Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Creative Liminality

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, April 17, 2017

A Time of Remembering

And a stranger shalt thou not oppress; for ye know the heart of a stranger, seeing ye were strangers in the land of Egypt.  (Exodus 23:9)

It is that time of year when we speak of freedom, the time of remembering.  Last week we attended two Passover Seders, each different in flavor, but embedded in each was the idea of remembering our experience and history, and applying that awareness to others. In both, our focus was on the immigrant and the refugee. I suspect that was true of many such gatherings. 

This feels especially meaningful in today’s political environment where some too readily see strangers rather than our shared humanity. I am glad to be a part of a tradition which instead reaches out and does so with a certain wisdom.  I believe that we respond from the personal and that it is out of our personal experience that we understand that of someone else. Passover reminds me that this belief has a long tradition.

The first Seder we attended came with assignments. We were to bring something that signified freedom to us.  My husband brought a newspaper and spoke to the need to preserve freedom of the press and the important role it plays in a free society. I brought one of the many protest signs that populate the trunk of our car these days, sharing the importance of our freedom to protest injustice. It is one of the things that gives me a sense of solidarity with others in this time of uncertainty.

 Our hostess noted that last year she had spoken of optimism. This year the emphasis has shifted to hope, a subtle but telling difference. "What gives you hope?" she asked. Many spoke of the next generation as a source of hope.  I understand and often agree with that sentiment, but sometimes it doesn't seem to go far enough, as if we put it solely on the shoulders of the next generation. It makes me want to say, "Hey, I'm still here!" as I wave my hand in the air. It doesn’t absolve each of us, regardless of age, from opposing oppression and speaking to the values we share. In some odd way, the anger I feel gives me hope.  I am stirred to act because my sense of what is right and fair is offended. I look around and am heartened to see that I am not the only one who feels that way.

And speaking of generations to come...Small plastic green frogs populated our table, 
evoking the plague of frogs upon the Egyptians. The youngest child at the table was quite fascinated with them and periodically popped up with a frog mask to declare that he too was a frog.  There is something quite heart-warming about a child at a Seder. It adds some leavening, even without yeast. The four questions recited by a child are a reminder of that future yet to come.

We embraced some theater, imagining what our life would have been like as a slave, speaking in the first person of our daily life. Our hostess questioned us about our experience and what it felt like. It was hard for some to speak in first person, still looking at the experience from the outside. When my friend Dora spoke, we all listened closely, knowing that she spoke from her experience as a survivor of the Holocaust.  Of all at the table, she had the clearest sense of what it meant to have no control over one's life and no sense of what future, if any, awaited. She inhabited the part, bringing a sense of reality into the room. It was not just in Egypt that we were slaves.

Usually the Seder is a celebration of Spring, a time of new beginnings that we celebrate with poetry. This one was a bit unusual as we watched the snow fall, coating the branches of trees with a wet heavy snow and creating rutted paths of slush, reminding us that winter had not yet fully departed.

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Chance Encounters

This month we had Dog Days at our monthly open studios. Visitors were invited to bring their dogs. Dogs of every shape, size and color came through our doors. Small dogs were pushed in strollers, dogs the size of small ponies, dogs with bows, rich brindle coats, striped like tigers, all with a human at the end of their leash. There is something quite humanizing about dogs and it was a happy crowd. 

While not every open studio goes to the dogs, we do hold open studios every second Saturday. We open our doors and people are invited to wander through. Some are return visitors with whom we have an ongoing conversation about our developing work. Others are new visitors who I would otherwise be unlikely to meet. For me, this is the benefit of having a studio. I get to talk to people I don't know. 

I have friends who are very gregarious. They talk to people at neighboring tables in restaurants, to people on trains and public transportation. They cross personal space boundaries that I would never think to cross. I am insular and self-contained, a shy person still lurks at the core. There are certain settings; however, where I can discard that shyness and let my natural curiosity come to the forefront. Studio visits seem to free my gregarious self.

I frequently trade book recommendations with visitors. Often, we talk of loved ones who lost memory or of how one comes to term with loss of loved ones. Many tell me of their genealogy searches, their personal heritage and their family stories. My paintings are stories that touch on human experiences and they draw stories from my visitors. Because I share my personal stories it gives them an opportunity to share theirs. There are often very real connections made without even an exchange of names. 

I never know if these contacts will lead to an ongoing connection, but I believe in the magic of the chance encounter. It is how many things happen. You go into it with an attitude of openness, open to possibility, but without expectation. You bring your curiosity and interest and along the way you learn about what others are doing that might touch what you are doing.

