel person," I told them.  I seemed to be clear about what I was and what I wasn't.

I'm relieved to be through the final edit stage. I went through the video interviews again to make sure I transcribed them correctly and suddenly wanted to add things back in that I had let go of previously. It is a bit like when I clean out my closet and then dig back into the rejects, unwilling to let go.
 Now that I can no longer edit, I literally have dreams of errors that need correction.  Because the book also includes artwork, I reworked several paintings. It is not just words that consume me.
It occurs to me that everything we do builds on what came before.  Had I not been writing a blog and exhibiting artwork over the past ten years, I would probably not be doing this. Learning to put myself out there has been my biggest life lesson. Virtually every time that I hit publish, I had a moment of hesitation. Will anyone care? Is it too me focused? There is a moment before every art exhibition where I decide that several paintings aren't quite done, even as they are framed and hanging on the wall. There is risk in being public and it isn't always comfortable for those of us who are more inward in our nature.  It is much easier to stay in our private bubble, but we pass on so many opportunities if we do that.  My most rewarding experiences have come from taking that risk, as well as my most sleepless nights.

Writing is an in-your-head experience, unveiled upon completion, as is exhibiting artwork, another  experience where you take a risk in putting yourself out there. Public speaking is easier in some ways because you get immediate feedback. You can have a real-time dialogue and adjust as necessary. Of course the real-time nature of it allows for public fiascos also.

A big part of writing a book is marketing, something I think I will enjoy. I've already done lots of public speaking on this topic so I've had a chance to test market. I know I can share this passion of mine in a way that reaches others.  Just bringing this to print has required some marketing. I am publishing through the Jewish Historical Society of the Upper Midwest, an organization that works in this subject area and was an early partner in the project along with Sholom. It is an appropriate home that shares my objectives.
Along the way I wrote a successful grant to the Minnesota Historical Society to publish. As part of that process I had to have historians write critical reviews of my work and I was encouraged by their responses. It is easy to get so close to your own work that you no longer have the perspective of fresh eyes and thus quite affirming to have others find it of value.
There have been times in my life where I felt as if I was in sync with the Universe, doing what I am supposed to be doing, the right things for the right reasons. The Universe has a tell. Maybe that's on purpose so it can clue us in when we are on the right path. What happens is that lots of good things start to happen unbidden at just the right time. Lately I've been invited to speak at conferences, teach a series of classes, do exhibits of the work.    Opportunities to talk on related subjects are presenting themselves everywhere. Manna doesn't just rain down from heaven. You have to do a lot of work first to make it happen, but sometimes that work gets recognized with new opportunities and the timing does feel suspect. My pal, the Universe, is lending a helping hand. Thank you Universe.

Saturday, July 1, 2017

Finding Our Wings

This week we had the opening of the Jewish Artists’ Lab show.  It is the fifth annual lab show and I’ve created work in each of them.  My work has changed and evolved with each one, but the one constant is that I always try to eke out more wall space and air time. I am used to working in a series and if I find a compelling idea it often begs to burst the bounds of just one artwork.

We each get a limited amount of wall space, but we also have a presentation opportunity.  There is a performance and those who write stories or poetry can do a reading.  I started the lab, not fully defining myself as a writer or a poet, but have gradually stepped into that space, in both performing and doing a blog for the lab as its Resident Writer.

For many of the shows, I have combined painting and poetry. By the third I couldn’t restrict myself to one painting any longer so I deemed my two complementary paintings a diptych and set up a memory jar for attendees as part of an interactive exercise. This year I went all out and did a triptych with five paintings, a central one, two panels on the front that open with paintings on the back as well. It is a layered piece in both concept and execution. I’ve shared a bit on the work's development in this blog previously. Since then my husband built an amazing frame for it, so I could assemble all those pieces. Of course, I wrote poetry, still greedy for more.

My work is called Stepping into the Chrysalis and is about the idea of liminal space, about how we re-invent ourselves, stepping into new space and redefining ourselves as we cross internal boundaries to become someone new. That first time that we say, I am an artist, or I am a writer, we feel as if we are masquerading. We’ve left our familiar world behind and taken that first step into the chrysalis, a place of transformation. As I read about the transformation from caterpillar to butterfly, I learned that caterpillars actually digest themselves and turn into a kind of caterpillar soup. I thought of how we struggle with change, "eating ourselves alive with worry". Within the chrysalis are cells called imaginal discs that house the wings and antenna and legs of the butterfly. If you open the chrysalis of my painting, and enter the ark-like form, you find imaginal discs that house the wings we carry within us, even in our caterpillar stage. I loved the metaphoric possibilities and began to address them in poetry.

