Sunday, October 11, 2020

The Safe Place

 Do you have a safe place?  That may be a silly question to ask when so many of us are largely quarantining, ordering our groceries, isolating with our spouse and family and seeing our friends over Zoom.  For most of us, home is our safe place, or at least our safest option. 

But I am not talking about physical safety. We also are in an environment of emotional threat. The country we have taken for granted for most of our life is under siege. In a world that reeks of corruption, lies and blatant power grabs, concepts like moral responsibility and fairness do seem rather quaint. I am surprised to realize how much I trusted in a shared understanding of fundamental rules that no longer seem to apply.

I woke up in the early morning hours filled with anxiety. I had been dreaming about the Supreme Court. It was not the first time I had that nightmare. No doubt this was induced by a discussion on Zoom that I attended the prior evening. Sleep was not going to return any time soon so I reached for my ipad. Soon I was immersed in an essay by Heather Cox Richardson, a historian who evaluates the history behind our politics and helps me to assess the threat level. One of the symptoms of feeling under threat is to constantly monitor the environment for where the next threat is coming from.  No one will be able to say that I wasn’t well informed if our democracy craters.


I wasn’t the only one awake. A message streamed across my screen inviting me to a word game. I felt strangely comforted by that. Like looking out the window and seeing another light on, a silent SOS from another troubled soul.


I’ve been thinking about what my safe place is. What do I retreat to in times like this? In many ways I am fortunate; no financial woes, no school-age children or parents to worry about. Merely a country to preserve while horrified at a significant portion of our population and government.  The world divides into friend or foe. We once would have spoken generously about acknowledging others' opinions. When the alternative is so reprehensible, there is no room for acceptance of the unacceptable.


Under normal circumstances, I have a number of pursuits that fall between two poles, creative or analytic. I paint, write and do genealogy work. Recently I spoke with an old friend. She asked me how these times have affected my creativity. In fact, my creative pursuits have been abandoned for long stretches. I have posted few blogs and completed few paintings over the past six months. Creativity requires me to get to a place of openness and receptivity and that’s hard to access when under threat. Instead I’ve gravitated to the analytic pole, absorbed in a search for answers to puzzles. Whether it is word games or genealogy puzzles, I need something that will absorb my focus for a time, because I can’t live in a state of threat continually.  Perhaps it is also a search for control in a world that feels out of control. 


It is a short window of time until we know if democracy will survive. I remain hopeful because it is all that I have. The Jewish Artists’ Lab that I participate in has a new theme this year. From brokenness to wholeness, a rich theme appropriate to these times. I only hope we are moving in the direction of wholeness. I stopped by the art store recently and replenished my paints, looking forward to renewing my efforts. It is time.

Tuesday, September 15, 2020

Finding the Tendrils of History

 I was first drawn into genealogy when the immigration records went on-line. There was something about imagining that journey that fascinated me. It can become pretty frustrating however, when you can find no trace of it, as if family miraculously appeared, leaving no tendrils of history trailing behind.

I’ve learned the key to solving puzzles is addressing the blind spots created by our assumptions. We can test our assumptions, but if we consider them to be givens, they block our path to the true story.  I’ve learned to approach every puzzle with skepticism, especially when evaluating what we think we know. 


Recently someone asked my help with an immigration dilemma. He gave me the name the family went by in Europe, Svirnofski, and the name of a well-known relative. He suspected that his family members might have come on the same boat as that relative. If we could find that manifest, we might find his family members or at least a likely trajectory to the United States. One of the common approaches in genealogy in breaking through brick walls is to look at cousins. That is easier when they are well-documented cousins. In this case his relative was David Sarnoff, a well-known figure in broadcasting who headed RCA and founded NBC. When I begin a search, I want enough information to verify that I am looking at the right family. Dates and names were often fluid so you don’t want to spend your time chasing the wrong person. I figured the biographical data should be available for a well-known figure like Sarnoff.


I looked him up on Wikipedia where I confirmed that his father was Abraham and his mother Leah. The same names showed up in his 1917 marriage record on He was born in 1891 and came over in 1900. I always search within a band of years, knowing that memories are often imprecise and even dates reported by the participants are often incorrect.


With that information, I did a search for a naturalization record which after 1906 would tell me the name he entered the country under, when he came and on which ship. The 1920 census said he was naturalized in 1915, but that record wasn’t coming up. Instead I found a good substitute, a passport filing gave me an arrival of July 1, 1900 from Liverpool and the ship’s name which appeared to be the SS Agentic. 


I started with, a website that provides a more efficient search engine. I did some preliminary searches looking for a name that “sounded like” the pre-Americanized version we believed it to be. I also did searches with the ship’s name. I wasn’t meeting with much success. Did a ship of that name even come to the United States? I knew I could find out.


