Tuesday, May 23, 2023

The Pieces That Surprise

Each year, Northeast Minneapolis hosts Art-a-Whirl, the largest open studio event in the country. Thousands of people come through  studios over a three-day weekend. For the artists, that means 18 hours, sitting in our studios and interacting with our visitors. This year was the first year that began to feel more normal after Covid. Many of us have begun to unmask as we welcomed visitors.

As an introvert who has interacted through a Zoom screen for several years, it felt both exhilarating and exhausting. So much of creating artwork is a solitary pursuit and suddenly there are people, so many people! It was fascinating to watch them respond to my work, and to engage with them about my work and about life, for the human experience is often a theme within my work. For three days I get to channel my inner extrovert. I turn into a performer and a storyteller. And I have new insights into my work and my process, as I answer my visitors’ questions.

"What is the piece that feels most important to you?" one woman asked. I tell her that the pieces that surprise me are most dear to me. Sometimes I start out thinking I’m going in a particular direction but if I listen carefully, I end up somewhere entirely unexpected. It feels rather magical. The separation between me, and the universe, feels quite permeable in those moments as our energies align. 

I came out of a career where I was very good at getting results, driving to a conclusion. That doesn’t serve me very well in creating artwork. It is all about letting go of the process and letting it guide me, learning to unlearn. The work that I do revolves around story, often difficult ones. I paint about family history, which takes me into the Holocaust. I’ve painted about both loss of memory and of cherished memories. Through an Artist Lab, I have painted on themes of change and transformation, brokenness and wholeness, often using nature as a metaphor. 

Stepping into the Chrysalis

The story I tell most often is of a triptych I painted called "Stepping into the Chrysalis" which tells the story of transformation and change. Oddly enough it evolved in a similar manner to its subject matter. I tell of its evolution, then dramatically open the doors as I talk about how we too often go through change with trepidation, eating ourselves alive with worry, much as a caterpillar dissolves into caterpillar soup within that chrysalis. They laugh ruefully, acknowledging this shared experience. 

People often bring friends to my studio after hearing me tell a story that they then want me to tell their friends. Sometimes I watch them retell the story themselves, tickled that it touched them and that they remember the details. One young woman told me that this story of transformation had stayed with her and she often thought about it.

I painted about my mother’s loss of memory in her later years and I post stories as well as the related artwork. I’ve had people respond with tears about subjects that resonated in their own life. Many have loved someone who lost memory and my work touches those raw places. 

Those with Jewish heritage, and many without, respond to artwork based on interviews with Jewish elders or my story of traveling to Poland with a friend who is a survivor to show my artwork about the one-time Jewish community from which both my grandfather and my friend came. 


And many respond to a tall painting of the forest of Ponar with Yiddish text beneath the trees. It is from an old series, but too difficult to store in my loft so stakes its claim to wall space. Ponar is where the Jews of Vilnius were murdered during the Holocaust by their Lithuanian neighbors. The painting has a certain beauty that attracts people to it and when they ask me about it, I always hesitate for a minute, unsure about bringing them into the dark story that underlies it. I tell them about the Polish journalist who lived near the forest and saw the Jews brought to the forest, who afterwards heard the stories of their murder- the woman who hid her child in a pile of clothing, the chase through the forest after someone who fled. Each day he wrote about what he saw and heard, burying his words in jars in the forest, as if the forest could speak. In time it does, those pages surface in archives, then a book, painstakingly pierced together. He reports, “It was a beautiful day,” then writes of the horrors of that day. It is the juxtaposition between beauty and horror, that is the coda to the story.

Ghost Trees

Sometimes I have a story to tell that reads in an entirely different way to a different viewer. A painting titled “Ghost Trees,” that I did shortly after reading The Overstory, has trees separated from their stumps, a reflection of the way in which trees exist in community and the impact of deforestation. It drew an excited response from a young woman who exclaimed “It’s a Minecraft tree!” I soon learned that floating trees are a feature in Minecraft. And here I thought I had been channeling Magritte. 

When story is your creative engine, it makes for interesting conversations,  ones that touch on shared experiences that have deep emotional roots.  I may never know someone’s name, but I often learn their story as well as sharing mine. Sensing a kindred spirit they often suggest books and movies they think I would enjoy. 

To share stories with those who were once strangers is powerful. It builds an awareness of how we are all connected and reminds me of why I do what I do, in precisely the way that I do it. I ended my weekend with that mixture of exhilaration and exhaustion, with gratitude for the opportunity to share stories and artwork and to make those very real connections with others.

