Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Art and Memory

Lately I’ve been reflecting on memory. With two parents in their 80s struggling with failing memories, it is a subject that often occupies my thoughts. When I stumbled across the book Moonwalking with Einstein by Joshua Foer, a book that focuses on the topic of memory, I read it with great interest. Foer, a journalist, began his engagement with the topic when he wrote an article about a memory competition that encompassed seemingly impossible feats for us mere mortals.

As I read his book I learned about memory palaces in which one secretes images, the more ludicrous the image the better, as the purpose is to recall memories in a sequential order. The first memory palace was created after the ceiling fell at a banquet killing the people in the hall. The speaker had momentarily been called out of the room and was then called upon to try to recall everyone in the room to identify the dead. Working his way around the table he found he could recapture the visual information by visualizing spatially. The same concept was subsequently applied to assist in memory. Actual physical spaces are imagined as home to items on a list, each tucked into a different room. Numbers are converted to two letters that can be transformed to words and images as well. Soon Foer is bitten by the bug and begins to train for the American competition which he amazingly wins.

My mother is reading the book as well and taking notes, hoping to find some trick to make her recalcitrant memories stay put. She asked me what stayed with me from the book, even as I realized that my adequate and sometimes good memory often failed to retain the complexity of a book a month after reading it. But this book has meaning for me on a number of levels, both the personal and the artistic, and some key concepts have stayed with me because of their relevance.

Foer writes about the fact that we are using our memories in ways for which they were not originally designed. Memories weren’t designed to remember numbers; they were designed to rely on visual indicators for such practical tasks as determining if something was safe to eat. Thus most of the methods of retaining memory revolve around creating memorable visual imagery.

If you read this blog you know that I combine painting and story. I am often surprised when people come into my studio and tell me they were there a year ago and remember a story I told about a painting. Often they bring someone with them and ask me to tell them a particular story or show them a particular painting. My paintings seem to become memorable to them because of the accompanying stories and similarly the stories remain because of their association with imagery. It seems like a pretty basic concept, but I never fully appreciated the interrelationship between imagery and story until I began to think about it through the lens of memory.

When I take a story and imagine how to evoke it in a painting, I often combine disparate imagery, juxtaposing different times and places. When I give talks about my artwork, I don’t need notes to evoke the accompanying story. The image is a more than adequate prompt even providing sequencing similar to the rooms of a memory palace as I work my way through the directionality inherent in the painting. The act of doing a painting is actually not so different than that of creating a memory palace.

I used to keep a sketchbook when I traveled and when I recall those trips it is from the vantage point from which I did each sketch, fixed in memory by the sheer attentiveness required to do a drawing. I still remember a trip to Sorrento over Easter when there was a religious procession in the evening. It felt as if it would be disrespectful to take a photo so I mentally took a snapshot, noticing the shopkeepers framed in the light of their doorways and the sconces casting a glow on the stone walls. When we returned to our hotel I pulled out my pencils and recreated in great detail the image I had just committed to memory. I hadn’t thought myself capable of such a feat and was surprised at the capacity of my memory, one of the lessons of this book. The other lesson… paying attention is a lot of work and the very act of doing so is what contributes to memory. It is not something we tend to do habitually in this time when so much memory is externalized to computers and phones.

An artist friend told me that people often purchase her paintings because they remind them of something in their memory. Whether it is tapping existing memories or creating new ways to join story and imagery in memory, art and memory clearly have a connection. Story provides context, art provides visuals and the two together create a powerful vehicle for learning and retention.


Thursday, January 12, 2012

Telling the Story

This week we are opening a six month exhibition of three bodies of my work that relate to the Holocaust.  This exhibition is housed in the Eiger-Zaidenweber Holocaust Resource Center on the second floor of the Barry Family Campus in Minneapolis (4330 Cedar Lake Rd South).  The show is very much a collaborative effort with sponsorship by Talmud Torah, the U of M's Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies, the Jewish Historical Society of the Upper Midwest and the Tychman Shapiro Gallery.

The focus of this exhibition and related programming is the question of how we tell the story of the Holocaust, particularly as we have fewer survivors to share their first-hand testimony.  Over time, “story” becomes “history” and the immediacy is lost while distortion becomes all too prevalent. 

As you enter the gallery you see my series “A Hole in Time” that looks at the pre-war Jewish community of Radom, Poland, the town my grandfather came from.    Drawn from imagery in a 1937 film of the Jews of Radom, these paintings evoke snapshots of a once thriving community.  Coupled with this artwork are the pre-war photographs of my friend Dora who grew up in Radom and was 15 years old when the war broke out.  Her photos were hidden in the shoes of her brother and her husband during their time in the camps.  We had the opportunity to exhibit this work and Dora’s photographs in Radom, Poland in 2011.

That series leads into my work on Lithuania where I looked for the traces of the former Jewish community and how Lithuania deals with the history that transpired on its soil.  My discomfort with the reframing of history that has occurred in Lithuania is expressed in several of these paintings.  When I toured the Vilnius Genocide Museum in 2009, much to my puzzlement, there was nothing on the Holocaust.  Keep in mind that the town was 45% Jewish and 95% of the Jews were murdered, the most significant case of genocide that ever occurred in that region.  If the Genocide Museum were your source of information, you would not realize the Holocaust occurred.  It addressed only the Soviet occupation. There is no need to actively deny the Holocaust, reframing and silence do a more than adequate job of that.  This series is called “The Silence Speaks Loudly” as I found the silence quite deafening.

My third series is drawn from the Jewish Identity and Legacy project.  As part of this project* I interviewed a range of Jewish elders and then developed artwork around their stories.  Included in this exhibition are interviews with four local survivors around whose stories I developed both artwork and video.

I must confess that when I was developing this artwork, I didn’t think in terms of the larger story arc.  In each case I was following a thread that intrigued me and that was sufficient.  In fact, the broader theme emerged only after I grouped these series into one exhibition.  I then began to see how they knit together. 

All the work is around the common theme of story and in each case I had the opportunity to gather stories first-hand from those who lived them.  In Lithuania I heard from our guides, a former partisan and a hidden child.  My friend Dora shared her stories of our common Polish ancestral town, both before and during the war.  In Minnesota I learned the experiences of Jewish elders who survived the war and built new lives in Minnesota.   In each case I had the opportunity to hear the stories directly.  I have deep admiration for these dynamic people in their 80s and 90s who have a commitment to educating others in the hopes of making “never again” a reality.  I often find myself thinking that ten years from now they are unlikely to be here, and what then?  I already see history being rewritten in Lithuania.  How do we keep it alive and immediate?  How do we keep it from being distorted to meet the agendas of different groups?  And what is my responsibility, and yours, to keep it alive?

My artwork grew out of a need to both process what I was learning and a sense of responsibility to retell the stories.  I often feel that my efforts are meager compared to the power of first-hand testimony, but it is my small effort to keep the stories alive and accessible. 

*Jewish Identity and Legacy interviews were funded by the State of Minnesota Arts & Cultural Heritage Fund, administered through the Minnesota Historical Society