Stevemorse has a ship lists search that pulls up the manifests if you input the dates and ship’s name. I put in the dates with a range around them and looked for a ship name that resembled what I had found on the passport file.  No such ship appeared. It occurred to me they may have come in through Canada, but was there something similar to the stevemorse search for Canadian ships? I don’t have to know everything, just how to find it. I googled “ships from Liverpool to Canada 1900” and it took me to a Government of Canada Library Archives Page with Passenger Lists from 1865-1922. My knowledge base had just expanded!  I went to “search database” and entered the information I was fairly sure of, Liverpool and 1900.  The page returned the names of ships and the dates of arrival. One of the ships was Lake Megantic, named after a body of water in Quebec.  I was pretty sure that was the ship as I weighed that name against the Agentic that he had recorded when applying for his passport. I could imagine him digging into his memory trying to surface that name that was just beneath the waterline. 



While the site had passenger lists, it is tedious work to go through a manifest line by line and there was a ship on June 1st and July 5th. I guessed that Ancestry would have it indexed if I could get to the right ship and they did. As I wasn’t sure how they spelled the name, I searched for David as the first name and S* for the last. I soon found David Swenowsky age 9 along with his brothers Mosche and Salomon coming to America with their mother Lena. Not exactly Szirnofski, but then neither is Sarnoff. Names were indeed fluid. So where was Abraham? Typically, the men came to America first, found work and a place to live and then sent for their wife and children. Often older children came first and the mother stayed with younger children until they were old enough to travel. The Swenowsky children were 6, 7 and 9. In fact they had been separated from Abraham for some time. A newspaper article noted that father Abraham had come six years earlier. Most families don't have the luxury of a bio in the New York Times. Abraham left Lena with a newborn and two toddlers. Travel would have been most challenging for her at that time.

We were curious about when the name change occurred. We traced David's father from his immigration, through the birth of two more children and up to his death in 1910. He died with his original name. By 1915, David Sarnoff had emerged in the 1915 census, reinvented as an American with a new streamlined name. His family had later followed suit.

I am always intrigued with the paths that lead to solutions and frequently retrace my steps to follow what is often intuitive logic. We have a tool kit that grows as we do research. Then we need to know what tool to use when and the interrelationships between them. And there is a sequential nature to solving a puzzle, so we need to understand that as well. When you can combine all of those elements, magic can happen.

In this case, we started with uncertainty about names and spellings and with the usual assumption that they came to New York. It wasn’t until I gathered more information on the date and ship, then tested whether that ship existed in the universe where we were looking, that another path presented itself. I learned something new when I googled the Canadian ships and discovered I could check the names. And I didn’t commit to one name option until I could see what presented itself, realizing that people’s names were especially fluid during this time. While we didn’t find the other family members, we now know that the Canadian path is likely to be the doorway for other family members.

Tuesday, September 1, 2020

Teasing Out the Story

My stepdaughter and her family are moving to California. In the twenty-five years my husband and I have been together she has always been here. Weddings, babies, homes and holiday celebrations  leave a trail of memories. Some years ago, her sister’s family left Minnesota for California and they have built a satisfying life there. My husband worries a bit as fathers do. I remind him that they are competent adults with family there to cushion the adjustment. We have learned that relationships change, but also deepen with moves. Longer visits create time for the casual, but often important conversations. 

And what does this mean for us? We no longer have parents or children anchoring us to Minnesota or the Midwest. Do we visit for extended stretches or pick up roots ourselves in time? For now, we’ll see how they like it and plan a more extended visit when the world is a safer place. 


My thoughts are colored by our experience with the pandemic. The world does feel more connected across distance. Despite months of isolating physically, I’ve remained connected with friends around the country and in my own city via Zoom. Would some of that continue if we were to move? For now, It is strange to say goodbye in the midst of a pandemic. How do you do that when socially distancing? It is an oddly dislocating experience. 


As a genealogist, I find myself considering the ways families once spread out around the country. Often it echoed the chain migration of our ancestors, the pioneers ventured out and were followed by others emboldened by the success of their adventurous family members. That began with coming to America, but it continued as they explored cities outside of New York. It is not too unlike my present-day experience, but without the instant communication we've become so accustomed to.


I’ve been deeply immersed in genealogy consulting this year and a case I am working on has given me new insight into how our ancestors moved from New York  to clusters of family within the country. We tend to think families used to always live nearby and the divisions of geography are new.  I’m not so sure it is. About seventy percent of immigrants entered through New York. Many of them remained there where they were often the first contact for subsequent immigrants from the family. Others dispersed across the country forming a nucleus around which others gathered over time. After one leaves one’s family behind, perhaps to never see them again, a second move may seem less daunting.


I’ve been studying records of the Industrial Removal Office, a service designed to move Jewish immigrants outside of New York in the early 1900s, assisting them with transportation and jobs. It is a rather odd name for the purpose. Companies contacted them with jobs to fill, individuals with pleas to help with the costs of sending family. In the 1907 records, I found my client’s great-grandfather born in the 1850s. He was sent to Minneapolis three months after his arrival in the United States. Accompanying him was his soon to be married daughter, already trying out her new name. One week after arrival she and her fiancĂ© got their marriage license and she remained in Minnesota where she had five sons. Her father returned to New York where we find him in the census, both 1910 and 1915. He died soon after and by 1920 his widow was in Minnesota living with one of her children and in 1930 with another. "What should we do with mom?" I could hear them debating.