Monday, May 15, 2023

The Shape and Contour of a Life

Every Mother's Day, I reflect on the many mothers who have influenced my life. My own mother has been gone now for almost eight years and yet she still feels close to me, embedded in my wiring. We often say, "may her memory be a blessing" and her memory has indeed become one.

I have always had strong friendships with women of my mother’s generation, something that becomes more difficult with time as so few of them are left. This year my friend Dora invited me to join her family for her Mother’s Day brunch. Dora is 99 and was born within two years of my mother. We have gotten together weekly since we met almost thirteen years ago. It was a connection of bashert (Yiddish for fate). We were introduced by two separate friends, one in Israel and one in my community. I was creating a website on the former Jewish community of the Polish town from which my grandfather came. Dora was born in that town. She survived Auschwitz and Bergen Belsen and later came to Minnesota after the war. 

Susan and Dora at  our show in Poland

We have traveled back together to our shared ancestral town. I showed artwork there together with photographs of Dora’s pre-war and ghetto life, photos that survived hidden in her family members’ shoes. On a weekly visit in 2020, just prior to Covid shutting the world down, Dora told me she had a little project for me. Now I should have been suspicious when she said “little.” There is no such thing as a little project, for me or for Dora. They always expand. She wanted to document her relationship with seven generations of women dating from her great-grandmother to her great-granddaughters. She sat between those two poles and reached out her hands to touch them all, from great-grandmother to great-granddaughter, she was the point of connection.

The following week the world shut down. After such steady contact with Dora for ten years, I wasn’t quite sure how we would stay connected, but that “little” project proved to be central to our evolving relationship. It also proved important in giving her a purpose and a connection in a time of great isolation. We set up a weekly phone call and, on that call, I interviewed her. She would talk and I would type. By this time, I knew much of her story. She had told parts of it on video when we were in Poland. Later she told me stories that I painted. Sometimes she used the paintings in her classroom talks as a Holocaust educator. I would interview her and show the image of the painting. She would tell the story. 

But this was somehow different. It was a continuous thread, from childhood through the Holocaust, the loss of family members, the chanciness of survival. She told me of life after the war in a displaced person’s camp and attending university in Germany, going to school with former German soldiers. When asked where she was from, she replied, “The east.” It was only when spring came and she wore short sleeves that they noticed the number tattooed on her arm. In 1950 she and her husband immigrated to America. There she found her way in a new culture, returning to school for a graduate degree, starting a family and a career, then telling her story as a Holocaust educator. It gave me the shape and contour of a life, one which was lived in a purposeful way, with intention. 


After we could get together again, we began to meet at her home. Rather than going out to lunch, I now bring lunch to her. Afterwards we pick up the thread of her story. We are often faced with the limits imposed by aging. Her sight is impaired, so we were reliant on hearing. As her hearing worsened, I improvised with technology so she could hear what I had typed to review and edit. I set up a speaker and used the speak option in Word in a male voice which was easier for her to hear. I would jot her changes and then add them to the version I had uploaded to the Cloud. Her grandson, a journalist, was our editor. He would read through it and make changes, move passages around and leave questions for me if something was unclear. I would pose his questions to her and send him a note back with her replies.

Dora in Warsaw at memorial to deportees

We are nearing the end of the story, writing a conclusion. There was a symmetry in recent events which speaks to the cross-generational theme of this project. Recently, I was at her home when she and her daughter were on Zoom to a class at the university where Dora talked of her experience during the Holocaust. A few days later she testified at the state Capitol in support of Holocaust education. She had been nervous going there. She had spoken to many large groups and never seemed to be ill at ease, but this time she felt the weight of what she was doing. There was a consequence that was important. She had to get it right, to make a difference. I got several emails that day from members of the press trying to locate pictures of her as a young woman. Her daughter, who was with her, didn’t have easy access to the photos and had referred the press to me. I sent the photos off and later watched her and the photos on the evening news. She was the star of the show, an articulate spokesperson seeking to make a difference for subsequent generations, for those great-grandchildren for whom she had written her story. 

