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 Morguefile.com