Thursday, November 3, 2011

Artwork: Fire, Light and Legacy

This week I received the good news of a second grant to fund my ongoing oral history project on Jewish Identity and Legacy.  Early this year we completed a series of interviews with elders within a Jewish elder facility.  Our interviews were with Russian immigrants, Holocaust survivors and those who grew up in immigrant communities in the Twin Cities.  This second grant will enable us to focus upon cross-generational interviews and examine the question of how legacy transmits across generations.

I’ve been working on a series of paintings based upon the stories we’ve gathered and in the next few entries will share some of the artwork and the stories with you.  Some of the interviewees were truly amazing story tellers.  Fannie, who grew up in the Jewish community in the Twin Cities was one of the most prolific storytellers, perhaps because she had progressed to recording her stories in books.

When I begin a painting I reread the transcript for that particular person and think about whether there are some themes that emerge.  In the case of Fannie, every story related to fire, light and legacy.

Fannie had begun by telling us about her mother, a central figure in her life.  She related that her mother had told her stories when she was a child and urged her to write them down.

My mother was always afraid that we wouldn’t remember anything she said or did ... and she wanted the children to know that she had a life... all of the things that she did and saw and heard and she was afraid that it would all be forgotten.  And so she chose me as her spokesperson. She would always grab me in from play and there would be a cup of coffee and milk and a caramel roll and she’d say “Ess”, Eat, listen to what I say and then “Shreibses arupt”, write it down.  I said, uh huh,uh huh, and I’d  be busy eating my caramel roll and drinking my coffee and she’d keep me for about an hour and when she was all through talking she’d say, “Go out to play”.   I didn’t shreibe arupt, I didn’t write it down.  And one day I came home, she was staying with us and she was burning all kinds of papers, citizenship papers, a whole bunch of them was on the floor in a bag.  And she was destroying them.  And I yelled, “What are you doing?”  And she says, “Did you shreibe, write it down?” And at first I didn’t know what she was talking about, and I said, “no”.  "Well so what do I need all this for? Who’s going to care?  No one’s going to care! "  And then I said, “Mama, please.”  Well she stopped destroying and my old age I discovered I could write, I didn’t know how, but the kids bought me a word processor.  I was 77 and I remembered Shreibses arupt, that would be the title.

When I asked her if there was something she grew up with that is still part of her life she replied "Benching licht".

Benching licht, Blessing the candles on Friday night.  My grandmother who came to live with us had her set of candles, my mother had her set of candles.  And you see my mother, when they were packing her up to send her to America so she could marry her boyfriend, you see the first thing that his mother put in the trunk were a pair of candlesticks.  They are over 200 years old.

Fannie also related a story about the candelabras that have been a part of a local synagogue since 1926.  The story began with a fire in the shteibel, attached to the synagogue. Her father was quite distressed by this as it was caused by candles and he thought they should have electric lights.

And he thought about it and he thought about it and one day he was walking home from synagogue with his neighbor and he was discussing the situation.  Mr Osias Silvers (his neighbor), said he was a smith… a tinsmith and he thinks he could make a reasonable pair of candlesticks. So Pa said, you mean if I get you drawings and patterns you will be able to make an actual thing?  Oh sure he said.  He does that every day for a living.  And so they started.

Mr Silvers went back to work and he asked his boss if he could have some metal strips, scraps that they didn’t want to use anymore, so that he could make something for the synagogue.   The guy says sure, so along the floor he picked up some brass strips and some metal… .And he put them in a bag and in a box and he brought them home. And he said, Mr Schwartz, nobody called anyone by their first name.  Mr Schwartz, could you make something out of these strips of scraps?  And he said, you know, I think we can make some candlesticks.  OK so he put them away and Pa went to work and designed a pair of candelabras.  They’re over five feet tall and he specified to be electrified for electricity.  And he brought them to Mr. Silvers and he said if we had a drawing he could cut it out.  He has instruments and things that could cut the metal to just like a pattern on a dress.  So Papa set about getting paper long enough and he had someone help him draw the outline of what he wanted and it was made.  The patterns were made and he brought them to Mr. Silvers and said, “Could you work from this?”  Absolutely he could work from this … and they set about making the patterning for the candelabras.

The candelabras have been in the synagogue since and in fact represent a multi-generational legacy.  Fannie restored them prior to her daughter’s wedding at the synagogue.

My raw material is story. Sometimes I have some imagery to work with as well.  In this case, I had images of the candelabras, the candlesticks and a photo of Fannie’s mother.  With fire as a central image I made the background flame colored.  I pulled out the suggestion of the candelabras at an angle and duplicated part of the image to fill in the left side of the canvas.  Making use of negative space I darkened the empty space that surrounded the form of the candelabra.  I sketched in one of the candlesticks with smoke forming an arc above.  The central figure was Fannie’s mother holding two papers just bursting into flame.  The figure is in front of the candlestick, but I liked the form of the candlestick and left the figure with some transparency so the candlestick shows through. The white of the papers, the candle and the face draw the focus.

I liked the idea of the candle burning representing the ebbing of time and the urgency to preserve legacy in the light of the flames so rapidly destroying it.  The candelabra represented a multi-generational legacy that continues to this day.

  This project has been made possible in part through the Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund through the vote of Minnesotans on November 4, 2008. Administered by the Minnesota Historical Society.

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