I knew of the younger children who came over on the boat with their parents, but older siblings had come earlier. One of the ways that I often learn of the broader relationships is by tracing the person that a new immigrant goes to upon arrival. Often it is an uncle, a sibling or an adult child. I had begun exploring that ancestral couple I referenced earlier, the great-grandparents of my client. I was looking for a possible Lithuanian marriage or birth record that linked their two surnames, Katz and Jaffe. In the process, I stumbled across a young man whose parents shared the same two surnames. In following his path I discovered two young men traveling to America, each carrying one of those names. Who were they and was there a relationship? In fact, they were going to a common uncle who lived in New York and shared the maiden name of the great-grandmother in Minnesota, likely a brother. Now I needed to determine if there was a Minnesota connection. 


My starting point had been an immigration record, but vital records and tombstones helped solve the puzzle. Death and marriage records frequently have parents’ names, even maiden names. Jewish tombstones will frequently have the Hebrew name of the father as well as the Hebrew name of the decedent. These names often clue me in on the name they went by in Europe before they Americanized it. That's the name I search for when looking for immigration records.

In this case, I knew the name of the great-grandmother's father was Itzaak from her tombstone. Now I just needed similar information for her possible brother, the New York uncle to the two young men. I knew that, a very efficient search engine, was a good source for access to New York records. I also knew that, a free data source, typically listed parents’ names if available. Armed with this knowledge I went to the website and found the section on birth, death and marriage records that searched the database. At the top of the page, I could toggle between them as I tried each one, tracing people through their various life stages. When I found the death record for the uncle, his parents’ names did indeed match his sister's parents. Ultimately I was able to match two additional siblings by examining people who shared the same surname in New York and comparing their parents’ names. Soon I had confirmed the great-great grandparents and four of their children, not to mention those two young men in the next generation, one of whom moved to Minnesota while the other stayed in New York. Often I trace them through obituaries to validate the ties.


This is the part of genealogy that I find most fascinating. Teasing out relationships and connecting the information, reuniting families if only on paper.

Saturday, May 16, 2020

An Interrelated World

Sometimes the idea of starting a large painting feels a bit intimidating, especially because I often am not sure where I am going with it until I am well into it. There is frequently a lengthy process filled with "false" starts before I find my voice. In actuality there is no such thing as a false start as it is really just a necessary step in the process of finding our way.

I've been doing small paintings as a bit of an experiment, kind of like tackling an essay rather than a novel. I thought that I was telling a smaller story, but as I continued working I discovered that all of the stories are interconnected. I've been continuing to work with the theme of global warming and the environment which gives me a broad playing field. I am discovering that means just about everything is fair game.

I began with the two paintings above and wrote about them in Embracing the Risk of Loss.  When I walked with friends pre-pandemic, I frequently took pictures of what spoke to me visually and used them in collages. Now that we are in the midst of a pandemic, I've been doing even more walking and I find that I am much more aware and appreciative of the environment that surrounds me. And not just the environment, but the changes in it as winter moves into spring. I loved the skeletal structure of trees during the winter, their forms silhouetted against the sky and only grudgingly accepted the beauty of their budding branches.

The image in the upper left is based on water reflections and the idea of clean water as a necessity for our environment. The one beneath it has a bee and honeycomb hidden within it. and addresses the risks faced by the bee population. Whenever I paint a subject, I type into Google, "___ and global warming." Fill in the blank-- bees, fireflies, crows, mosquitoes, whatever you wish. Surprisingly something always comes up. It is through that process that I have learned of the projected demise of all of these creatures save mosquitoes who are expected to thrive.

Sometimes other concepts I have painted re-emerge in a different context. When I painted Presence and Absence about my mother, I was thinking about how absence makes a person much more present. Well that is true of trees too. When we had to take down an elm tree due to Dutch Elm disease, I felt like I was at its deathbed, taking pictures of it as if to remind myself of the space it occupied. It made an appearance in the firefly painting, perhaps both slated for extinction.

And tree rings!  I love tree rings, the witnesses and messengers of our climate changing over time. When I began to create a tree ring collage, I kept flashing on images of records and old-style telephones, all vehicles for conveying a message. It also reminded me of American Indian iconography and I began to picture arrows, albeit with the arc of tree rings. I half expected one to shoot into a tree with its tail quivering from the force of impact, accompanied by a message.

When my husband and I went to the Grand Canyon, we watched the sunrise each morning over the canyon. One morning I found a crow perched rather royally in the sunlight,  His black feathers glowed golden in the morning light. I decided to paint him just because I like images of crows, not because I associated him with global warming. Of course once I did my usual search, I learned that global warming will create a climate conducive to mosquitoes who spread West Nile virus. Crows are especially susceptible to it. That then called for a mosquito painting as well.

I tend to work in blues and oranges so my paintings all work well together. I began to group them into various groupings and arrived at the one atop this blog titled An Interrelated World. It is the concept that sums up global warming, but it could just as easily be applied to COVID-19. We are not isolated beings. We live in a broader world and what we do affects not only each other, but the environment that surrounds us. The loss of any element has a cascade of effects that threatens to set still other losses into motion.

Thursday, May 7, 2020

What Kind of Artist?

