Sunday, February 7, 2010

Foot in the Door

Today we waited two hours to drop off a painting for the Minneapolis Institute of Arts “Foot in the Door Show”. The line was so lengthy that it extended outside for a portion of our wait on this snowy Minnesota day. It gave new meaning to the term "foot in the door". Each decade the MIA does a show in which they accept entries that fit within a 12” X 12” requirement. This sends local artists scurrying to art stores to purchase 12” X 12” canvases and I was no exception.

I ended up with two paintings and one collage from which I would choose my entry. The painting on which I lavished the most time, in fact didn’t make the cut, while the one I dashed off in two hours spoke to me. Of course the first painting was necessary to get to the second. It is all about process.

My first painting was a study of Ruta, a woman who we met at the Vilnius Synagogue. Ruta had a very old-style look that looked very at home in the synagogue. She graciously had shown us around the synagogue and was there to greet us when we attended services on our last evening in Vilnius. The image that I painted of her had the dome of the synagogue behind her as she stood on the women's balcony. The dome framed her face with blue creating an almost Madonna-like quality, not exactly the effect I was going for, but it felt strangely appropriate. Ruta will likely show up in a larger painting in another form and this study will surely inform that effort.

The painting that spoke to me was one I did of Marek, an older gentleman who was in our Yiddish class. Marek only spoke Russian so we didn’t have much opportunity to communicate with him, but I found his face very interesting and have already used him as a reference for my painting “Sholom Aleichem”. While I liked the painting of his face, it needed something more. I went to my list of Yiddish expressions and searched for something that would relate in some manner. The one quote I found was “Vi men iz gevoint oif der yugend, azoi tut men oif der elter”. This translates to “That which is practiced in youth will be pursued in old age.” When I thought about the meaning of this relative to Marek, I realized that he must have heard Yiddish as a youth, but grew up under Soviet rule where pursuing one's Jewish heritage openly was very difficult. Here he was in his 70s, now studying Yiddish, no doubt returning to something that had once been familiar. I wrote the expression in cursive Yiddish and did washes of yellow ochre and red oxide over different sections.

In addition to the studies for the Foot in the Door Show, I have also completed some additional paintings. One is called “Afikomen” for its association with hiding the matzo at Passover. When Ruta had shown us around the synagogue she pointed out a room off of the women’s section. Behind curtains it housed equipment for making matzo. She told us that they had a matzo bakery and a kosher butcher housed secretly within the synagogue. Under Soviet rule they did not allow for the practice of one’s religion, so they had to do this surreptitiously. The painting “Afikomen” is semi-abstract, but you can pick out the forms of the equipment.

I also completed my painting called “The Jews Like Blue”. In the apartment in which we stayed, our landlady and her husband had started to scrape down the walls. Soon they found traces of former tenants. They left squares of the underlying layers intact in their apartment, some of which we were certain contained Hebrew letters. Our landlady noted that Jews once lived in this home in the corner of the small ghetto. Commenting on the blue in the background, she noted that “the Jews like blue”. The painting consists of a rough approximation of that phrase. I’m often not sure if I’ve captured an expression correctly, but in this case my objective was to have the suggestion of the phrase, but obscure portions of it. So I layered medium, embossed letters and then scraped portions down until I ended up with something that has an almost waxy appearance which captures the suggestion of something hidden beneath layers, an apt metaphor for the Jewish heritage in Vilnius.

While I’ve been painting, I have also been spending considerable time on my genealogy efforts. Early this month, Avotaynu, an International Journal of Jewish Genealogy, published my article on my travels and research on Dunilovichi.

I have also been deeply immersed in website design. Having completed my first Shtetlink website for Dunilovichi, I decided it was time to tackle another so began one for Radom, Poland, the town from which my grandfather immigrated. Radom is a large city, many times the size of Dunilovichi and with that brings many layers of complexity.

Dunilovichi has fewer than 20 people researching the town. Radom has about 400. I began by contacting them all to ask for information. Soon I was communicating with people from Melbourne to Israel and many places in between. I am working with a man in Israel who has a homemade film of Radom from 1937 which I hope to be able to post. I’ve also connected with the Radomer Society in NY where I’ve been invited to attend a meeting to try to access additional information. And I’ve been contacting publishers to publish excerpts from books on the site. This has turned into a pretty significant effort, but I’m enjoying connecting with other researchers. As I have less left to find in my own history, I’m glad there are other opportunities to stay engaged in the topic. I’ve just gone public with the site, but will continue to add to it as more information becomes available. You can find it at .