Inside the Chrysalis

Did you know,

That caterpillars digest themselves?

Dissolving their very being

In this torturous act of growth.

Seeking change,

Shedding skin.

A caterpillar soup

Of which Creation comes,

But first, Destruction,

We boil ourselves down to essence,
A stew of anxiety and worry

Of what comes next,

Accompanies us 
into our chrysalis,

Our private dressing chamber

Where we shed our skin,

open our being,

Tiny wings tucked within,

you would never know by looking,

Legs and wings,

Antennae yet to form,

Spun from discs of imagination,

Gold spots glimmer

On our new home,

A tiny mezuzah

A Flash of Orange

I crawl out on my liminal limb,

Testing its sturdiness

For support,

Testing my new wet wings,

Gently wobbling in the breeze,

More used to crawling than flight.

I cling to my branch tightly

With six new feet.

I used to have sixteen 

To keep me firmly grounded,

The world feels more tenuous,

Less anchored,

Still wet behind the wings,

I flap them once,


in a flash of vibrant orange.

I spoke about that first time we venture into something new, still feeling like an imposter. What was interesting was the response of the audience. I had many people who I didn’t know, come up to me afterwards and tell me how it spoke to them, often echoing their experience. That helped to confirm that I was speaking to a shared experience and making the connection that I sought, always a satisfying aspect of being an artist. An acquaintance who I used to work with in the financial world, who has also since left it, was at the show.  She spoke of observing me in what I think of as my past life, we live many within one. She was curious about me, in part because of my Jewish name which was uncommon in the firm, something I had never thought of, having grown up in a town with a small Jewish community. She then watched me as I went through this transformation, exploring artwork and writing along with identity. It was interesting to see it through someone else’s eyes, to think of someone else trying to puzzle out who I was even as I was finding my way.

I think the female experience with entering a new space and identity is different than that of men.  We tend to feel we have to get credentials first before we can legitimately acknowledge our desired change. We live in a world where women are not always taken seriously without those outward trappings. Perhaps I am only projecting from myself, but I think that women often aren’t as good at the bravado and pretense that often accompanies that liminal stage. It is a stage where you leave the familiar, but haven’t yet arrived at a comfort level with the newly defined you and it can be quite uncomfortable.  I used to look disdainfully at the bravado that men seem to slip into so easily, but have come to appreciate the role it plays in helping us venture into new and foreign territory.  Sometimes we must live as if we are what we want to be, until we grow into it.

Sunday, June 18, 2017

Charting His Own Path

It has been five years since my father passed away and I thought I said everything I had to say.  Then something happened that got me thinking about my father and a blog began to take shape. I picture him throwing prompts in my path to get my attention.

Recently I got an email from a development professional with Bradley University, She and the dean of the college of engineering were going to be in my community and wanted to meet.  Now I have a unique tie to Bradley and especially the engineering college. My father started the electrical engineering department and I grew up on the Bradley campus.  

As we sat outside at a cafĂ©, enjoying our pleasant weather, the current dean commented on the rather eclectic career my father had. It was eclectic because he spanned different disciplines, letting his interests carry him from one to another all within the same university.  He began in engineering, started a public television and radio station and became the dean of communications and fine arts, returning as dean of engineering later in his career.
Throughout his life he crossed the boundaries that we often build around career paths. He was considered a visionary in his day and among his many talents was communicating his vision which of course translated to fundraising, a skill that is quite appreciated on a college campus. He also had a definite philosophy of education that argued for not channeling students into specializations too early in their careers. The current dean was very interested in his philosophy and had heard tales about him.

“Were his parents academics?” the dean asked, trying to figure out this sometimes puzzling man. 

"No, they were immigrants," I replied. "His father ran a surplus store and didn’t really understand his desire for education. When my father was away at the University of Denver, going to school on the GI Bill, he got a letter from his dad. 'Why don’t you get a little shop off Main Street. I’ll send you some inventory. See what you can do,' It was signed, Ole Man Weinberg." As I think about it now, it occurs to me that he was indeed influenced by his father's profession.  Whether it was gathering equipment to start the department or setting up the TV station, my father was known for outfitting his creations economically with surplus equipment.