Sunday, January 8, 2023

Of Islands and Remarkable Women

So here's round two of favorite reading from 2022. Some seemed to pair conceptually even though quite different in content. One story explored the relationship between an island and the people who populate it, another the Covid virus and the lives of the people within a restricted island of safety. One offered a view of the often-untold story of remarkable women in Victorian times, another an all too relevant view of the China-Taiwan history through the experience of two remarkable women. One, of course, was also trapped on an island. I found all of these books remarkable and hope you do too.


Existing on an Island


The Unseen (2020) by Roy Jacobsen is a book I was unlikely to find on my own. Too quiet I would have said about this Norwegian writer recommended by a bookclub friend. And yet, I found this book quite enchanting. It is about an island and the people who live there. Life is not easy there and their character is not etched with words, but with their actions in this challenging environment. And yet they are deeply formed and people of clearly defined character. The island is a character as much as its stoic inhabitants, the weather and the sea are as well. They all exist in relationship to each other; the islanders engage with their surroundings to carve out their existence and find meaning in that effort. The novel itself is composed of carefully chosen words that construct a world that would be foreign to many of us.


I loved Lucy by the Sea (2022) by Elizabeth Strout and read it in one day. It had a simplicity to it that made you feel as if you were having a conversation with a friend. From an island of safety in Maine, Lucy shares a home with her ex-husband as they watch Covid emerge and send its tentacles throughout NY, touching friends and family as its grip tightened. Another theme that played out through the book were former partners maintaining close friendships, forgiving and accepting each other for who they are and continuing to grow in their relationship as they age. And yet a third theme of the relationship between adult children and their parents as it unfolds against the backdrop of Covid. Life is not simple for anyone, but the growing and deepening relationships keep them connected despite the turmoil that surrounds them.


 Remarkable Women


The True History of the First Mrs Meredith and Other Lesser Lives (2020) by Diane Johnson is a reframing of the past through present-day eyes. It was originally written in 1972 and was reissued in 2020 with an introduction by Vivian Gornick.  It looks at those famous male authors who we can find in Wikipedia, one the father of Mary Ellen Peacock and the other the husband. And then it takes a step to the side and dives into the “lesser” life of Mary Ellen, a woman of the Victorian era who was raised to think and express herself freely. Her life had a challenging trajectory, her mother went mad, and Mary Ellen left her well-known husband for an artist, then died young. In the meantime, she left much documentation of her life and her thoughts, all captured in pithy footnotes. It creates a captivating portrait of a thoughtful, engaging and for her time, unconventional woman. 

In Daughters of the Flower Fragrant Garden (2022), Zhuqing Li tells the true story of a family where two sisters found themselves separated between Mao’s China and Nationalist Taiwan during China’s civil war. When what was to be a short visit to a friend resulted in Jun being trapped on an island held by the Nationalist Army, a separation of over thirty years ensued.  The sisters came from a family of wealth, long lineage and Nationalistic ties, a background particularly troubling for those trapped in Mao’s China, who were punished and “re-educated," sent to primitive villages and forced from successful careers. Juan’s sister Hong, a doctor deeply committed to women’s health, met such a fate, ultimately recovering her career, but assiduously avoiding any political connection, even cutting all ties with her sister in Taiwan. The book explores how they each navigated this schism and the environment in which they found themselves.

Wednesday, December 28, 2022

Readings: Bridging the Space Between


Since 2010, I have compiled my favorite books that I read each year. It allows me to trace the topics that have intrigued me over time. I often find recurring themes and this year was no exception. Many had two threads to the story, past and present which ultimately weave together, bridging time and deepening understanding of past to present. Others invoke that liminal space between life and death, often bridged through the suggestion of ghostlike presences. And one addresses a different kind of liminal space, that between sleep and wakefulness.  

Past and Present

One of my favorite authors is Geraldine Brooks. Her books are a rich exploration. Her newest book Horse (2022) is a story of a racehorse and of race. The racehorse is Lexington, one of the most famous racehorses of all time. Coupled with his story is a story of Jarrett, his black groom who raised him from a foal and accompanied him throughout his 25-year lifetime. While a highly recognized and rewarded slave because of his special skills, Jarrett still functioned within the boundaries of slavery. When he sought to buy his freedom, his owner reminded him that as his slave he couldn’t own anything so the money he offered should revert to his owner. A magnanimous owner, he did not impose that requirement, but reminded Jarrett that it was his choice, not Jarrett’s. Paintings were desired of these celebrity horses and were valuable in the horse business of racing and trading. A practitioner of equine art is introduced into the plot and his work reaches into a modern-day story tied to the horse in question. Even the horse’s skeleton becomes an element within the modern-day story. I found myself searching for the outlines of history and it was never far away. Set at the time of the Civil War it was told with accuracy. Jarrett is an imagined composite character as are the two modern-day protagonists, but everything else was clearly documented in history as the reader is given a front row seat. 

