Saturday, September 17, 2011

What I Do and Why I Do It

My artwork based on the former Jewish communities of Lithuania and Poland is currently in a solo show in St. Paul, Minnesota. I will be giving an artist talk in October and it has me reflecting on why I do what I do and what exactly is it that I do? Artist talks are an interesting exercise because they seek to put words to a process that evolves in part out of the subconscious. Even when I begin with a direction in mind, the painting often takes on a life of its own.

Not only does the individual painting evolve, but the series evolves over time. Often earlier work in a series is more representational and later work is more semi-abstract. It is as if I need to paint through the representational work to get to the other side before I can begin to experiment more with imagery. It is a mining process where I bring what is closer to the surface up more fully formed. The stratum below requires more exploration to take form and often takes me to interesting places because of the exploration required.

There is the individual artwork, the series of artwork and the larger structure within which it resides. For me that structure is story. Over time I’ve begun to realize that my artwork is all about story and artwork represents one medium among many that I may use to tell a story. I always include text and when I speak, I tell stories. More recently I’ve also been working with video. A friend of mine says I do performance art. I find that idea rather amusing as it conjures up images of the more dramatic performance artists, a Karen Finley smearing her body with chocolate. Not exactly me, but there is an element of performance in telling stories, albeit a little more sedate than the Finley variety.

There are different schools of thought about how much explanation an artist should provide. Should we be inscrutable and mystifying? I remember going to the Dali Museum in Figueres, Spain where Dali had no labels on his paintings. He wanted the viewer to make of it what they will. I’m at the other end of that spectrum. Very scrutable. I have a story in mind that I want to convey. You can see what you want to see in my artwork, but I also want to make sure you know what I see. I’m someone who reads everything around me, so text enriches my personal experience and I hope it does the same for my audience.

Five years ago I did an exhibition of work on family history. I learned a great deal from that exhibition that began to define how I work. I remember when I was preparing for an artist talk and expressed concern to my husband about whether anyone else would care about my family stories that were embedded in the artwork. My husband urged me to tell the stories and I was subsequently surprised to learn how much people resonate with story. One viewer wrote in the exhibition book that she didn’t know much about her family’s history, but knew it was similar to mine so pretended my family was hers as she went around the exhibit and viewed the artwork and read the text. For me that underscored that story is one of the ways we put ourselves in the shoes of another person. Of course, that is the magic of story, it allows for an empathetic response, something very important for the material with which I work. Since that exhibition, everything that I paint is about story. I often feel like a journalist asking “Where’s the story?” as I evaluate if I have enough story to spur my imagination and begin painting.

In addition to story, I also found that I needed to work with a series. While each painting may have an individual story it is by grouping multiple stories that we begin to tell a larger story, much like chapters in a book. Multiple stories can amplify each other or reveal different facets of the larger story.

I stumbled into story in my artwork, but in hindsight I realize it has been a theme in everything that I do. In fact, I often tell people that what I do is solve puzzles and tell stories. That is true of my prior career in finance and my subsequent pursuits in genealogy and artwork. And yes there are stories to be told through financial statements just as there are stories to mine through genealogy research and to tell through artwork. Those two constructs, telling stories, solving puzzles, link together seemingly disparate pursuits. It is not surprising that I’ve learned story is a guiding principle in my artwork.

If one’s focus is on telling stories through a series of paintings it follows that it is important both to focus on solo shows that share a body of work, to welcome opportunities to speak publicly about one’s work and to write about it as well. It also means that artwork is a medium for story telling rather than the end point in itself. It is a means of communication, not just about creating a pleasing image to hang on the wall. And it means that I choose stories that have depth and meaning, that are about topics I care deeply about. And that is what I do and why I do it.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Recommended Reading III: Germany During the Third Reich and Jewish Cultural Revival in Poland

Sometimes I find a book that is challenging to read, but an informative and important source.  Frauen: German Women Recall the Third Reich is such a book.  It is a book of oral histories with German women who were young women during the Third Reich and their late in life recall of their reactions and awareness of what was occurring.  I am very interested in the question of how humanity fails.  How do we allow genocide in our midst? What do we see? What do we close our eyes to? What do we reframe to make it acceptable?  I found I couldn’t read it straight through because of the content, so interview, pause, next interview became my rhythm.  Owings interviews a cross-section of women, from a prison guard, to members of the Nazi party to the widow of a resistance leader.  Along the way it forces one to imagine one’s own response to similar circumstances .