I related the story of the career counseling he received as an undergrad that suggested electrical engineering might not be the right fit and suggested he explore a career in social service as he had very high scores in that area. Those career counselors might have been right if they were looking at the profile of the typical electrical engineer, but my Dad most certainly wasn't typical. Needless to say, he continued into electrical engineering, but married it up to community service in his creation of the public television station. His pattern was to link different pursuits as he charted his own path. Of course, he opposed specialization in education, it was diametrically opposed to how he created his own career, moving between a wide range of interests that often informed each other. He modeled that for me as well.

As I talked about my Dad, I thought about his irreverence. That meant I couldn't share some of my best "Dadisms" which were seldom appropriate. He did things his way and with attitude. He was his own person and didn't see the world through the same lens as everyone else.

The dean told me about a new center on the Bradley campus called the Convergence Center.  I could hear my father chortling in my ear.  “Well it was about time they figured it out.” The Convergence Center brings together both business and engineering, moving away from specialization and into collaboration.  I could feel my father itching to jump into the conversation. We were talking about something that he cared about. "Yeah Dad," I thought, “Sometimes you’re just ahead of your time."

Friday, June 16, 2017

It's all about the Puzzles

Suppose someone asked, "What aren't you?" How would you respond? Now I don't mean the obvious.   I mean the things a person might reasonably assume that you are if they observed your life, but that don't really fit the internal you. They are the stereotypes that you can get easily placed within. They aren't necessarily negative, they just aren't you.

I ask the question, because it occurs to me that I have spent a lot of my life saying what I'm not. When I was in finance, I used to protest that I'm not really a financial person, never mind that I had years of experience and lots of credentials. You could be forgiven for assuming that I was a financial person.  But that was the point. Just because I appeared to be something, didn’t mean I was.  What I was saying with my disavowal was that I was passing through, I don't really live in a financial world. On some level, it didn't really matter to me in the way I assumed it did to those who seemed so immersed in it. Perhaps they might have felt the same as I did, but were just better at concealing that part of themselves. Now that is not to say that I didn't work hard or want to do the best job possible. I lived as if it were important, but at the end of the day it didn't take up a significant space in what really mattered to me. I was there for the puzzles.  I liked solving things and finance gave me a world in which to use that skill.

Today I often find myself saying "I'm not a religious person."  In terms of religious practice, I'm not, but I am engaged in exploring my heritage and understanding the impact of religion on it. That can create a misperception of who I am.  It is no surprise that I got drawn into this trying to solve a puzzle, that of family history as I delved into genealogy research around my family. That led to artwork, study of Yiddish, travel to ancestral towns, creating websites on those towns, exploration of the Holocaust, interviewing, a book and lots of writing and public speaking. This blog is called Layers of the Onion because I am constantly peeling back layers in my search for understanding.

So, if that's what I'm not, what am I? I have no difficulty saying I am an artist, a writer and a genealogist.  There was a time when I was still wriggling into those skins, but now they fit me quite comfortably. I like the multiplicity of roles, I am many things and I bristle at being placed in a narrow category. In my pile of detritus from my career life, I have a document that my former employees once filled out anonymously. It was a survey from a mentoring group I participated in, one of those tools designed to give us insight into how others see us. I have always been intrigued with the ways we try to better understand who we are, whether it is the Myers-Briggs or astrology. In fact, after I finished my MBA I took an astrology class as if to cleanse my palate between courses. It too was a denial of sorts. I may have an MBA, but I'm not an MBA.

What I found interesting in this survey is that each person identified the same trait in me, curiosity. They had all witnessed my enthusiasm for solving puzzles. Now, I am hoping that when they said I was curious, they meant inquisitive rather than the other definition, strange. The multiple definitions of curious aroused my curiosity so I looked at the derivation of the word. The Latin curiosus is akin to cura or care. Curiosity does imply that one cares about understanding. Old French lumps together both inquisitive and strange, perhaps finding it a bit strange that one would care.  