Once on a visit to Chicago, I stopped by the Holocaust Museum in Skokie. There I discovered a show composed of letters written by newly freed African Americans post-Civil War seeking their families from whom they had been separated. It was both touching and heart-rending. I was struck by how I had never contemplated the separation of families and the efforts to rejoin them after the Civil War, although I was certainly aware of the similar search of Holocaust survivors for remaining family after WWII. The Book of Lost Friends (2020) by Lisa Wingate takes this period and explores it through one of those past and present books with two layered story threads, one in 1875 Louisiana and the other over a century later in the same location. As a family historian, I often focus on the connection of past to present, a connection that allows us to make sense of today's world resting on the bones of the past. 

Sunjeev Sahota’s, China Room (2021), is another novel with two threads, past and present. Despite its perhaps misleading name, it is set in India and its reference to China is the crockery variety. The first and most compelling story dates to 1929 during a time of arranged marriages. Three Indian women are married to three Indian brothers. The conceit around which all revolves is that none can identify which is their husband in daylight -opaque marriage veils and only nighttime assignations create this circumstance. Mehar, a fifteen-year-old from a poor family, believes she has identified her husband only to be in error, leading her into a love affair with another brother. Seventy years later her great-grandson arrives from England and discovers the traces of her life and the story behind it.


Life and Death

The Sentence (2021)by Louis Erdrich was an especially intriguing book to me as it is set in the community in which I live during the time of Covid and the unrest after the George Floyd murder. To make matters even more interesting, it incorporates a ghost story with a permeable veil between this world and the world beyond. A former customer continues to haunt the bookstore and Tookie, our protagonist, must contend with her presence. Erdrich writes of what she knows, setting this story in a bookstore, no doubt modeled after Birchbark Books, the store she runs in real life. Through the guise of Tookie, we are also offered a variety of additional book recommendations. 


Ghosts seem to be a feature in Erdrich’s writing as the line between the living and the dead seems often quite permeable. In The Night Watchman(2020) a fictionalized story is based on Erdrich’s grandfather and the important role he played in fighting termination. Termination efforts began in 1953 and were designed to eliminate the role of the Federal government in controlling reservations, instead passing costs to the states and pushing Native Americans off the reservation and into the cities. The result often meant the loss of their reservation lands and the government support which was in fact to be compensation. This is one of several plot lines as the Native Americans organize to challenge this strategy. While the character who represents her grandfather drives this storyline, the broader community is interwoven with a cast of strong characters that we come to care about, both living and those who have passed on. Strong women rooted in Native American culture show the way to a future navigating two worlds successfully.


I loved Maggie O’Farrell’s Hamnet so was eager to read her new book The Marriage Portrait. But first I heard her do a reading where she was asked about her memoir, I Am, I Am, I Am (2018). Before I moved to her latest novel, I took a detour and read this most unusual memoir which explores the close calls with death or danger that she somehow evaded. Each chapter focuses on the physical point of vulnerability in her body. It culminates in the life-threatening situation which grips her most deeply as she watches her daughter’s life precariously perched on that thin line that separates life from death. I took away from that book a new appreciation of the opportunity to live each day of our life and the vulnerability which always hovers nearby.


I then moved to The Marriage Portrait (2022), based on an actual marriage in 1558 which similarly sits atop a deep sense of vulnerability between life and death. A young girl of 16 enters a marriage with a ruler who fluctuates between a heightened sensitivity and understanding of his bride and a cloud of threat which makes her fear for her life. It is underscored by the sense of vulnerability women of that time faced in a marriage should they not produce an heir while subject to the control and whims of a spouse. I thought back to Hamnet which also focuses on the thin line between life and death. This seems to be the theme that intrigues O’Farrell through these books, a thread in her own life which informs her choice of material.