Also based in Germany is the recent book In the Garden of Beasts by Erik Larsen.  This fascinating book is based on the experience of Ambassador Dodd, a history professor who becomes the Ambassador to Germany in 1933.  He has a front row seat to the emergence of the Nazi party and the people whose names we associate with evil.  His daughter has an initially sympathetic view of the Nazi government until events cause the family to recoil in horror.  Dodd is not in the mold of the typical foreign service ambassador and struggles with the good old boy aspects of the job.  Upon returning to the United States he spoke widely of his concerns about what he observed.  The book also presents an interesting view of the anti-Semitism embedded in the State department that sought to prevent wider awareness of what was occurring.  Their main concern was with collecting money Germany owed to the US.

There are two books that I read prior to going to Poland to build a backdrop for my travels.  One is by Ruth Ellen Gruber titled Virtually Jewish: Reinventing Jewish Culture in Europe.  Gruber writes of the resurgence of Jewish culture in Eastern Europe despite the fact that few Jews remain in that region. Jewish museums, klezmer music and Jewish cafes are suddenly in demand and embraced by non-Jews.  Gruber explores the reasons behind this.  When I attended the Vilnius Yiddish Institute there were many students who were not Jewish.  American students found this unusual, but many of the students from Eastern Europe viewed the Jewish history as part of the history of their country as well.  In Radom, Poland I observed first hand this renewed interest when I exhibited artwork on the former Jewish community.  In fact, the arts and culture center does a focus on the former Jewish community each year and the former Jewish school has been adopted by a Polish school on the same street.  They seek to commemorate the students and teachers on a website.  It is a phenomenon that I find quite interesting and somewhat puzzling.

The second book that helped to build some context for my travels in Poland was Shtetl by Eva Hoffman.  Hoffman traces the history of Jews in Poland and focuses in on one town to explore the often intersecting lives of Poles and Jews.  As both a Pole and a Jew, Hoffman brings an objectivity to her subject.  While sometimes dry, the book added to my understanding of the history of Poland and the shared history of the Jews and Poles.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Finding Your Family's Ancestral Towns -Part II

A few years ago I was doing research for a client in LA.  She had family that came to St. Paul, Minnesota in the 1800s and didn’t know where they came from.  While I was quite envious of the extensive research she could do in the US, I realized that I had an advantage in having my European origins in the more recent past, relatively speaking. Records after 1906 provide much more extensive information and her relatives had been here for several decades by then.  I had traced her family through the census and had searched for immigration records.  Immigration records were difficult to find and there was often no way to confirm that it was the correct record.  Without those critical two points to draw the line between (relatives in Europe, relatives in the US), we had only supposition.   Early naturalization records are also just as sketchy as early immigration records. 

I decided to try a new tack, probate records.  I was able to find an index listing for my client’s great-grandfather for a will in the Minnesota Historical Society Library.  A fabulous place for anyone doing research on Minnesota relatives, this library offers birth and death records, countless newspapers, city directories and more.  A friend was able to find his relative’s personnel file in the records of the railroad.  I took the index number over to Ramsey County Courthouse where I located the Probate Office.  They quickly settled me at a microfilm reader and pulled up the great-grandfather’s will from the 1930s. 

The will offered a wealth of information.  It identified family members, in one case a sister of whom we hadn’t been aware.  It noted causes that he gave to, property he held and lo and behold---the town of birth.  The will noted the town of Good Levey, Poland.  I went to the Town Finder at Jewishgen and input the name.  Up came the town of Garliava, Lithuania.  The Russian and Polish name was Godlevo.

But we had another clue in the sister’s name.  We began to search that new branch and learned that the sister had sons.  We found their immigration records in 1907 which was a challenge as the name had converted from Bartelstein to Burton.  In the record it indicated that they were going to their uncle, my client’s great-grandfather in St. Paul and gave their town of origin.  This was further validated by another source.   As young men her sons had to register for the draft in WWI.  Their draft registration also indicated the town from which they came, a town just 35 miles away from Garliava. 

Emboldened by my success in the St. Paul court records, I explored the Surrogate Court (same as Probate Court)  records in Brooklyn for my own family.  While no one had the wealth to justify a will, I did find guardian papers and records that unveiled other mysteries.  One relative who lived in Brooklyn, but had died at her son’s in Morristown had a document that listed all of her children with their married names.  It was quite simple to go to the court office, check a card file and have them pull up the requested documents. 