Two interesting connections arose at this open studio, both out of my Jewish Identity and Legacy Series. A little bit of background if you are new to this 2011 and 2012 I did a series of interviews with three groups of elders at Sholom Home. While my focus was on identity, I soon realized that immigration was a central theme. The first group grew up in early immigrant communities, typically their parents were immigrants. The second group were Holocaust survivors who immigrated in the 1940s and 50s and the third were immigrants from the former Soviet Union who came over in the 1970s through the 1990s. I then developed artwork and video on their stories and have been exhibiting the work and talking about it ever since. More recently I've been working on a book that combines both artwork and the oral histories. I hope to have it out by the end of the year. I have some of my favorite paintings from the series on my studio walls and have found that it's a topic that engages many people who come to my studio.

Local photographer Steve Ozone came through my studio and shared with me his work in interviewing Japanese Americans who were interned in the camps.  A while back I had heard Sally Sudo speak, one of his interviewees, and became intrigued with the parallels to the first steps of isolation and concentration that many Jews experienced prior to the Holocaust. I had begun to research the topic and wrote about it in a blog entry. One of the things I've been considering in relation to sharing my book is reaching out across groups. I’ve realized that there are echoes of similar experiences in different groups. Some of those experiences relate to isolation as the "other", or the common challenges most immigrants face. Steve and I talked about the interviewing process and some of the parallels in the experiences of our interviewees. We also shared the fact that neither of us had originally sought to use our artwork to explore our personal heritage, yet somehow fell into doing so. Here was a case of similar projects with different populations which shared some parallel experiences as well as parallels in the experience of the artists.

A second interesting connection came in relation to a painting in this series related to the story of the first Jewish grocery store in Minneapolis, Brochins. I had chatted at length with a woman, who like me, was intrigued with genealogy.  As we spoke, her friend was studying the painting. After the open studio concluded I came home to an email from her friend, Amanda Hughes, asking me the name of the store in the painting. It turned out Amanda writes historical fiction and had just written a story partially based in Minnesota. She had written about Brochins in her draft that she was just preparing to send off to her editor. I keep photographs of much of my research, so sent her an article I had found in the archives from the 1920s which painted a vivid picture of the store. I look forward to finding it captured in her book.

You never know who will walk in when you open your doors. 

Stop by at an open studio
California Building Studio 407/409
2205 California Street NE
Second Saturdays
or by appointment

And don't forget Art-a-Whirl
our big open studio event

Fri, May 19th    5:00pm-10:00pm
Sat, May 20th   Noon-8:00pm
Sun, May 21st  Noon-5:00pm

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Raining Blue

It has been awhile since I've written about artwork, but I've been hard at work preparing for two shows and continuing to develop work on memory.  I've been asked to participate in a show called (Re)-Telling which takes the source material for artwork created by a Holocaust artist and asks contemporary artists to respond to it in their own fashion. Now I've done artwork on the Holocaust, but usually responding to a story by a survivor friend. I had a hook that wasn't totally mired in death and destruction.  She survived after all. There was an element of overcoming hardship, of survival. 

As I read through the selections on which Fritz Hirschberger based his work, there was little to soften this material. His work addressed the Holocaust in all its sharp and ugly edges. Finally I settled on one that while it invoked a pit in my stomach, was easy to visualize and spoke to an observation I have often made.  Horrific things have often happened in places that can appear quite innocent today, dare I say visually pleasing. In some ways that juxtaposition adds to the power of place.

I have a painting I did of the killing field of Ponar outside of Vilnius, Lithuania. Beneath the image of a forest glen are Yiddish letters meant to figuratively recall the bodies buried in the pits. They spell out the Yiddish word which means "remember". It is a pleasing image that many remark upon. I warn them that it is not an easy story before I launch into it.There is an element of bait and switch. I seduce them into a difficult story.

Place is an important marker on history. It is easy for history to be rewritten and forgotten. Remembering the events that occurred matters.Remembering where they occurred gives a heft and weight to memory. The incongruity of beauty and horror fix image in memory.

So here is the passage I selected.

Shamefully the blue fills rooms with death color, it swirls amethyst-crystals to paint death onto canvas forgetting the blue of the sea to pour death through sky to take away breath, deceiving with the most beautiful of blues, raining death blue. 
-Alice Rogoff, San Francisco 1991 

When I read this passage, I remembered my visit to Majdanek and the rich blue on the walls of the gas chamber, not aware at first of its origin from the poison that was used to kill. That moment of realization is shocking. Quiet forest glens were once killing fields, an inviting blue comes from the materials of death. 

There was a peephole into the room so they could monitor death. Light outlined the door as if the door led to something mysterious. I chose to use breath as the metaphor for people, picturing it as clouds, yellowing, absorbing the blue into its billows as death rained down upon it, gradually taking breath away.