Sleep and Wakefulness

Colson Whitehead’s latest novel Harlem Shuffle (2021) is quite different than his earlier books The Underground Railroad and Nickel Boys. It is a character study of both the people and the place, New York Harlem in 1959. I found myself especially intrigued with a concept that it frequently referenced dorvay, a derivation of Ray Carney, our protagonist, from the word dorveille. The word is formed from the French words, dormir and and veiller, to sleep and to be awake. It came from a time before electric lights when people split their sleep in two, waking in the middle to perform those tasks that somehow eluded them in daytime hours. Carney thought of himself as coming from a crooked beginning with a father who was, well, a crook. He however was just slightly bent and dorvay was when the straight world slept and the slightly bent got to work. Carney bridged the world between the straight and the crooked, living a life perched on a tightrope between the two. How he resolves this contradiction is the story.

Stay tuned for a few more topics on islands and remarkable women!

Wednesday, October 12, 2022

Layers of Time

When my mother was in her final years, I often traveled to spend time with her. She lived in Peoria, the town where I grew up, still in my childhood home. It was an eight-hour drive and a week-long visit.  I explored the city with her, rediscovering it myself as we visited museums and gardens. We shared special moments, but it was also challenging as her memory fled. I needed a periodic escape to be fully present for her and began reconnecting with old friends from college and post-college days. One evening at dinner, a friend noted that when my mother was gone, my visits would cease. Of course, he was right, but it had never occurred to me, acknowledging my mother’s future absence was not something I could easily conceive of – emotion clouding the logical inevitability.

His prediction came to pass in 2015 when my mother passed away.  I came down again in 2016 for the unveiling of her tombstone and the sale of my childhood home. After that, there was no reason to make that lengthy trek–– until I received the invite to my 50th high school reunion, one year delayed because of Covid. I had never gone to a high school reunion. High school was not my happy place, but rather something I needed to get through to get on with my life. I began to poll my friends on whether they had ever attended a reunion. There were two schools of thought, those who encouraged me to go and those who insisted they would never ever go to a reunion. The former tended to have an air of conviviality that would serve one well at a reunion. I am much closer in temperament to those in the latter group. 


I hold no sentimentality for high school or any of the schools I’ve attended. I’m not much good with the rah-rah stuff, hated pep rallies, don’t follow college sports and have no interest in graduation ceremonies. I skipped two of mine. I love learning, it’s the sentimentality and ceremonial parts that felt foreign to me. And then there is the question of ownership. There are those who owned high school. They were the stars of that show, attended the reunions and basked in the sentimentality of those years.  I understand the concept of owning one’s space better now as I do that in my spheres of interest. It is a good feeling, being recognized for what you do well, a feeling of belonging.  I am grateful to feel that in my life. Still, high school wasn’t my space, and to enter a place and time that didn’t really belong to me, I needed reinforcements. I started a message group with a couple of high school friends who I’d connected with on Facebook. They too were debating attending and shared similar sentiments. Slowly we converged on a decision to attend.

These were the thoughts that occupied me as my husband and I set forth on that long drive. Our route took us through the Driftless area, a region that covers portions of Wisconsin, Minnesota, Illinois and Iowa. This region wasn’t covered with ice during the Ice Age so lacks deposits of drift, hence driftless, but by no means unfocused. It has steep hills, bluffs, dense forests and deep river valleys. The Mississippi River cuts through the region creating amazing vistas and overlooks. Add to that fall colors and my usual napping in the car was held in abeyance as I absorbed the extraordinary beauty of our drive. It felt like a prelude that demanded something equally worthy.

In my purse were several colorful stones I was bringing to place on my parents’ gravestone. My parents’ presence still pervaded my sense of the city. I remembered when my father took us on what we jokingly termed the Phil Weinberg memorial tour. First to the studio of an artist to see a portrait he had just completed of my father, then to their burial plots. Some years later, we gathered in front of his portrait for a family photo after his funeral. Perhaps this was a memorial tour of my own, saying goodbye to a city I was unlikely to return to anytime soon, a city vested with a rich layer of memory. I suppose it is only fitting to have it begin with high school friends, some dating back to grade school.

We stopped for dinner at the Landmark Cafe in Galesburg, a nearby city.  I noted the stamped tin ceiling, brick walls, and a curious window, not sure if it was a decorative feature or an actual window. My husband stopped at the car to pick something up and on his return announced there was a courtyard that the window overlooked. I looked around me again with dawning awareness, picturing the room, its window and door from the opposite side. I logged into my pictures, pulling up a photo of my mother sitting in that courtyard eight years earlier smiling happily at me. It was the beginning of something I experienced throughout my visit, an odd sense of layered time. Past and present co-existing with an accompanying sense of dislocation.