There is no magic bullet for discovering the town of origin.  Immigration records post 1906 are the easiest route.  Even if the family came in the 1800s, it is possible that a family member came to them after 1906.  If immigration records are not available you will need to continue to explore other avenues.  Probate records provided an unexpected source for this information. 

I am currently working with another person whose family came over in the 1800s where we are trying to find the ancestral town.  We’ve been successful in working our way back through census records.  We then found burial records on the Jewish On-Line Worldwide Burial Registry.  This program, that I often contribute to when I photograph tombstones in Eastern Europe, also has many photos from the US.  In this case the family cemetery was well documented and provided some information that may prove helpful.  It gave us both her great-grandfather’s Hebrew names and the names of his father.  The great-grandfather’s name in the US was Louis, but his Hebrew name was Nachum Leib.  I have found that these names are often used interchangeably so we can now search using one or the other or both.  With the names of her great-grandfather and his father we can search in European records, but it is still a broad universe within which to search without the town of origin.  The next step would be to find death records for the great-grandfather.  Death record information is as good as the knowledge of the person providing it. As his wife was still alive upon his death, she would be familiar with the town he came from.  If we are lucky it will give us something more than the ubiquitous “Russia”.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Finding Your Family's Ancestral Towns I

One of the most perplexing questions people face when they begin genealogy research is identifying where their family came from.   I have been working with a friend to determine the answer to that for her family and am reflecting on how I first learned of the ancestral towns of my family.  I’ve known them for so long now that I forget there was a time I didn’t.

In the case of my Kishlansky branch, I had a three page history written by my grandfather that told me of Kamenetz-Podolsk as his town of origin.  My mother also told me that she remembered her mother talking of Kamenetz.  She thought she was saying Communist and it was not until much later that she realized it was actually the name of the town of origin.

My Belarussian ancestors are all buried in the cemetery section in New York for people from Dunilowitz.  Many Eastern European towns had burial societies in the US, especially in places like NY.  People from the same shtetl often ended up buried together, recreating their original community beneath the ground.  A cousin of my father’s clued me in to this detail which was later confirmed by immigration records.

My other town is Radom, Poland and I believe family was aware of this town of origin.  I know that my aunt told me of it when I did an oral history with her 25 years ago.  Obviously asking family members is the best place to start with this research.

Having the town made my search for immigration records more focused.  Any family name from those towns was a possible relative.  Even with this advantage, it still took me several months to find all of the immigration records.  Names were spelled a variety of ways and often transcribed incorrectly.  Town names also varied significantly.  When in doubt I input the town name into and went through every person who came from that town.

I was fortunate in some respects in that many family members came over after 1906 when the immigration records began to offer greater information.  After that time they tell you who the nearest relative was in Europe and who the nearest relative was where they were going.  For my more unusual names I built a database of every person who came to the US with that name.  Then I started playing the match game looking for relationships between those two data points of European family and American family.

When I build the database, I use filters so I can sort it easily by different details.  I have a column by year and I code the family names and towns so I can sort them even if they are recorded by a variety of spellings.   I then sort by immigration date and relationships become much more apparent. Often it is a game of tag.  My first intrepid ancestor was my grandmother’s uncle Morris Kishlansky.  He went first to the UK with his wife where they had two children.  In 1898 he came to the US as Morris Kislianski indicating he had no relative at the other end to greet him.  I wonder what that experience was like.  He’d had a few years in London with his family to learn the language, but his mission was to establish a solid foundation for his family in a new country.

He must have succeeded as his wife followed a year later with her two children indicating they were going to her husband.  The record noted they were from Russia and were coming from London, still no ancestral town was recorded.  In 1902 I see a record of a different last name going to the original stalwart immigrant.  Srul Baron was going to his brother-in-law Morris Kislynsky and he gives his home as Kamenik, the first mention of the ancestral town in immigration records.  I knew from my grandfather’s written history that my grandmother had an aunt Sarah Baron.  In 1903 my grandmother’s oldest brother Itzek makes his way to America to none other than Srul Baron, his uncle, followed in 1904 by Srul’s wife and children.  Now Itzek is tagged and his brother Benjamin comes to him in 1906.  It is late in 1906 that the laws change requiring more information in the manifest. Through this point there is no record of the nearest relative in Eastern Europe, but the town of origin is noted as Kamenetz.    But wait, Benjamin is coming from Chotyn.  What’s that about?  I map it relative to Kamenetz and learn that it is 30 miles away.  There was a time when Jews could not live close to the border of the Pale and were displaced from their homes.  Kamenetz Podolsk was close to the border. Perhaps this accounts for the periodic movement I see between Kamenetz and Chotyn. 