April 14-June 1
JCCTychman Shapiro Gallery
Reception: April 19 6PM

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

"Cake" News or Let Them Eat Styrofoam

Have you heard the story about the inaugural cake? The cake for Trump, which was a replica of a cake for Obama, was three inches of cake, the rest of the multi-tiered structure was styrofoam. Author, journalist and activist Masha Gessen shared this story at a recent CAJM conference to illustrate the sham so often present in a totalitarian regime. 

Gessen knows of what she speaks. She grew up in Moscow, leaving in 1981, only to return in 1991. She once again departed in 2013 when faced with the threat of children being taken away from gay parents.  As an openly gay journalist with an adopted son, she was under particular threat.

I had read, loved, and written about her book Ester and Ruzya: How My Grandmothers Survived Hitler's War and Stalin's Peace so was looking forward to hearing her speak. Today she is often discussing Trump through the lens of one who grew up in Russia and lived there during the Putin years.  

She began by quoting Soviet dissident Andrei Sinyavsky, who once said that his “differences with the Soviet regime were primarily aesthetic.” She then elaborated on his meaning by exploring the culture of mediocrity that sets off the cringe reflex in anyone who places a value on excellence. That quality is very much reflected in the culture that surrounds Trump from his misspelled tweets to his incoherent sentence structure to his disdain for facts to the sheer meanness reflected in both his language and his budget. It is an embarrassment to be represented in this fashion.

All is sham and styrofoam layers where appearance matters more than reality. She spoke of how similarly Putin surrounds himself with staff who all have PhDs, but each one of them is plagiarized. Putin himself has been accused of plagiarism, which is quite common in Russia.

On the one hand she noted that Trump is all about raw emotion and public profile while Putin doesn't express emotion and had no public profile. Despite these differences they are similar in the way that they use language and lies. They exert power over reality by bully lying. She noted that Trump doesn't care if you believe his lies, but will continue to assert them to render you powerless like the bully who takes your lunch box.  Similarly Putin claimed there were no Russian troops in Ukraine, then said, oh of course there are. Reality is what they say it is.

Both disdain the public sphere and are contemptuous of public politics, the media, and how the public conversation occurs within a democracy. Gessen referenced Tillerson's first trip as Secretary of State without the press corp.  He noted that he didn't feel he had a use for them and would use them if he did.  She contrasted this CEO view of the press with the public servant view. A CEO is accountable to a board, a public servant to the public. The press corps is one of the vehicles by which the public servant view is implemented.

Gessen spoke about Perm36, the only gulag museum in Russia that was based on what was once a gulag camp during Stalin. In its later incarnation it served as a political prisoner camp until 1988.  In 2013 the museum was taken over by the state and those who created it were forced out.  It was turned into a museum glorifying the gulag.  Gessen spoke of a visit where the guide spoke of Sergei Kovalev, a well-known geneticist held there, as if the camp had attracted distinguished guests rather than the fact that he was imprisoned in solitary confinement for much of his time.  The museum was designed to create what she called "squishy reality" where nothing in the museum was clear, pointed or original.  It is much how cacophony works to muddle and confuse the public into silence.  

Gessen referenced the cacophony of the Trump administration as echoing this approach.  Nothing means anything because everything is quickly overtaken by something else.  There is always the shiny new object to distract us from public politics which needs to be our focus.  She stressed that it is our job to save the public sphere and it must be reality based.  The question she closed with is what will we be left with post-Trump and the risk he presents to both our language and the role of our media.  Critical thinking must be upheld lest we discover that all that is frosted is not cake. 

If you'd like to read more of Masha Gessen's analysis you can find her work at the New York Times or pick up one of her books, one of which takes a closer look at Putin is The Man Without a Face: The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

A Story Writ Large

I came across this page on JewishGen while doing some research on Radom, Poland, in an effort to complete a book on my family history - my grandfather and his siblings grew up in Radom, on a street called Malczewskego.  I'm wondering if you might have a moment to help me better understand the city, especially from a visual perspective.  

So began an email I received three years ago requesting information on Radom, Poland, one of my ancestral towns. The site she was referencing was a website called a Kehilalink on Radom, Poland that I created for Kehilalink means community and this is a virtual community for those who are researching their Jewish family roots from that town.  While the website was  a lot of work to set up, the payoff comes when I hear from people around the world who are traveling there or in some cases writing a book which features Radom. This email was from Georgia Hunter, a writer, who happened to be writing a book about her family's story which began in Radom.

She was intrigued by a photograph on the site and was curious about what kind of trees were in it. As luck would have it, I received the email as I was having lunch with a good friend of mine who is a survivor from that town.She quickly reached into her memory and reported that they were chestnut trees. I responded to Georgia and put her in direct contact with my friend Dora as well as with Jakub, a friend in Radom who knows its history well and ultimately showed her around when she visited. 