Once in town everything seemed different, yet oddly familiar. My husband asked if I wanted to drive, quickly regretting that proposal as we both remembered the reason he usually drives. He is a horrible passenger. But I needed to drive to get my bearings in this strange mix of the familiar turned on its head. I drove by that old pink house in which I grew up, well more like a watered-down burgundy, now painted white. There was my mom’s old car in the driveway. We had sold it along with the house. I stealthily took a picture out the car window.  


We went to lunch in an area I remembered for interesting shops and restaurants only to learn the familiar places were gone.  Finally, we settled on Cayenne, a place painted with a Day of the Dead theme, grinning skulls on its walls. Once again, I had this déjà vu moment realizing that this was formerly a more sedate restaurant named Salt. We had gone there after my mother’s funeral. I reimagined our table of family amidst the skeletal grins.


Later we went to the cemetery. I said the Kaddish, the prayer for the dead, and placed my stones atop my parents’ pink marble tombstone, their new pink home. I had started a new ritual on my last visit. Three months before my father died, my parents had called my answering machine and sang Happy Birthday. I kept the recording and played it on each birthday since. My last visit to their graves was around my birthday so I had conjured them up with a rousing Happy Birthday song from cyberspace. Now as my birthday loomed, I again summoned their spirits, letting their voices waft through the graveyard.


That evening we joined old college friends for a Friday night art crawl and dinner. We had a satisfying visit, filled with deep conversations that I had missed. At the reunion the following evening, I enjoyed connecting with childhood friends. Many people were no longer recognizable as the teen in my memory. No one escapes aging. We were the fortunate ones as the list of those no longer with us grows. Since then, life had layered its own disruptions and challenges on everyone in that room, the great leveler. We all live layered lives, juxtaposing times both past and present.

We drove back through the Driftless area, stopping at a vista near which locals had set up a table selling homemade jams. My husband recalled our return from a visit to my parents many years ago. We had stopped there to enjoy the view and had of course purchased jams, likely from the same merchants who confirmed they had been selling there for almost twenty years.

Monday, September 5, 2022

Recognizing Family

I often think of my life as a bit of a Rube Goldberg creation. I set something in motion, as if I were sending a marble spinning on its path.  But that path is seldom a straight line and takes me in unexpected directions, introduces me to new people and new ideas, and often leads to surprises along the way. Just as I trace my path backwards when I solve a genealogy puzzle, I also retrace the pathways that have led me forward in my explorations in life. I am often amazed at the uncharted paths that result from that initial step.

Among the many projects that I have taken on, one has proven especially fruitful with many unexpected surprises. Twelve years ago, I created a website on the city of Radom, Poland as a volunteer for JewishGen. It is called a Kehilalink. Kehila means community and these websites document and commemorate former Jewish communities. Many of these towns no longer have any Jews in them. Judenfrei, the Nazis called that, something they achieved in many places. But they are communities with long memories. Often descendants are children of survivors and heard the stories firsthand, others like me are genealogists in search of the story of their family. 


My paternal grandfather was from the town of Radom, Poland. The entire family was involved in flour milling and he was the youngest son, his oldest brother 18 years older. My grandfather immigrated to the U.S. in 1913,  the only one of his family to depart. My theory has always been there wasn’t room in the business for him. Virtually all of the family that remained in Radom died in the Holocaust, save one cousin who survived Auschwitz and immigrated after the war. I never knew my grandfather well as I was a child when he died, but I have gotten to know the community from which he came.


Among the beneficial things to come out of this project was meeting my good friend Dora who is 98 and a survivor from Radom. Early in our friendship, I had the opportunity to travel back to Radom with Dora and hear about the community in which my family once lived. We traveled there on the occasion of an exhibit of my artwork on the Radom Jewish community coupled with photos of Dora’s from her life in Radom. The Yizkor book, which is a memorial book created by survivors of that town, has recently been translated from Yiddish and one of my paintings from that work will grace its cover (image above).


Over the years I’ve had the opportunity to interview Dora and several others who were survivors from Radom. I’ve done research for people with roots in Radom and each of these projects has taken me deeper into the available resources. Sometimes I find records in archives that are not available on-line and as more gets digitized, I discover it, and add links to the Kehilalink. As a result, it has become a rich resource for people researching their family. I have assisted several people with information for books that are based in Radom, as well as descendants who are traveling to Radom. Through these efforts, I’ve gotten to know a network of people with ties there.