I’ve been thinking lately about what kind of artist I am. Every year we have a huge open studio event, Art a Whirl. This year of course it will be virtual beginning May 15, so I need to succinctly present what I do in video. It is much easier to have hundreds of people traipse through my studio for three long days and chat with them.  

I don’t think I am a typical artist, but of course there are many kinds of artists. By atypical I suppose I mean that I have many traits that are not associated with artists. I am analytical and “wordful.”  Yes, I know that is not a word. Lest I be unaware, Word underlines it in squiggly red, but I am full of words and I use them to explain and make sense of the world. To paint and experiment, I have to shut that part of me down temporarily and play. I was never very good at playing even when I was a child so it is work for me to play. I need to trick myself into the zone of free association by painting and repainting, by not thinking of anything I do as too precious to paint over again. I have learned to view the seemingly false starts as part of the story of my evolving painting. It is through that process that I discover things I could not find through an analytical process. But then, ah, but then. . .I dust off my words and my analytic side and make sense of what just happened. I write about it. I follow the thread of my process. I use all of me to complete a painting fully, just not simultaneously.

I am an artist who is intrigued with story. Story is just a way to make sense of the world. To take the things that happen to us and around us and view them through a different frame. My artwork is about story and ideas. I love when there is a idea that a story illuminates. Even better when the story is housed in a painting. One of my favorite examples was when I painted about transformation, Stepping into the Chrysalis. I learned about nature’s story of transformation from caterpillar to butterfly, first consuming itself to turn into caterpillar soup, then drawing on its imaginal discs (stem cells with a very apt name) which contain the wings of the future butterfly. Not too unlike us consuming ourselves with worry as we face change and then finding our wings within. Then I had to find visual imagery to quite literally frame that amazing and metaphorical story.

 When I think of the thread of my work, I realize I started with a puzzle. I began with a series on family history and the cornerstone was a self-portrait called Piercing the Veil. It was of me unveiling my family names with a paintbrush. Using art to tell the story of solving a puzzle. Of course, that’s what I do. It only took me twelve years from that painting to figure that out. 

I followed that series with a body of work called the Silence Speaks Loudly as I tried to make sense of how Lithuania dealt with the Holocaust. I connected stories I gathered and observed while in Lithuania. Again, making sense of this often inexplainable world.

My interest in genealogy is a quest of sorts too, to understand the lives of my ancestors, of people who lived in a different time, but contained within a body, mind and emotions much like our own. What would it be like to live in a different environment? How would it change who we are? How would we experience the tides of history as they lapped up against our life?  I have often wondered about the family members of mine who died in the Holocaust. Who were they as people? What was their day to day life like? What of them echoes in me? I began to explore that when I painted a Hole in Time, an exploration of the Jewish community in Radom, Poland.

Similarly, when I sought to make sense of my own Jewish identity, I interviewed Jewish elders. And after those interviews, I created artwork and then a book as I drilled down further into their stories to figure out how I fit within them.

When my mother lost memory and later when she died, I painted on memory, trying to find a way to make sense of first her loss of memory and then the loss of her. It was one long meditation on a wise woman who I carry within me. Absence and presence occupied me. Absence occupied me with her presence. 

For the past eight years I have participated in a Jewish Artists Lab that takes a topic to explore and then creates artwork on that theme. That has proven to be a powerful engine, introducing me to ideas I might otherwise not have discovered.  Through all of it I explored ideas that I translated into artwork. Memory palaces, transformation, imaginal discs, liminality, illuminating through parallel  stories, identity as a river finding its banks, wisdom of the mothers. 

I bring this lens to everything that I explore. Now I am working on the environment and I explore it through absence and presence, the idea of a 4700-year-old tree sounding the clarion call on global warming, arboreal ghost towns. It is a system where everything connects, a puzzle that we can solve if we can only focus on all of the pieces and each and every piece. And so, I wade into the immense puzzle of our world equipped with my paintbrush and my words.

Friday, April 3, 2020

The New Normal: Frustrations and Gratitude

It is amazing how quickly we adapt to a new normal. A week ago, it felt strange to me when we approached a man on the sidewalk and he stepped out into the middle of the street to give us a wide berth. We’ve begun to do the same now, although I keep picturing a car taking me out as I try to dodge this amorphous virus.

I live in yoga pants as I am far more likely to do yoga or go for a walk if I’m dressed for it. When I have a Zoom meeting, I change my top from my workout clothes to preserve the illusion. I am guessing in a week there will be no illusions. We rearranged the furniture in our living room to make room for two yoga mats which appear to be taking up permanent residence.

We are at a point in time where grocery shopping can be the most dangerous activity we will encounter.  I realize I’m not going into the forest to kill wild game that might decide to attack me, but the same concept applies. In some ways this is more dangerous in its seemingly innocuous and familiar nature.

Ordering groceries online remains an incredibly frustrating experience. I waited all day for a window to open up at Whole Foods and when it did, it had closed by the time I completed the required options. I get that they are filled up for the next two days, but why can’t I order for next week? And Target seems to have toilet paper set up as unavailable for pick up or delivery which means you need to go into the store. What’s up with that? Trader Joe’s which has some of my favorite foods really needs to figure out how to deliver before I go into almond biscotti withdrawal. 