It is that curiosity that takes me in many directions. I have always resisted being categorized and thus stereotyped into someone else's version of who they think I am, but curiosity I'll accept as a descriptor. I have indeed always been curious. Curiosity seeks a subject with mysteries to solve. The world at large provides that with its complex web of interrelationships. Change one thing and it affects something else. Systems are a universal puzzle. If we can understand them in all their complexity, we can make sense of politics, economics, organizations, families or people, maybe even ourselves. Curiosity is the key to my personal puzzle, what makes me tick.  As always, it is all about the puzzles.

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

The Safecracker's Work

“My father and I are planning a day trip to Radom” began the email asking for some guidance for their trip.  She went on to note that she'd had difficulty finding much on her grandmother who came from there. 

Some years ago, I took on a volunteer task for Jewishgen, creating a website on Radom, Poland, my ancestral town. Now I often get emails from people planning trips to Poland to visit the town where their ancestors lived.  I advise them how to do research in foreign archives, of meaningful information on the site and often direct them to resource people in Radom.

Although it is a volunteer activity, it has paid many dividends over time. I met one of my closest friends through the project, a survivor from Radom, now in her 90s. I obtained source material to develop artwork on the town and later exhibited it in Poland, and of course, I learned how to do websites, a skill that I’ve drawn on many times. None of that would have happened had I not volunteered.

Along the way, I often help people solve their family mysteries. Truth be told, I like when I can solve a puzzle and this one promised to be a challenge.  The name was unusual and had many varieties, but I knew exactly where to look. Much to my surprise the name didn’t show up in any of the usual places. I began to wonder if this was the right town. I went to the naturalization document and verified that Radom was indeed noted as the town. My curiosity drew me in further and I did a search for the name in Yad Vashem. Again, a record came up under Radom, but when I went to the original testimony and studied the handwritten form, it appeared to be Radun, a city that was 243 miles away. There are often errors in transcription which is why it important to see the original document.

A few e-mail exchanges and a bit of research and I told my correspondent that the town was actually, Radun, a town in what is now Belarus, once in the Vilna Gubernia. I could see how the confusion arose as more than one of the records confused the towns. As the trip was fast approaching, I was asked to do some genealogy consulting.  Our starting point was the grandparents who came to America and got married in New York.  Our objective was to cross the ocean to find where they had lived and who their parents and siblings were. Quickly! 

Marriage records are the gold standard to crack such a puzzle. They have the names of those who married, but also their parents’ names. If I could find that, then I should be able to work backwards to the towns of origin. had the summary of the marriage record with the date and the certificate number.  That was sufficient information to order it, but that meant a wait when we didn’t have much time. Most searches have alternate paths and I decided to go in through  I knew his search engine tapped Italiangen for NY marriage records, but I saw it also offered a linkage to Family Search. I had used Family Search for many things, but I had never compared them to another source for the same item. To my surprise, the Italiangen site offered the certificate number, but Family Search offered a much richer record with both sets of parents’ names, everything that would be found on the document itself. I felt like a safecracker who just heard a satisfying release of the tumblers.  In addition to the marriage record, I pulled immigration, draft and census records to gather information that I could cross-check against European records to verify a match.

Now the names weren’t exactly consistent, they seldom are. One name read Sreida which I quickly surmised was probably Freida.  The Elowitz of the record was originally Ilutowich and Sadorwick was actually Slodovnik.  So how did I find that out?  My client was familiar with the married name of Ilutowich so that was my starting point.  We start with what we know and look for a bridge to what we don't know. I did a search for Nechama Ilutowich on Yad Vashem and lo and behold it came up with Nechama Ylutovicz nee Slodovnik.  Once again those tumblers released. I was in the vault.

Much of genealogy is about moving between different sources looking for bridges to the next data point. That's why familiarity with available sources and alternative paths is valuable.  Yad Vashem had given me the key, now I had to explore the names in the All Lithuanian database. Why Lithuania? Although Radun is in Belarus today, it was originally in the Vilna Gubernia. Part of that region is now in Lithuania and the rest is in Belarus. I knew from my own research in Belarus that many of the towns that were once in the Vilna Gubernia have records at the Vilnius archives. And about those records, you no longer have to go to Lithuania to get them.The Lithuania database is linked to the original records of the Vilnius region through Familysearch; however I was to learn that records are not always at the image number where they are listed. I put together a finding aid using to learn what the names look like in cursive Cyrillic Russian. Then I used that to locate the missing records among pages of Cyrillic. You don't need to speak Russian, just be good at pattern recognition.