In 1911 my grandfather comes to his brother-in-law Itzek giving an address that I can look up in the 1910 census.  He too notes his town of birth as Kamenetz, but most recently was in Czortkow, Austria, a town not far from Kamenetz, perhaps a way station on his path to Rotterdam.   Interestingly he indicates he has no relative in Europe, despite the fact that his wife was still there.  My hunch was that he hoped to start a new unencumbered life.  When I painted this gentleman I called him The Enigma as he remains a puzzle.

In 1912 my grandmother’s brother Frank or Frajina makes his way to Itzek, noting both Kamenetz and his nearest relative in Europe, his father Avriam Kislanski.  A long period passes before further branches of this family immigrate.  There is a war to settle in Europe and a series of pogroms that break out in the region post-war.  In 1921 within a week of each other, my grandmother and her brother and sister-in-law, come to the US.  My grandmother is going to her husband giving his original name, not the one which he later assumed.  The family is back in Chotyn (Hotin) now where her nearest relative is given as an aunt.   I’m wondering if my great-grandfather is still alive.  Yes, I conclude when I find the records of her youngest brother and his wife, also from Chotyn (Hotin).  Her brother has indicated Abram, his father, as the nearest relative in Europe and Frank as the nearest relative in the US.  I’m curious about this aunt who took the place of the father as nearest relative in my grandmother's manifest.  That move to Chotyn, did it come about because of the pograms? All mysteries to which I may never know the answers.

I had an advantage in my research that many others don’t have.  If family came to the US in the early 1900s it is both easier to trace due to more information in records and family members are often more likely to know of the original town. What do you do if family came in the 1800s when records seldom indicated the origin?  Stay tuned and I’ll clue you in on some approaches.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Trusting the Process

I am a big believer in process.  I am often far more focused on the process than an endpoint, as I find that it leads me to places I never could have imagined. The process requires a willingness to experiment, to risk and to embrace the unknown.  Not to mention a little patience and faith that interesting things will happen, but not necessarily on my schedule.  All of these are things I’ve had to learn and sometimes relearn.

Lately I have been thinking of process in many realms of my life.  When I am in the process of doing a painting I frequently take photographs of its progress.  When I run those images through a slideshow I can watch my painting materialize through all of its stages.  This exercise never fails to reinforce my appreciation for the creative process. I have learned that there are often very small changes that can make a dramatic change in an image.  At times the process can seem glacial.  When I first had the flexibility to focus more time on my artwork, I thought I’d be at the studio every day.  I soon realized that gestational time was as important as painting time.  Sometimes ideas on how to develop a painting occur to me when I’m driving or doing something totally unrelated to painting.  The diversion allows my subconscious to kick in.  I’ve written in these pages of a time that I painted over a painting in frustration only to discover that the partially hidden image spoke to me in a way that the original didn’t.  When I’m not satisfied with an image I have been known to glaze it with a wash of white or gold paint, often improving the image in ways I would not have expected.  Sometimes it takes enough dissatisfaction to take the very risks that could ruin the painting, if they don’t save it.  I have learned it is all part of the process.

I don’t think this fascination with process is a new thing for me. I still have boxes of old letters I wrote in high school and college.  I once knew someone who after he was forty got rid of all his correspondence, not wanting his private life to be too visible to others should something happen to him. Conversely I am enamored with the process of how we become who we are, some characteristics visible from the beginning, others gradually unveiled as we get more comfortable in our own skin.  I keep that record of correspondence because it reveals the “me of then” on the way to becoming the “me of now”.

When I speak publicly I often tell stories about my artwork as well as the story of how one series of work has led to the next and opened up new doors along the way.  That too is a process.  I once took an art class from Minnesota artist David Feinberg.  He said something that I’ve always remembered:  He told us that our second painting would be similar to the first, the third would be similar to the second, but the tenth would not be at all similar to the first.  He was of course speaking to the process by which each step influences the next until we look behind us with amazement at how far we’ve come, often to a very unanticipated place.