When the Seder we typically attend went virtual, I realized I had something new to stress over. Now I actually had to get Seder food when I can’t even get regular food.  Do I have to go into a liquor store to get a bottle of Passover wine when the 11th plague could strike me as I pick up that wine bottle. And how do I get a shank bone when my husband is a pescatarian? I have concluded that rabbis through time have offered reprieves from such matters under unique circumstances so this certainly qualifies. I could have paper cut-outs on my Seder plate and it would be the thought that counts. After all this is a virtual Seder.

On the brighter side, I have become a big fan of Zoom. When a talk I was to give for the MN Jewish Genealogical Society could no longer be done in-person, I began to review web platforms to figure out how to do it on-line. I settled on Zoom and did it as a webinar this weekend. It was very well-received and played to an audience many times larger and broader than our usual events. I figured out how to pre-record on Zoom to reduce the stress level of a new medium. Later in the week, my Artists’ Lab met on Zoom. We began with a larger meeting and then broke into small groups which actually felt quite intimate and workable. Our use of these mediums is likely to continue even when in-person meetings are once again possible. 

Every change spawns yet another one. That ability to record gave me an idea. I set up a member web page at to house my presentation and I’m thinking of shorter presentations that I and others could record for the genealogy group’s membership. This may be a perfect time to take on such a project.

So, life goes on, albeit in a much smaller physical sphere but a much larger virtual one. I have new frustrations and new satisfactions. I am grateful for the ability to live my life in a more restricted physical way to preserve safety, even as I  expand my world and reach out to others.

Stay home, stay safe and embrace gratitude. Namaste.

Friday, March 27, 2020

Reshaping Our Lives

This morning my husband turned to me and said, “This really hasn’t been so different from normal except you’re around a lot more.”  That is essentially true for him. We live in a household of two, both with lots of interests that much of the time involve only ourselves. But unlike my husband who is content to paint, bike and play guitar, I’ve normally got a lot more on my calendar that has now fallen away.

It was only a week and a half ago that I had a meeting with several members of a family for whom I am doing genealogy research. It seems a lifetime ago. Since then, except for a brief venture to the grocery store and to pick up carry out, my only face-to-face interaction has been with my husband.  The week’s events began to cancel. One by one, the emails appeared. Soon I was up to nine cancellations and was wondering how my schedule ever got so crazy in the first place. The gym was the last place to close and I must admit I was glad they made the decision for me. I felt as if I was entering enemy territory whenever I entered its doors, washing my hands continually, fearful of inadvertently touching my face. I didn’t want to think that hard about how I functioned in a space.
So, what have I been doing since then? The activities that I enjoy are largely solo ones, reading, writing, painting and genealogy research. But after I engage in those solitary activities, I come up for air. Then I exhibit artwork, do presentations and visit with people at open studios. I enjoy those interactions, but now I was faced with reshaping my life with some major restrictions.

Working out and getting groceries have proven to be the activities requiring the most thought. I’ve settled into a routine of doing yoga most days in the living room and walking with my husband around our neighborhood park. I find new appreciation in my local surroundings. On one of our walks, I saw an ornament with a tag announcing Joy and was reminded of the beauty just blocks from my home. And of course I take pictures along our walks, hopeful that I can incorporate them into collages.

As I do yoga, I face our shelf of art books. I fasten my gaze on Bacon or Leger as I hold my tree pose. I can’t recall when I last picked them up and vow that I will study a new art book regularly, not just in tree.

A few days ago, we went to our regular grocery store. We showed up at 8AM which is a feat in itself as neither of us are morning people. It was at least as busy as it normally was midday and this was supposedly the lowest traffic point of the day. The delivery service seemed quite inadequate, but we ruefully concluded we might have to make it work. 

As much as the stock market has tanked, we are aware that our crisis is of a smaller magnitude than that of many. We considered the restaurants around us that we hope will stay in business and committed to occasional take-out orders. We’ve also contributed to support the efforts of medical caregivers and to a fund for artists whose income is  especially vulnerable to these circumstances.

I have a good friend who is a Holocaust survivor and I have been meeting with her weekly to record her story. We’ve moved that to the phone and are trying to do it a bit more often, a touch point between us. I’ve also been working on how to do a genealogy presentation via Zoom and have that scheduled for later this week. I’ve been finding new ways of doing things and am pushing through the discomfort that accompanies that newness. Along the way, I am seeing new practices that I may want to maintain even when this crisis ends.

There is also unease underlying these efforts. There is a reason for this slowdown and it is frightening. I am suddenly in the age group where risk begins to rise, a rude shock for those of us who are active and engaged in our world. Age is just a number until it isn’t and you feel as if you have a target on your back. I read today that the virus affects one’s sense of smell and taste. I must confess I pulled out a minty shampoo as a test and was relieved to inhale its strong fragrance. We walk in the park each day, eyeing fellow walkers cautiously as they approach, nodding hello, but moving on. We are still trying to figure out this new way of being. We are all in this together, yet others can pose a threat to our health. How do we integrate these two opposing concepts?  The world feels more precarious and more precious. I have a new appreciation for the beauty of my neighborhood park, for the friends with whom I stay connected in this virtual world and for my husband who is my companion in this life raft I call home.