While I had found entrance to the inner data sanctum, I still had a few bears to battle in this quest. The groom's father in the American marriage record was Berel, yet he showed up as Dov in the Lithuanian database. Dov is the Hebrew name and Berel is the Yiddish and both mean "bear".Sometimes it is written as Berko and this was indicated in the Lithuanian records after Dov. I had run into something similar in another case with Areih and Leib, both mean "lion" and were used interchangeably.  Understanding the derivation of names and related names is valuable in working with European records. Without that awareness, it would have been easy to conclude these records weren't what I was looking for.

Several of the bride's siblings showed up in the birth records with both of the parents' names in the town of Radun, but where was the bride?  A quick look at the site for the Radun records, told me that her birth likely preceded the period for which records were available. Knowing what is available can save you some time in fruitless searching.

The Lithuanian database is quite robust and includes birth, marriage and death records as well as revision lists which are the census of the time. They are revised periodically with updated information, which is likely how they got their name. If you're fortunate, you may find an 1850 revision list followed by an 1858 one and note how the families have matured in the intervening years. It feels a bit like a holiday letter across the ages as you watch children grow up, marry and have their own children.  Extended families frequently lived together and revision lists will show the head of the household and every person's relationship to him. It will also note each person's father. Many of the vital records show the subject, their parents and their grandfathers so revision lists are useful when you are building out a tree.

I concluded this project with almost 70 new relatives and a few remaining mysteries. Just in time for my client to head off on her travels.

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Looking for One Thing, Finding Another

I wasn't planning on writing a Mother's Day blog, but something happened last evening that prompted this. It is the second year since my mother died, and in that time I have felt her presence every day. Last night I was looking for a file, trying each flash drive in my computer as I tried to remember where I had recorded it. In the process of looking for one thing, I ran across something else, kind of a metaphor for life, looking for one thing, finding another.

It was a folder titled simply Mom. Within I discovered a video that I had recorded of her with a memory jar I had given her long ago. Originally it had been a gift at a time when my mother's memory was quite good and I never thought of it worsening. I purchased a ceramic jar that had the label "memories" carved into it. I then wrote out memories that we shared or that I had of her, some from our trips together, some from my childhood. She had once told me that she always tried to create memories for us, her children, to carry forward into our lives. It was one of the reasons I took her on trips to Europe, I wanted to return the favor and create memories for her. The memory jar was an amalgamation of both of our efforts, an acknowledgement of the value of shared memory. It was a litany of what I loved in her. 

The jar sat on a shelf, high on the bookcase, until I noticed it on a visit. I took it down and had her draw out each memory and read it aloud. Together we remembered. I've written about this before in this blog, but a piece of the story that I don't think I shared, was the fact that I recorded it. I was just beginning to acknowledge that my parents would not always be there and this felt significant. I knew I would someday, when my mother was no longer with me, cherish this recorded moment,  even though I could not fully conceive of a world without her.

I've told the story of the memory jar many times. Somehow watching this video felt different than the retelling. It was the first time I had watched it, six years after I recorded it, both parents now gone. In it my mother and I sat at the kitchen table, the familiar turquoise blinds of my childhood to the side and the wall behind her with just a glimpse of some memorabilia from our travels together.  My father sat nearby in the gold chair in the living room. That chair now resides in my studio. It was just my mom and me interacting together in a world of our own, my father at the periphery as was often the case. Her smiling face, her voice, all the expressions and nuances we take for granted in another person, the things that create their essence and the essence of a relationship. What struck me was that each memory was an offering, a love letter to my mother, not only mailed, but received and reciprocated. If I ever doubted whether I had let her know how deeply I cherished her, I had only to watch that video.

It was 2011, both my parents together, but the cracks in memory had begun to show. My father had been losing memory for a long time, but we were just coming to terms with the fact that my mother was as well.  At the time, I remember being shocked when she could not recall some memories that I would have expected to be deeply embedded. Now as I viewed it with hindsight, I felt her largely intact, just a few gaps beginning to show. 

