Friday, August 25, 2017

Surprise Packages
I had a friend in college who was Turkish and she introduced me to a Turkish puzzle box. It was an object with a secret, possessing hidden layers. The box surprised and delighted me, springing open only when I moved the right piece, revealing a hidden compartment. Puzzles have always drawn me, especially those that carry hidden meanings, inviting discovery. 

As much as I love deciphering meaning, I find I also like sowing it, and have had an opportunity to do so in the book I am publishing, creating layers of meaning like little surprise packages. I do that often in my paintings, hiding a deeper story in image. When I share the story, it often pulls people in, a shared secret that deepens the meaning.

So let me share a few layers of meaning from within the book. 

The name of the book is We Spoke Jewish: A Legacy in Stories. It explores the stories and experiences of those who grew up in early Jewish communities, survivors who came to the US in the 1940s and 1950s, and immigrants from the former Soviet Union who came in the 1970s-1990s. So what does that title mean? One of the people I interviewed spoke of speaking Jewish, meaning Yiddish. "There was no such thing as not speaking Jewish," she said as she described the early Jewish community of the North Side. I was used to the term Yiddish to represent the language, but many of those I interviewed used the words Jewish and Yiddish interchangeably. And it wasn't just for language, but also identity. You could be Yiddish and speak Jewish. The phrasing surprised me, inverted from what I expected.

But not everyone spoke Jewish in the sense of Yiddish. Certainly survivors I interviewed from Germany did not.  Some of the immigrants from the former Soviet Union had vague memories of a grandparent speaking Yiddish. Was there perhaps another meaning for "speaking Jewish?" Could I expand it metaphorically?

When I thought of survivors of the Holocaust, it occurred to me that they had a unique role in the larger community, that of memory. They carried deep within them the memory of lost family and of a lost world, a world in which many of us had ancestral roots. A close friend of mine who is a survivor often speaks of her ten cousins who did not survive. Her commitment to sharing her memory is in part on their behalf. Each of the survivors spoke the Jewish of memory.

The immigrants from the former Soviet Union spoke a different kind of Jewish, the Jewish of culture. Unable to practice their religion, they shared their heritage through culture. They sang songs they had learned as children, spoke of recipes passed down by their mothers and told stories of the holidays once celebrated. 

These three groups spoke the Jewish of language, memory and culture, all ways that identity is formed, expressed and passed on.  The title began to carry a certain resonance, initially an inversion of Yiddish and Jewish that startled me, and a new and broader meaning ascribed to the term to encompass all of those whom I interviewed.

More layers of meaning are hidden in elements of the design. The designer wanted a form to repeat in each section. The original form that she selected was composed of curved shapes, but not with any specific meaning. I decided I wanted something that would hold meaning in its folds, but what? I began by exploring the meaning behind different Hebrew letters and settled on the aleph, the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet. I remembered something I had learned in the Jewish Artists' Lab, of how Rabbi Naftali Horowitz looked to the letter aleph which represents the name of God and noted that it echoes the form of our face. If we disassemble it we see two yuds and a vav, two eyes and a nose, figuratively holding God before us in our own face and perhaps in that of another person.

I believe it is through story that we form powerful connections with each other. When we truly look at another person, when we hear their story, we see ourselves and perhaps a little piece of that which connects each of us. To really see another person and to listen deeply to their story is what this book is about. It is also an exploration of identity. As I interviewed each person, I found elements of myself and of our shared humanity. What could possibly capture that better than an aleph? 

The stories themselves also offer surprises, little bits of knowledge that deepened my awareness in unanticipated ways.  Within the paintings are still more layers of meaning, often the result of some free association as I considered the stories of my interviewees and how to share them. Free association, metaphors told with both word and image, hidden elements that inform and surprise, layered meaning -- all are elements that enrich storytelling and form important aspects of my book.

Read more about the book at

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

A Fragile Nation

I have always taken my country for granted.  My mother, the daughter of Jewish immigrants from the Ukraine, had a much more heartfelt response, aware of how different her life would have been had she not been born here.  Her mother as a girl had not been educated. Boys were educated, but not girls. That had always disturbed my mother and she in turn was deeply grateful to be an American, especially because of the education that she had received in the United States.  She had a special fondness for the American flag and the Statue of Liberty, symbols of that opportunity.