Sunday, March 8, 2020

Tree Time

In my last blog on artwork, I had written of the Ghost Forest, the name I had given a painting until I discovered there really was something called a ghost forest. I've since given it the working title of Ghost Trees. In the painting the white trunks hover overhead separated from the stumps forming a ghost-like community with their branches intertwined with those of their neighbors.

I then went in search of imagery to reflect what is truly known as a ghost forest.  They are often found on the coast where with rising water levels the salt water kills the trees. They stand in the middle of water in various states of decay. Below you will see my effort as I imagined one. It has a bit of a swamp-like feeling.

I still had not yet had my fill of tree paintings. A friend sent me an article on the oldest trees in the world. The oldest is about 4,700 years old and is found in California. It has been named Methuselah. They  posted a sign originally, but in order to keep away the paparazzi who kept taking pieces of wood from it, they gave it back its anonymity. Kind of a witness protection program for trees.

These long-lived trees are bristle-cone pines and are pretty scrappy. They survive in climates that many trees cannot and look a bit twisted and gnarly.  The age is determined through a science called dendrochronology. They insert a rod into the tree and take a cross-section of it where they can count the rings and determine the type of seasons through which it has lived. I love that the meaning of dendrochronology is Tree Time. Trees obviously have a different kind of time than we do. Think of us as more akin to dog years, but on an entirely different scale. Let's assume an average life span of 80 years. While each dog year is worth 7 human years, each human year is worth about 59 years in the life of Methuselah. In addition to age, the rings can detect the changes in climate, rain, volcanic activity and frost.  It is through these witnesses that we know that climate change exists. The trees themselves are often personified with names like sage, elder and sentinel.

I was intrigued by their role as witness and recorder and wanted to do a painting that captured their significance. I began by just painting the tree against white sky.

 The starkness of it appealed to me and I liked the linear elements that formed the tree, but I still wanted to reflect the idea of witness and scribe that the tree plays in recording the seasons of its life and our world. That meant perhaps destroying a perfectly passable painting.  It is always a bit scary to take brush in hand when you like what you have in front of you, never certain if you can recapture what you have successfully if you don't like the alternate version. I have often longed for an undo button. Some people do multiple versions to free themselves up to experiment. I just dive in and hope for the best. I reminded myself I could always paint over the background if it didn't work.  Just as the tree grows in layers that create rings, I often paint on top of paintings, building layers of history as I explore alternate possibilities.

  I decided to create tree rings behind the tree, a backdrop that would suggest the multipurpose role of this ancient tree.  After several iterations, I had created the image below. I'm pleased with the result, enough so that I am wondering if I can find a spot for it in my home eventually. For the moment I’ve named it Tree Time to reflect the longevity of this very unusual tree.

Monday, February 17, 2020

Smoothing the Way for Immigrants

History doesn't make a very sturdy platform from which to project the future. When we imagine the future, we think in terms of what we already know, not the unthinkable. We weigh today's events against our shared understanding of history, looking for common reference points between then and now. But what if the unfolding story of tomorrow is different than anything we could imagine?

I was recently reminded of that possibility when a friend recommended a book on the Jewish immigrant experience. The book History of the Baron de Hirsch Fund: The Americanization of the Jewish Immigrant was written in 1935 by Samuel Joseph, founder of the sociology department at City College in NY. It explores the efforts of the Baron de Hirsch Fund to settle the influx of Jewish immigrants from Russia in the late 1800s/early 1900s. Baron de Hirsch was an extremely wealthy man who was committed to helping the Russian Jewish immigrants. His fund created agricultural communities and trade and agriculture schools focused on turning Russian Jews into American citizens. Much of their work was experimental with no certain outcomes.

I felt a bit as if I had stepped into a time capsule, rocketing back to different points in time on my journey. Published in 1935, the author observed pre-WWII Germany as the German Jews  were desperately trying to get out. He drew parallels to the 1880s. 

The situation at the end of the Eighties (1880s), strange and sad to say, is being rehearsed in almost identical form in our own day. We need only substitute the German-Jewish refugees of today for the Russian Jews. 

He returns to the period of history with which he was familiar. 

‘Whither to flee?’ agitated the Pale.* The question was debated in hamlets and villages, on street corners, in synagogues and wherever men congregated. As in Nazi Germany today there was a confusion of counsel. Should the Jews migrate in masse or demand their rights as citizens and human beings?

Little did he conceive of what was to unfold as he tried to force it into the framework he had known to date. It reminds me that we sometimes don’t have the capacity  to conceive of the scope of destruction that is possible. 

As he compares the flight of the Russian Jews of the 1880s to that of the German Jews in the 1930s, he adds what is meant to be a comforting note, the fate of the Jewish refugees from Germany had become a matter of formal international concern, an improvement over the 1880s. The League of Nations had appointed a High Commissioner for Refugees. We know of course that came to naught as countries slammed their doors to refugees.