As her memory loss progressed over the years, I again went through the memory jar with her. She no longer remembered the story behind it and now gave me that sweet apologetic smile that indicated she really didn't have a clue, this was all new to her. Nonetheless she was happy to play along if I wanted her too. Fewer memories struck a chord the second and third time through. That meant I told her more of the story, reminding her of our shared history. "Thank you for helping me remember," she said. 

I understand much more about memory now than I did then. I understand how someone we love can be housed in our vision, in our heart and in our understanding. I understand how they can become part of the fabric of our being even in their physical absence. I understand how the mere act of writing about them can cause my eyes to fill with tears, not of sadness, but of deep gratitude.

I've included a very brief excerpt from my video.  I encourage you to try a similar exercise as a gift for a parent with or without memory loss.

Thursday, May 11, 2017

Lightening Up

I was always a serious person. You know, one of those people who always looks lost in thought and forgets to smile on cue. When I was younger, people I didn't know, usually men, used to pass me on the street and admonish me to smile. I'd always be a bit surprised, shocked out of my reverie. I wasn't unhappy, I just wasn't focused outward. I wondered why it would matter to them. When you get older, unless you are a woman running for President, they pretty much stop telling you to smile. It is one of the many advantages to getting older.

Early in my career I was often interviewed on the news. My mother would watch and tell me to smile. Now, mothers can do that. With them it comes from a good place. They genuinely think our smiles are lovely. I replied to her, "I can smile or I can speak intelligently. Which do you want?" Remembering to smile took brain cells I needed to deploy elsewhere under pressure.

My sister is the funny one in my family. She is the youngest and it seems to me that the youngest often has the most humor and wit, perhaps they hone it in the sibling competition for attention. Middles don't compete on humor.  We have other talents. I'm married to a youngest and he too is quick-witted. I suspect we're together, in part, because I appreciate his humor. I've acquired a touch of wit just by living with him for over twenty years, but if I manage to get a zinger in I'm likely to hear, "leave that to the professionals."  For a funny guy, he takes his role seriously.

I tell you this, because after years as a serious person, I've finally discovered how to tap my lighter side.There is nothing wrong with being a serious person, but if you want to engage others you need to learn to lighten up. For some people it comes naturally, not so much for us serious souls. At this stage in my life everything I do has to do with engaging other people, writing, artwork and presenting. I do a lot of public speaking and I've gotten enough feedback over time that I think I can fairly say, I'm good at it. I wasn't always. I used to be terrified of getting in front of people. Somewhere along the line, I grew into my own skin, yet another benefit of getting older. I discovered that being informal and letting an audience really see me, was OK, and in fact desired.  There is a connection that happens when we let ourselves be truly seen. It's like when we read a book where the inner dialogue of the character echoes our own thoughts. It's a shock of recognition that we share something in common. We feel understood.

With this awareness, I began to assume a conversational tone when I spoke and to talk to an audience the way I would a friend, albeit with a little cleaner vocabulary. With friends, I am often energetic. I have strong opinions and don't hesitate to express them. That kind of energy is useful when you have the microphone. You need passion and energy to be good in front of a crowd. Now I still cannot claim to be quick-witted, but I know how to engage. I study other speakers as I try to figure out what makes the good ones good. I think the trick is to not hide behind a serious demeanor or be too pedantic. Instead you need to bring your natural energy and the openness you would offer to a friend.

The same thing that works for public speaking, also applies to writing. I've been working on a book based on oral histories that I did and have written several versions in several different ways. Because it involves history, I first began writing it as one would a research document. I learned lots of interesting things researching and it was filled with facts, but they began to drown out my voice, not to mention those of my interviewees. One of the things I've discovered in writing this blog is my voice. My yardstick, as to if things will interest you, is whether they interest me. I set aside that first version, even though lots of it was good. I realized it was a different kind of book than the one I wanted to write, or to read. I started over from scratch and wrote in the way I write here. I worried that it might be too informal, as if once I put a book jacket on it, I had to dress up a bit and be more formal. In the end, I wrote it the way I would want to read it, in my comfortable yoga pants.

We all love a good story and within my oral histories I had many of them. My challenge was to not smother them under a heavy sauce of facts, but rather add facts as garnish, something to intrigue the reader enough to explore further. Even though this book involves history, it was written for a broader audience. It wasn't written just for historians nor designed to be scholarly, but rather to let my interviewees form the same connection with the reader that I try to form when I speak. I wanted their humanity to come through.