As for me, I was an American, but a jaded one. Aware of our less seemly history from our treatment of the Native Americans, to our Jim Crow laws, to the blatant antisemitism of the first half of the 20th century. I brought a certain skepticism to flag waving. I never was a pep rally kind of gal, finding that rah rah approach pretty hollow. And I view nationalism as dangerous, the petri dish out of which bigotry is perpetuated. "I belong, you don't" is its inherent message.

Still, despite my skepticism, I believed that we as a country had made progress and had become a better nation. I believed that our movement in areas of LGBTQ rights suggested the growth of the people of this country. I looked at former President Obama as an indication that we had moved into a new era of greater openness to differences. Our country felt pretty sturdy to me throughout all these changes. Unshakeable I thought.

And then came Charlottesville. I knew there was a dark underbelly, but it remained largely unseen, no longer acceptable in public.  I watched as Trump stirred the pot, inciting racists and anti-Semites, opening the Pandora's box at the fault-line of civil society. With Charlottesville, I saw the unleashing of those demons. 
I suddenly realized that we are still a fairly young experiment in history, a country that is not defined by one heritage, but many, a country that has benefited from its immigrant history even as it has struggled with it. For every step forward, there is a backlash and I think that is especially true right now as minorities become majorities. Hopefully there will in turn be a backlash to Charlottesville as others too look on with horror.

For the first time I see the fragility of this country, as I watch the floodwaters rise, hoping that the bulwarks of courts and our system of checks and balances hold them at bay, hoping that the people of this nation have clarity and purpose about who we aspire to be and in turn demand it from the politicians who serve us. For the first time I feel a tenderness towards the beliefs which underlie this nation, as if it is a delicate seedling that I want to nurture and usher to safety.

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

The Nature Museum

We are driving east across Montana on our way to Bismarck, ND. We pass fields with black cows, then expanses dotted with round hay bales.The rolling hills of gold have diminished from the the rugged cliffs of Billings, the layered geological forms of the Badlands, and the vast mountains of Glacier. As the land flattens, the world is sky and clouds. Soon the land will flatten still more. The road spools out before us, drawing us into the changing topography, so different than being delivered abruptly to our destination by plane.  

We are returning from a trip to Yellowstone and Glacier where we met up with family; one daughter's family from California, the other Minnesota, meeting in the middle. It is satisfying to have most everyone reunited, a dozen of us, missing but one. This is not our typical vacation, usually transported by plane to a foreign city and immersed in museums.

In some ways it was not so different from our museum jaunts. I found myself considering color and line as I viewed the thermal springs of Yellowstone. The rich yellows, ochers and blues arrested my eye and the steam rising from the springs enveloped the scene in mystery. Lines were etched into the ground and ghostly white trees emerged from the depths. Yellowstone was rich in the elements that appeal to me as an artist. 

Glacier was immense in scope, but of such magnitude, that I found it difficult to visually frame its grandeur. When we went for a hike through the woods, I found myself focusing on more bite-size elements, the way light fell on trees and their sculptural forms, the mystery created by the interplay of light with shadow, the color of rocks as the water moved above them and the sun sparkling upon the surface of the water. 

I am not a landscape painter, but I found the abstraction of forms captivating. When I go through museums, I always am inspired to paint. The landscape inspired a similar response.

One day we stopped at the Yellowstone Art Museum in Billings, curious what a museum in this part of the world might offer. We were pleasantly surprised. A painted river led the way into the museum which was housed in the old jail and still preserved its facade. There were a number of pieces by significant contemporary artists as well as work by artists who were inspired by the landscape. A juxtaposition of Thomas Moran's watercolors of Yellowstone with an installation by contemporary artist, Rosane Vochan O'Conor, also inspired by Yellowstone, was intriguing. O'Conor explored the imagery of Yellowstone through glass, ceramics and image, using the bacteria that create its rich colors as part of her source material.

As we went through the museum we heard the excited  pitch of children's voices. They soon filed in as their parents waited to collect them. 

We eavesdropped long enough to learn that they had participated in a program combining art and science. It obviously had been a success as they took their parents through the exhibit and excitedly shared what they had learned. We listened in amusement as one little girl enthusiastically explained to her mother the role of the bacteria captured in hanging glass forms. As we departed we followed the painted river to a nearby building called the Visible Vault which allows visitors to observe work on the holdings not currently on display.  We were impressed with the way the museum amplified our experience in the landscape and its successful engagement of children and their families. 

And now we return home, eager for this last leg to conclude. We have bid farewell to our Californians and caravan behind the trailer of our Minnesota family. It is a long drive, the reversal of the topography that unspooled on our drive out adds a certain closure to our experience as it slowly returns to the familiar.