Back in the time capsule I zoom back to the 1890s. A time in which Joseph reports that local immigration officials violated the law and interpreted it aggressively to exclude Jews.  Those actions had the support of some key government officials. Immigrants often had to argue their case before immigration boards and sometimes appeal to Washington.  Both the courts and challenges from the fund alleviated some of the opposition.  In 1910/1911, following a large influx of Jewish immigrants, executive actions were implemented under a federal statute which made the actions of immigration officials non-reviewable in court. New rulings were then introduced to require immigrants to have $25 in their possession or be considered a likely public charge and refused entrance. Offers of aid to immigrants from anyone who was not legally required to provide support  were rejected. The fund took these issues to court and got a clarification that judicial review was permitted when there were fundamental errors committed against the alien. The $25 requirement and banning of outside aid were also overturned. 

In response, the efforts of the immigration officials just became more devious.  A new claim was made that if a man’s wife and children remained overseas, that was also his residence, even if he had been in the US for some time. When restrictive quotas were introduced, they did not allow for a man bringing his family to join him. Even a loophole that exempted naturalized citizens from this restriction was in danger of being closed. By the 1930s raids were occurring where aliens were arrested wholesale and deported without an investigation. Only one sixth of aliens were able to make bond or hire counsel.

The fund made arguments that sound surprisingly familiar today, arguing that criminality among immigrants living in the US was less than that of natural-born citizens.

So,what else did the fund do for immigrants?  Aid was given to immigrants at the port. Lost baggage and addresses of family members were located.  Gradually these functions were transitioned to other organizations with support from the fund.  Jobs were found, shelter provided and trades were taught. An agent was assigned to assist immigrants who were threatened with deportation. Other organizations also stepped up, often with funding from the Hirsch fund. The National Council of Jewish Women copied down names of women from the manifest between the ages of 12-25.  Correspondents in 275 American cities monitored their progress in getting situated and finding work. HIAS,  the Clara de Hirsch Home for Immigrant Girls and the Hebrew Free Loan Society all worked to settle immigrants into American society with the de Hirsch money often smoothing the way.

I felt gratified that my ancestors had support from the Jewish community when they stepped on American soil, that they weren't alone in this strange new world. I hope that remains the case for today's immigrants who are often facing not too dissimilar obstacles.

* the Pale was the area of Russia in which Jews were forced to live.

Thursday, January 16, 2020

The Ghost Forest

I had written in an earlier blog about the meandering process by which paintings are created. I often retrace my steps because the process intrigues me as much as the results. It is a process of discovery, of creating something new as I deepen my own understanding.

I am in an Artists' Lab which is exploring the topic of global warming and the environment. Now I have to confess that my knowledge in this area doesn’t go very deep so I am in sponge mode, soaking up information and ideas that I can translate visually.

I was intrigued with trees and specifically tree stumps. Some of that came from my reading on deforestation, but I was particularly drawn to the fact that trees are storytellers. Their rings tell us the history of the times in which they lived. Story is my medium, as much as painting, so it was a natural attraction. 

I began painting those tree stumps and especially their rings. Trees soak up a lot of water so if you cut them down you increase the risk of flooding.  I began painting tree stumps and then let the flooding begin. Soon my stumps looked like they were dancing in the water. 

The yellow sky was a gift from a prior painting that lay underneath.  Most of my paintings arise from past efforts that left their residue. I like the idea that nothing is wasted. It gave the painting an ancient feeling. I know I've seen that sky in paintings before.

I had been working with the concept of Absence and Presence so I began to think about how I could represent the presence of loss. How do you represent absence?  I thought about separation and began painting trees with a missing slice, leaving a tree stump beneath the phantom tree, literally with phantom limbs floating above. While I liked the image, it didn't leap out at me so I decided to try a different approach, the ghost forest, painting the trees white. I liked the pop of the bluish white against a dark background. It also emphasized the intertwining of the tree branches, creating the sense of a missing community levitating like a Magritte. 

I named the painting Ghost Forest. It seemed like a phrase that might exist so I googled it. In fact there is such a thing as a ghost forest. It occurs on the coasts when  water levels rise. The salt kills the trees and they turn white and die. They often stand in the water, not as cut tree stumps, but as stubs of dead trees. They are a bit like ghost towns, marking the place where living things once existed.

I had written of the small collages I was experimenting with and decided to do one representing a ghost tree. I liked the semi-submerged feeling of the stub tree in water. It reminded me of my dancing tree stumps. Next I hope to turn my ghost tree into a ghost forest working on a bigger canvas.

For more information on ghost forests: 

Tuesday, January 7, 2020

A Decade of Good Books

Every year since 2010, I have written a blog about my favorite books I read that year. It dawns on me that I now have a decade of my favorite reading. It is not a simple process to decide which are favorites. I keep a list throughout the year and rate them. At the end of the year, I review the list for those that made me think. Some are just fun reads, others are thought-provoking and make me work to digest them. I am drawn to the surprises, those that snuck up on me. I especially love when I discover an author that is new to me and read several of their books.