I realized I needed a more active effort to connect people to the resources. "Build it and they will come" only takes you so far. Every year there is a conference on Jewish genealogy put on by IAJGS, the International Association of Jewish Genealogical Societies. One of the features of the conference is what they call Birds of a Feather groups (BOFs), gatherings that share a common interest and often are around a specific town. When the conference went online because of Covid, it occurred to me that it presented an opportunity to reach out to people around the world with ties to Radom through a BOF gathering. Last year I shared information on the many data sources in different repositories that can be accessed through the Kehilalink. Afterwards, an attendee mentioned that she had seen identity papers with photos from the 1930s in the Radom archives.  I was aware of identify papers that the Nazis required of Jews in 1941, but not the earlier ones.


I soon located one complete year in 1934 that had been scanned. I worked in partnership with Judy Golan, the Radom area coordinator of JRI Poland, an organization that indexes records from the former Jewish Polish communities.  Over several weeks we made an intensive effort to extract information to include in their database, capturing over 400 photos of Jewish people who lived there. Another search involved me in locating photographs as I sought to find photographic support for a suspected DNA connection to a new-found relative.


This year I made finding photos of family the theme, sharing photos from ID papers, forced labor camps, concentration camps and many sources of that period. I asked researchers if they were aware of anything additional and learned of almost 400 online pictures in a Jewish Historical Institute collection that had gotten separated from the 1941 ID papers, many without names. Viewing the faces felt eerie. As if the name was in my memory, but simply eluding me. 

 At the BOF discussion, one person suggested we explore facial recognition software. You need to have a database of relevant images before that could be useful, but an article in the Times of Israel alerted me to the efforts of Daniel Patt, a Google engineer. Patt is using facial recognition to recognize faces from pre-war Europe and the Holocaust through a project called From Numbers to Names. Inspired by his experience visiting the Polin Museum in Warsaw, coupled with the fact that three of his grandparents were survivors, Daniel drew on his technical skills to develop this project. He has coordinated with the U.S. Holocaust Museum to include photos from their collection and also has photos from collections at Yad Vashem. The quick search runs against about 170,000 faces while a lengthier search reaches about two million faces. You can listen to Daniel talk about the project on the Chai Montreal podcast.

I located the project website, From Numbers to Names, and reached out to Daniel to offer him information on the many photos which I had identified, the largest being the 14,000 images of the Radom Jewish residents from 1941, many of whom later perished in Treblinka. Additional records included those nameless photos, the earlier identity papers, and photos from Dachau and Auschwitz. After viewing the Kehilalink, Daniel also asked me about getting a copy of a digitized film I had referenced of the Radom Jewish community from 1937, as they can extract images from films. The extraction process has begun as they incorporate these images into their database. I expect that there may well be more stories to emerge.


I am struck by how a volunteer effort can be that first step that begins the process. Add a bit of obsessive energy, something genealogists have in excess, and an effort to connect and share information with others of like energy. Those combined elements can power something much larger than our individual efforts.

Monday, July 18, 2022

Inside-Outside: Opening the Door to Community

For the past ten years, I've participated in a Jewish Artists' Lab. Recently I was invited to assist with a retrospective show for the lab and find that it has taken me into my own personal retrospective. 

I had entered the lab with some trepidation. I had felt a bit outside of the Jewish community until I stepped into family history research and began to incorporate it into my artwork. When the lab announcement arrived, I had been showing artwork related to family and cultural history as well as the Holocaust. I didn’t think of myself as a Jewish artist, but rather an artist who was Jewish. There is a subtle distinction between the two. I’m skittish about labels as they tend to constrict paths rather than expand them.

Over time I developed a rather unique role within the lab. In 2012, I began to write about it in this blog. As this has a more general audience, I tended to write of elements of more general interest. As that first year concluded, I wrote a blog on a piece in the show that caused me to consider the importance of naming who we are when the path is still emerging. “I am an artist” or “I am a writer”– tentative announcements that begin to take form in reality by the sheer power of acknowledgement. 

After that blog post, I was invited to create a separate blog for the lab itself. My vantage point changed a bit from a more general audience to one more deeply immersed in Jewish content. I felt a bit awkward at first, finding my voice for this new venue. There is a wide range of observance among the lab members. I’m at the very secular end and I worried a bit about lacking the deeper knowledge of some of my fellow artists who were much more immersed in Jewish practice. I ultimately decided to let the blog reflect my personal lens as I sought meaning in the content for myself, often from the perspective of metaphor. It became a creative engine for me, presenting a different lens through which to contemplate a subject. 

