Wednesday, February 22, 2012

What Makes a Story

I’ve written of my exhibition of artwork related to the Holocaust.  Lately I’ve been busy doing presentations and talks around it.   I’ve been surprised at the range of audiences and the ways in which they connect to the material.  The audiences have represented very diverse backgrounds ranging from Talmud Torah students to a technical college with a class on visual interpretation.  I’ve met with students from an Adopt a Survivor program where they are matched with a survivor to learn their story and carry it forward.  For them I spoke about my observations on building a relationship, questions to elicit story and the elements that make a good story for them to retell.  I tend to do and then analyze later.  The process of preparing a talk forces me to think about my work in a different way and often leads me to new insights.

I realized that my process of developing a painting around a story closely relates to what makes a good story.  A good story is visual and sensory.  If you can picture it, odds are it will stay with you and the people with whom you share it.  Just as our memories are visual, stories that have legs can be easily visualized.  If they can be visualized, then they in turn provide good source material for painting.

I shared with the class a story that my friend Dora told me about a death march that she was on during the war.  She told me that they were given three things, a can with a picture of a chicken on it, a blanket and some bread.  The first thing they did was discard the can as they had no way to open it.  The road was strewn with cans of chicken.  Then they tied the blanket around their neck.  First they put it over one shoulder, then the other.  Quickly it became a noose around their neck and some abandoned the blankets as well.  The bread of course was precious and they ate some and saved the rest for it meant survival.  When she told me that story I found I could easily picture the road strewn with cans of chicken.  I could feel the tug of the blanket around my neck as I imagined it first on one shoulder, then the other.  It was the sensory elements of the story as well as the theme of three things that helped me to retain it.

The stories that stay with me often have some small detail buried in them that I’ve never heard elsewhere.  It is the details that make it memorable.  One of my paintings is called Bricks for Bread.  It is about how the Nazis not only destroyed the Warsaw ghetto, but then sold the bricks to the Poles, a detail that I had never learned prior to the interviews I did as part of the Identity and Legacy project.  Another detail that stayed with me was the fact that the Germans had fled the Russians, abandoning their homes.  Survivors from the camps often became squatters in those homes as they sought shelter after being freed. 

In addition to artwork,  the Identity and Legacy project has also generated some video.  I often share a brief video of a survivor’s story and then discuss how I developed artwork around that story.  In this way I can open up the creative process taking them into the source material and how I decided which elements to focus on in the subsequent artwork. 

I have come to realize that my focus in all that I do is story. Artwork, writing and speaking are all just expressions of that common theme.   Story is universal.  We grow up having stories read to us and a well-told story never fails to captivate.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

A Personal Legacy

This blog was begun around the theme of family history.  This week I have been living a bit of my own family history as we laid my father to rest.  I delivered a eulogy at the service hoping I would get through it without triggering tears.   It felt important to me that I speak publicly about a man who was very much a public figure, but whom I knew through the lens of family.

I last visited my father shortly before he died.  As I walked into the room I was heartened when he exclaimed "Susela", to which I replied "Dadela", and he smiled.  That was our well worn path.  I sat with him and told him a little about what I was working on which ironically was a series of cross generational interviews in the Jewish Identity and Legacy project.  As I've written in these pages, I am interviewing elders and their children about the elder's legacy and its influence on their adult child. As I told him about it, it dawned on me that perhaps I should answer the same questions I was asking of others.

Sitting there with both my mother and father I began to tell my dad what I thought my legacy was from him.  I later wove much of what I told him into a eulogy.   What a wonderful gift to be able to share it with him directly.   A gift for him and a gift for me, nothing unfinished.

Among his many accomplishments, my father, Philip Weinberg, created the public television station that serves central Illinois.  He was a rather eclectic man with the ability to leverage technology to serve his love of culture and the arts.   He was a university professor, trained as an electrical engineer, but very much a visionary.  If something didn't exist that he felt was important, he didn't hesitate to start it.  He started the Electrical Engineering department at Bradley University and was its dean for twenty years.  Later in his career he founded and led the College of Communications and Fine Arts.  In between he built public radio, public television and numerous buildings and performance spaces. 

After his funeral the TV station interviewed me.  "Did you think it unusual that he went from being an engineer to communications and fine arts?" they asked.  "No", I replied as I thought of my own rather eclectic career spanning nonprofits, finance and the arts, a combination that never seemed unusual to me because of my father who encouraged me in all of my pursuits.   I grew up thinking you started things if they didn't exist, you loved your work and of course you would have diverse interests and explore them with passion.  Doesn't everybody? I took that for granted because that's what I witnessed every day.  Unlike the external world that saw what he did as extraordinary, I knew him in his everyday life as my Dad.  From the vantage point of that front row seat, I learned to view his perspective as the norm.  And that is quite a legacy.