Memoirs and Biographies
One author that I was introduced to this year was Dani Shapiro. A friend had told me about Dani’s book Inheritance (2019) and I was intrigued when she told me that Dani had written a number of memoirs. “How many memoirs does one person need?” I thought. We only get one life!  Well it turns out that Ms. Shapiro has had a very full life, perhaps several in the space of one. Inheritance is about her discovery through a DNA test, that she was born through artificial insemination. The father who she was so close to was not her biological father. This was complicated further by the fact that she came from a Jewish family with an illustrious history that she had taken great pride in. Was it not her family? Her parents had both passed away by the time of this discovery. She begins to explore attitudes at the time towards artificial insemination as she tries to uncover the story beneath this event. It is a story that raises deep questions about identity and our place in the world.

After reading this book, I also read her books Hourglass:Time, Memory and Marriage (2017) and Still Writing (2013) and had the opportunity to attend a workshop by her. Hourglass is about her marriage, a topic I find hard to conceive one writing about while in it, but she somehow succeeds. Still Writing as one might guess is about writing. Much of it felt relevant to me in terms of both artwork and writing. Her emphasis on taking that first step and letting the incremental process unfold echoed my experience with creative work. She, of course, spoke of it far more eloquently. 

The Wright Brothers (2015) by David McCullough was another delightful surprise. Now I knew that anything by McCullough would be excellent, but this was a quiet book about quiet genius. The Wright Brothers were not flashy, but the study of how they discovered flight was amazing. The intent focus that it required, their study of birds and the sheer perseverance and partnership that they brought to the task made me wonder how such unusual people are formed. They seemed like the bachelor farmers you hear about, content with each other’s company, but in their case with a creative drive that changed the world.

To my surprise, I soon found another person who was similar in many respects, albeit a bit flashier, when I picked up the book Leonardo (2017) by Walter Issacson. I found myself imagining a conversation between Leonardo da Vinci and the Wright Brothers. It would have been riveting as they both brought intense observation to their interest in flight and their study of birds. The sheer diversity of interests of Leonardo was so unusual, but what I especially liked about this book was it painted Leonardo not as a remote genius, but as very human, someone who had a habit of procrastination, hanging onto unfinished paintings for years. I made the mistake of trying to listen to this book originally. There are wonderful images in it and it has to be experienced visually.

Creative Inspiration
I’ve written about The Overstory (2018) by Richard Powers in an earlier blog, but it is a hard book to describe. Suffice it to say that it is about trees and has inspired me in my artwork on the environment. It is composed of multiple stories that converge and addresses the theme of deforestation through a human lens.  It was mystical and sometimes confusing.  It is a book that you just have to let wash over you and you are left with the essence, the metaphorical sap. Apparently,  others thought so too as it won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction.

Character Studies
I had read the original Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout in 2008 when it also won the Pulitzer Prize.  I had enjoyed it at the time but had been lukewarm on other books by Strout in the interim, too quiet for my taste.  When I picked up Olive, Again (2019), her continuation of Olive’s life as a woman in her later years, I was captivated. Perhaps I needed to get older myself to truly appreciate it. Olive is a strong personality and this book captures that, but it also captures her vulnerability as she incurs the losses of old age.  It is a character study that succeeds beautifully. I felt as if I knew Olive and perhaps recognized parts of myself in her. And it wasn’t just Olive, but the characters that surrounded her, particularly her second husband who was a late life surprise for her as she was for him.

Feast Your Eyes (2019) by Myla Goldberg is an unusual book, written in the form of a photography catalog for a retrospective of a female photographer who had passed away. It is told in multiple voices, but especially that of her daughter who had once been the subject of her lens to some notoriety. The use of multiple lens was especially effective in creating the person out of the fragments that remain. It is indeed a retrospective on both person and photographs, described, but never seen. The subject is a struggling single mother, a driven photographer, with a close, but sometimes challenging relationship with her daughter. I especially found it interesting for a daughter to view her mother retrospectively, piecing together her story as she came to her own understanding of her.

Essays from a Cross-Cultural Lens
And I have one last recommendation, a book of essays called Objects of Affection (2018) by Ewa Hryniewicz-Yarbrough. The author is Polish by birth but lives in the United States and writes through outside eyes, both of the United States, but also of Poland as she no longer fits so neatly into that culture. She is a translator by profession as well as a writer and her thoughts on translation were especially interesting to me. It is much more than language that is translated as language resides within a culture and contains it. I love the form of essay and found the structure and content compelling. As my genealogy research has taken me frequently to Poland, I was particularly interested in that cross-cultural relationship.

It occurs to me that my appreciation of certain themes has changed as I go through changes within my own life. Certainly getting older, travel, artistic explorations and interest in identity and purpose, feed my choices. They open me to literature that might not have been as relevant to my earlier experience. With that in mind, I'll be curious what I am reading ten years from now.

Other books worth reading:
The Masterpiece by Fiona Davis- historical fiction based on an art school that was once housed in Grand Central Station
Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens -story of a young woman who grew up in a swamp, an outcast, and constructed a meaningful and purposeful life.
That Churchill Woman by Stephanie Barron- the story of Jenny Jerome Churchill, mother of Winston Churchill
Before We Were Yours by Lisa Wingate- historical fiction based on  an orphanage that stole children and placed them with wealthy families
The Library Book by Susan Orlean- tells the story of the 1986 fire that destroyed millions of books in the LA library. An ode to her mother who introduced her to the library.

*initial photo by poojasingh123456 at