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.


  1. I am, personally, as far away from being an artist as anyone could be. I love reading your posts because it makes me look at an aspect of life I would never consider on my own. Your work is so powerful.

  2. Susan,
    Forgive me if I told you about this post before. With permission, I wrote this and posted it on my blog.
    However, I would love it if Lou would let me share ALL of his story with the world. I have it, put together a book for him, and he distributed it to his family. For about 10 years he was the head of the Cincinnati Holocaust Survivors' Group and he told me he has recorded his story for the Holocaust Museum. However, he finds it difficult to believe that anyone else would care about his family story.

  3. Thanks for sharing this Kathy. I knew you were working on this wonderful project, but had missed the post. I had the same conversation with a friend who is a survivor who also hesitated to share her personal story. I truly believe that it is through personal stories that we arrive at a greater understanding of someone else's experience. I think when something horrific occurs to someone else we find ways to distance ourselves by magnifying our differences. We tell ourselves that it happened because they live in a bad part of town, were walking alone late at night. Sometimes it is just seeing their experience through the foggy lens of time that is sufficient to make us feel different and safe. The power of personal stories is that they make each of us realize that we are not so different.