I doubt I'll ever be noted for my quick wit. More often, I will come up with the perfect zinger the following day. Instead I will be happy to engage an audience through story, be it spoken, written or visual. I hope to form a connection grounded in something common between us, to tell stories that engage us in recognizing ourselves in each other.

Monday, May 1, 2017

Stepping Into The Chrysalis

In my last post, I wrote about the concept of liminality, a period of transformation arising from disruption.  I had decided I was going to do a painting on that theme, but where to begin? 

Starting is always challenging, especially when you don't know quite where you are going. I've learned over time that the destination usually emerges once I begin. People often ask me how long a painting takes, a productivity perspective that has little to do with creating anything that doesn't come with a set of instructions.  Painting is itself a liminal process, a series of thresholds to cross and transformations that are often difficult to predict or to time. So, let me take you through the process to illustrate that statement.

 I had picked up three canvases that I thought might be interesting to work with, each was one foot wide and three feet high. In thinking of liminality, I thought I might do a three part piece with the central piece representing liminality.  To kick myself into gear, I did an abstract image on two of the panels using my favorite colors. It looked like a landscape except that the blue along the inside of each canvas resembled a figure which I then pulled out a bit giving it volume. Hmm, looks a bit like someone burning at the stake. While that may relate to our theme of otherness, it wasn't where I wanted to go.

Instead I moved on to another  image it evoked, that of a cocoon. It was through this path that I began to explore one of the ultimate liminal beings, a metaphor unfolding before our eyes, the butterfly.  Its transformation is not an easy road. First that caterpillar must shed his skin, destroying his being to begin anew. It is through imagination, actually a scientific word imaginal discs, that he reshapes himself, forming wings that were always hidden deep within. 

A figure overlaid
Chrysalis gestating
My figure turned into a chrysalis on two of the canvases. I was  still contemplating a middle section that would represent the in-between of liminal space. In the final stage of a chrysalis you can actually see the wings through the chrysalis. There are gold spots on a chrysalis that add a decorative touch which is also believed to be functional in its development. It makes a chrysalis seem both mysterious and precious. In fact, the word chrysalis comes from the Greek word for gold. I never could quite decide what to put on that middle panel, but I kind of liked that chrysalis so I set it aside to gestate against the wall of my studio.

One day I painted a figure across the panels converting into a winged form (above right). Then decided it would look too divided across two canvases and pulled it back to one. The figure looked like it was opening a door in the middle so I created a door to the chrysalis, feeling a bit like a cartoon character who paints a door and then steps through it. In keeping with the caterpillar to butterfly progression, I dressed the woman in a long caterpillar dress, her feet bracing against the canvas edge as if she were climbing up the chrysalis.

I opened the two panels as if they were doors, contemplating what might lie behind them. I was no longer thinking about an exposed middle section, but rather a hidden section behind the doors. I was intrigued by the words imaginal discs. These house the beginning of wings, antennae, legs. They are the building blocks of a butterfly.  I looked up images of them and decided to fill the panel behind the doors with an abstract of imaginal discs, a caterpillar soup out of which butterflies grow.  

I painted them on a  36"x24" canvas that would be covered by the two canvases of the cocoon. Then I realized I needed a back for the two front panels if I was to make a triptych and allow it to open.  I painted an extension of imaginal discs on masonite that would slide behind the original two paintings.  It is a triptych covered by a diptych, but I anticipate showing it with the doors slightly open. An unanticipated synchronicity, it resembles an ark that would house a Torah, something that also addresses passages to transformation. 

Now my husband has the task of framing this odd structure.  Fortunately for me, he seems to like these challenges. We anticipate framing it with a gold frame with a very thin edging dividing the two central panels.

I like the idea of something hidden, gestating, preparing for transformation. This piece is about stepping into the chrysalis, that cauldron of change, where we strip ourselves down to become someone new, drawing on qualities hidden deep within us.