She was also tickled to discover an ad for her grandparents' store with its address. I remembered the painstaking process of cropping each image from an old phone book and linking each one to my listing of names. Her delight underscored why I made that effort. I, too, am excited when names suddenly become real people.

Well now I've just finished her book and I am doubly delighted that I could play any small part in her extraordinary effort. Her book is We Were the Lucky Ones and it traces her family members from Radom across the world during the war as they each seek their path to survival. So many stories are told within one family-from the Radom ghetto, to digging a grave in the killing fields, to Lviv under both German and Soviet control, Warsaw during its destruction, hiding as Christians with false papers, to the notorious Nazi prison in Krakow, shipped to the forests of Siberia to enlisting in the Polish army and serving in a famous battle in Italy. A child is hidden by nuns and parents hidden behind a false wall in a farmhouse outside Warsaw. This is a story writ large, filled with risk and answered with bravery, always surrounded with a deep love of family. The family is flung apart by war, occasionally reassembling in pieces, but often losing family members and uncertain of their survival for years. Ultimately the Red Cross plays an important role in reuniting them and when that happens you will share their tears of joy even though as a reader you have a peek behind the scenes.

This offered an added resonance because of my familiarity with the city. It is rare that I can so easily picture a city as history unfolds within it.  This is a debut book for Georgia and obviously an important story she needed to tell. Her skills as a writer and a compelling story make this a book well worth reading regardless of whether whether you have ties to Radom and a must read if you do. 

Sunday, March 12, 2017

To Catch a Thief

When I was nineteen I got my first apartment. I had spent the year in the dorm  and when summer came I was not ready to yield my newly-won independence by returning home. I got a job and together with a friend found an apartment. We climbed the stairs to the second floor of a white house, facing a tree-lined street near the university, but its side bordering a busy commercial corridor. I,too, was similarly situated, at the crossroads between my cloistered college world and the larger world. Each day I caught a bus to my job across town at an insurance agency. I felt very grown up. Looking back, I cheer myself on across the decades, marveling at my youthful clarity as I began to shape my life.

I remember that apartment in varying degrees of vividness.  My memory begins in the worn brown chair in the living room from which I watched the Watergate hearings. That was the epicenter. Memories spill out from that point, paling as they extend their tendrils like water. To the left of the chair was the kitchen, a largely useless room to me at that time in my life, so only lightly sketched in memory. A splotch of orange, perhaps a dish towel, colors the room.  It was not until a few years later that a boyfriend would teach me how to cook. From the living room the hall extended in front of me, linking the two bedrooms and the bathroom between.  I picture a claw footed tub, uncertain if my memory is embellishing. My memory is of institutional green bedroom walls, not an inviting place, save for that first taste of freedom it afforded.

It occurs to me that it is significant that my memory begins from that chair. Watergate was the obsession of that time and my first exposure to the seaminess that politics can offer. It is the only thing I ever recall watching on that TV. We had no cable TV, no CNN, no Facebook to share our reactions, no Internet; just me in the chair and that TV. It was a simpler world, but unseemly human behavior still was what drew our attention.

Next to the chair was a bowl of nuts, my fuel for the Watergate viewing. Each morning I would find it emptied and a trail of shells nearby. One day I caught a glimpse of a bushy squirrel tail as it slipped out the window through a narrow and barely visible space next to the air conditioner. Our thief was revealed, a fitting parallel to the Watergate saga, closer than I had ever imagined. We'd been burgled.

Since that time, I have not been as engaged by political scandal; the glued to the TV, watching the swimmer, awaiting the shark variety. It’s the kind of impending doom that has ominous music playing in the background, just before the shark makes contact and blood fills the water.  

Now once again I am obsessed with the news, but this time in all its channels and Internet varieties, 24/7. I wake to the New York Times and Washington Post on my iPad and go to bed to PBS NewsHour. Even our entertainment is marinated in politics and serves to reassure us that we are not alone.  The highlights in our household are watching Stephen Colbert’s monologue and Saturday Night Live.There is no escape. My husband is similarly obsessed, perhaps even more so. While I am grateful that our view of the world aligns, it adds to an inability to escape this perpetual news cycle. It is a bit like trying to cut out sweets and having your husband bring home a box of chocolates. Even if I momentarily choose to tune politics out,  I am gradually lured by the drone of that nearby TV, beckoning me to hear what new horrors await. I feel as if my home has been invaded by something far more nefarious than my one time bushy-tailed burglar. This thief has taken our peace of mind, and our trust in many of our neighbors, our government and our country.

So many of us are united in our abhorrence  for what is unfolding. We can hear the ominous soundtrack and await the denouement of this horror show, praying that it comes before too much damage is incurred.