 As part of the lab, we created an artwork for an annual exhibition.  I started each year wondering if I could come up with something thought-provoking. After ten years, I’ve learned to trust the process, but am still relieved when a compelling idea begins to come together. While I created paintings for the exhibitions, the text and the story behind it felt equally important. The process by which it evolved often became an important part of the story as well.

 One of my favorite themes was Text-Context-Subtext. It was in its very name a layered approach, often working itself to the subtext of creativity. We looked at the text of Genesis and the creation of the world, then discussed the difficulty in both beginning something creative and deciding when it is done. I was relieved to learn from my fellow artists that I wasn’t alone in struggling with such things. I began to accept that part of the process of creating is uncertainty.  It is a process of experimentation and being open to possibilities as we find our way. 

Passages in the Torah served as jumping off points for such questions as to how we might compress time, or express sound through a visual medium. I began to step beyond my painting to include poetry, expanding my scope as I drew on a story from a close friend, a Holocaust survivor. I later returned to her story when we examined the theme of light where her experience during the Holocaust flipped our associations with light and darkness on their head. Darkness that hid them was her friend, while light meant exposure. 

I often dove beneath the surface in search of metaphor and tapped a wide variety of sources for inspiration. Sometimes I shaped the theme around a related topic of interest. We explored water, a primordial force of both creation and destruction. I had been painting about memory as I observed my parents’ struggles with its loss and ran across a quote from Toni Morrison that became my raw material for my artwork. "You know they straightened out the Mississippi River in places... Occasionally the river floods these places. "Floods" is the word they use, but in fact it is not flooding; it is remembering. Remembering where it used to be. All water has a perfect memory and is forever trying to get back to where it was.” I explored the linkages between water and memory and put out a memory jar, asking people to submit a memory they shared with someone who had since lost memory. 

The Roundness of Things - Wisdom-2016
Appropriately, wisdom was our theme the year my mother died. For several years she was the source of so much of my creative energy as I processed her loss. She was also a very wise woman, and my artwork was a reflection on the wisdom of mothers, incorporating her notes on the wisdom she gleaned from books.

Stepping into the Chrysalis-2017 

Stepping into the Chrysalis-2017
Two themes were interrelated. The first was Inside-Outside, Boundaries and Otherness. The second was Crossing the Threshold. It was 2016 and we were first seeing the deep divide within our country. There was a lot of “othering” going on and a lot of talk about boundaries. While that was the direction I first anticipated exploring, I ended up delving into the three parts to this topic, inside, outside, and the in-between, navigating the passage across that boundary line. My work became a triptych with an inside, outside, and a meditation on the often challenging in-between. It opened to embrace the viewer much like an ark.The following year, I created a piece that explored stepping into change, a trail of eggshells led into the structure as I stepped into something new and unknown.

Tree Time - 2020
 Our last two years were Covid years. We met on Zoom, and I abandoned the gym for walking. I became enamored with trees as I walked through my neighborhood, a different kind of figurative subject than the people I had painted. And I only realized in hindsight that I had continued with an inside-outside theme for three paintings in a row. 

Burly Tree - 2021
When we explored the environment with the topic of Muddy Waters, I painted a 4700-year-old tree in California known as Methuselah with its tree rings painted as backdrop. We know of global warming in part because of a core taken from that tree. I thought of it as a messenger, much as was the original Methuselah. The following year we addressed Brokenness and Wholeness which I explored through a tree laden with burls. Burls grow out of injury into a thing of beauty, charting a circuitous route, much as we do through life. The burls made up the background of this painting as well.  

When I look back, I realize that the subject that has become central to much of my recent work is the in-between, how to show the inside and outside simultaneously, the liminal state of transitions and the uncertainty that often accompanies it. As someone who has moved between multiple worlds, it is a topic that resonates for me. I also had a few muses, my friend Dora and her Holocaust story inspired two paintings as did my mother. The community of artists has helped me to appreciate the common threads that we all deal with in a creative process and made me feel welcome within the community. And accepting the process has helped me navigate those times when I am stuck and not sure where I’m going next. Along the way, I’ve learned a lot more of the underpinnings of Judaism and have a deep appreciation of its support for questioning, challenging and thoughtful inquiry.

You can find my lab work on my website at Artists Lab.