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Creative Liminality

Each year the Jewish Artists' Lab selects a topic that we study throughout the year. We begin in October and conclude in June. We then have an exhibition and an opportunity to perform in some fashion. I usually do a painting and read poetry or a short story at the performance. It is one painting, but it takes a lot of thought. Of course, each year I hope to come up with something thought-provoking, both for me and for my audience.
Threshold to my ancestors' home in Poland

The theme this year is one that I had proposed, Inside-Outside: Boundaries and Otherness. It is a topic that intrigues me. Most Jews grow up with a sense of otherness, especially those of us who grew up in small Jewish communities where our small numbers helped to underscore our difference from our neighbors. I helped my friends decorate Xmas trees and color Easter eggs, but I was always clear that I was an outsider dabbling in someone else's culture. Part of me has always liked the idea of being an outsider, embracing my differences. I've come to think of otherness as a creative engine. It allows us to see the world through fresh eyes, outsider eyes. 

When I proposed this topic, I didn't imagine it would become quite so...well, topical. In these political times, it has taken on added relevance. It is the year of the Other, the year of boundary walls. Those of us who grew up with otherness feel a deep sense of empathy for those our country seeks to exclude. We were once them. 

It is a broad topic with many parts, in, out and in-between. It is the in-between that interests me.  Maybe it has something to do with being a middle child, my psychology shaped by my indeterminate status, neither here nor there. I don't like the kind of in-between that is being stuck, in limbo, but the in-between of transition leading to transformation speaks to me. In the lab we  have the opportunity to teach a session to our fellow artists. I began to explore an idea for my session and stumbled across the concept of liminality. It was then that my idea for both class and artwork began to come together. 

As we discussed boundaries, those lines that divide us from each other, I found myself thinking of our own internal boundaries. They are the lines we must traverse in order to experience the many changes we undergo in the course of a lifetime. That in turn led me into the concept of liminal space. Liminal means threshold. It is the space between boundaries where the old rules no longer apply, the new yet to be mastered. It is an anthropological term marking rites of passage. Liminal space is often a place of change and transformation, a place of challenge as we face the unknown. While the word resembles "limbo" which derives from a word meaning "border," its focus on passage and transformation is the important distinction. In limbo we are just stuck.

There are stages to liminality. First we must let go of the familiar, deciding what we can take into this new environment and what we must leave behind. Then that difficult stage of transformation, neither here nor there. Finally we learn how to adapt to our new environment. Disruption is often a trigger.  Our lives may be touched by change when someone close to us dies or we divorce. Perhaps we move to a new environment or lose our job.  All the elements that turn our life upside down are also triggers for what may prove to be transformative. I have a friend whose husband died unexpectedly, still a relatively young man. She spent a difficult year adjusting to this new reality and when we met after a time she told me that even though she missed her husband, she was learning to like this new life. She had moved through liminality to transformation.

Liminality can happen to a broader society as well.  War and natural disasters are often disruptions on a much broader scale. I would argue that our recent election was also an exercise in liminality, disrupting the things we believe about our country and our neighbors, the form of transformation, yet to be fully revealed.

Marking our crossing of boundaries with rituals is a concept found in our everyday life. When a guest enters our home we might offer them a drink.  A school bell and perhaps the pledge of allegiance marks the beginning of a school day. We have markers, rituals, that highlight the fact that we are entering a new environment. 

Religion uses rituals to honor such passages. In Judaism a mezuzah might be found at the door entry. It actually means "lintel" and marks our entry into a home. A bar or bat mitzvah marks our entrance to adulthood. The Havdallah ritual marks the end of Shabbat. 

While ritual marks the entrance or exit, Jewish holidays recognize the passage. What could be more liminal than the 40 years in the desert that we celebrate at Passover? In Judaism we celebrate the journey, the preparation to receive the law, a period of transformation.  Purim has as its heroine, Esther. As a Jew masquerading as a non-Jew she has a foot in both worlds. As I analyzed each holiday I found they had a liminal state at their center, with the period of transformation central to the story. In fact as any writer knows, the period of transformation is the story.

People can be liminal as well. Immigrants and refugees have a foot in two worlds. So do those who are transgender. Many of those who are viewed as "the other" don't fit into the tidy boxes in which many like to see the world.  Ah, but no one can escape liminality if they have a teenager, caught between childhood and adulthood, the ultimate liminal being.

I think many artists and writers are liminal. Living in our world, but seeing the world with outsider eyes. It is what enables us to do what we do.  Part of creativity is often about connecting two seemingly disparate ideas into a new whole.  As artists we need to work through that transformative stage every time we create, leaving the familiar to enter something new. So with that teaser, stay tuned for what I plan to show at the Artist Lab show in June.