Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Naming the Essence

Ever wonder how artists come up with the names of their paintings? Naming is important for it is through naming that we capture and distill meaning. Following our discussion in the Artists' Lab* about Essence, I realized that naming is the act of identifying Essence.

An artist friend of mine enlists a poet to name her work. Generally my names flow naturally, but when all else fails a husband with a gift for alliterative riffs can prove helpful. Naming a series is of greater import than an individual painting as the title must capture the purpose and meaning of a broad body of work.

My husband was responsible for titling my family history series Putting a Face on Family History, a name with a certain alliterative resonance. It also carried a deeper meaning for I was getting to know my ancestors as I painted them.

When I developed my series on how Lithuania was rewriting the history of the Holocaust, I was struck by the sheer silence on the topic. The Silence Speaks Loudly came out of that awareness. My series on the former Jewish community of Radom, Poland had many layers. I had been reading time travel literature which seemed to focus on stepping through a hole in time. I had also decided to paint the series in a style based on a pinhole camera photograph. My source material was a 1937 film of the former Jewish community so a Hole in Time fit on many levels. 

My most recent series, the Jewish Identity and Legacy series is more of a working title. The scope of the stories is much broader and harder to capture with one title. I also didn't know quite where it would take me when I began it as I had to complete 17 interviews before I began the paintings. I have found that many of the stories related to immigration, but also the connections between all of those of Jewish heritage. When I interviewed a Ukrainian woman who came over after the demise of the Soviet Union, I realized that my story and hers were only separated by the fact that my family left the Ukraine in the early part of the 1900s. Had they stayed we would have the same story, assuming my family had managed to find safety during the Holocaust. That knowledge could lead to a title for a show in the vein of When We Came or Had They Stayed as that is really the only difference between the experience of the early immigrant communities, survivors and Jews from the former Soviet Union. I am always looking for the uniting thread that applies to all paintings in the series.

After I name a series, I then have to name each painting. Some titles are generally descriptive while other have greater depth. I like many of the titles of my paintings in my Lithuania series because of the meaning they convey. One of my favorites is Buried Truths, a painting based on a true story of a witness to the Holocaust who wrote about what he observed each day and buried what he wrote in jars in the forest. I liked the idea of truth being buried, but eventually sprouting. The painting I Was Here took some debate on my part. The painting is of a face superimposed on the wall of a holding cell and the script inscribed on that wall, the night before the resident met his death. Was it I Was Here or We Were Here? I opted for the individuality of I as carving one's name into a wall is an act of individuality.

The painting Shalom Aleichem is composed of many stories, much like the author who shares its name. Our parting remark to the woman who told us the stories embedded in the painting was also Shalom Aleichem. The woman who owned a Lithuanian restaurant had told us of the ghostlike figures they had witnessed when renovating their space in the former ghetto. We told her if she saw them again to say Shalom Aleichem which means Go In Peace. When I tell the stories I always end with that one and then note the name of this piece playing off the words peace and piece.

The names of paintings in the Identity and Legacy series tend to evolve out of the stories on which they are based. Sometimes the name comes before anything else. When I painted Hana's story of being on the Kindertransport, I remembered her telling me that she knew something had happened to her parents because "everything stopped" and she ceased to receive Red Cross letters from her family. They had met their death in Auschwitz. The painting became Everything Stopped and helped me find the imagery within it.

Often the title distills the story and only is known after the process of distillation that leads to the painting. From Her Mother came as I realized that the central theme of many stories was the handing down of tradition from each mother to her daughter.

When I did a painting on the old Brochin's grocery/deli, I thought of a quote by its founder. With food on one side and Jewish books, newspapers and prayer shawls on the other he said he sought to feed the mind and the stomach. Mind and Stomach didn't flow so it became Body and Soul.

The husband of the Brochin daughter, who I interviewed together with his wife, was trained as a chemist and part of his story was his long and fulfilling marriage. I used a chemistry motif of flasks and vials containing stories as well as their shadow memory. At the top of the painting was his hand clasping that of his wife, a gesture that touched me and which represented a fundamental part of his story. The title became A Matter of Chemistry.

To a wordsmith and storyteller, naming matters. Hopefully it leaves you with the central idea that the work is trying to convey, the essence.

*The Jewish Artists’ Laboratory is an arts initiative through the Sabes Jewish Community Center featuring 17 artists exploring the theme of Text/Context/Subtext through study and art making. The project is funded through The Covenant Foundation and similar projects are being done in both Milwaukee and Madison. Artists explore how the theme of Text/Context/Subtext is relevant to Jews and non-Jews, to religious and non-religious, to the community and to the individual, to the artist and the non-artist.

Friday, May 24, 2013

Essence and Absence

Today at the Artists' Lab* we continued to explore the work that we are doing for the exhibition. I shared my work with some of the attendees and found that the story is indeed powerful in the retelling. I have also made some alterations to the painting that make it work better visually. Can you tell what I changed?

The cans were too distracting, but as they were part of the story, I wanted to keep them in the image. I did a wash of blue black over them to make them less obtrusive so the emphasis remains on the two women. I also changed the flow of the path so it curves off to their side and is more irregular in form. Every painting is filled with many little decisions that help create the final image that you view. Some are conscious, others just happen as we find what pleases our eye.

At the Lab, our discussion began on the subject of Essence and Absence. In basic dictionary definitions, essence was defined as the property or group of properties of something without which it would not exist or be what it is. Absence was the state of being away from a person or place. We were then asked to write down the essence of our project in one word and then what is absent.

The essence came easily. I wrote the word TOGETHER. Dora and her mother were either going to sit down and get a bullet in the head or continue walking. What was important was that they would do it together. Each was inextricably bound to the other. Hmm, an interesting turn of phrase as the story which was its inspiration is often referred to as the binding of Isaac. It took me a moment to come up with what was missing although it was fairly obvious. They were on a march with other prisoners and guards, but none of them are included in this image. The focus is only on these two women. I found this very simple exercise valuable, especially in my work which is so focused on story. What am I trying to convey? What is at the core? What do I omit, and why?

We then looked at a number of works by artist David Moss and discussed them relative to these themes. Moss is best known for his beautiful illuminated ketubahs (marriage certificates) and is credited with reviving the art form. What I found interesting about his work was the thinking that goes into it. Some artists just create and the process is outside of conscious thought. Moss has a process not unlike mine, minds that make and savor connections between imagery and ideas. He has a book of ketubahs called Love Letters which includes the many that he has done for couples as well as his correspondence with them as he tried to find the essence of their relationship and reflect it in his work.

We viewed his rendering of the Binding of Isaac. Interestingly this was made for a Jewish day school. A story of a father about to sacrifice his son would be enough to give a child nightmares, but apparently the children quickly learned to read the imagery and tell the story. The images of this 45 foot scroll are color coded and through changing forms, but constant colors, they tell the story through ideagrams. We were given the text of this passage and asked to find the various sections within the images. You can do the same with the images at the top of his website. Although I don't think all of the imagery is included, it will give you the flavor of how he uses color and forms to tell the story, all without using representative imagery.

In his imagery Abraham is symbolized by white forms, Isaac red and God blue. we get to extrapolate that a light blue represents the angel who speaks in God's stead. Time is represented by yellow, an interesting way of representing the passage of time, a concept which is given as much significance as the protagonists themselves. I particularly enjoyed some of his clever use of form. When Isaac asks his father where the ram is that they will be sacrificing you see the brown which represents animals in the shape of a ram's horn morphed into a question mark.

What I found particularly interesting were images that showed Isaac within Abraham and Abraham within Isaac, and both within God. To me it reflected the concept of being bound in a far different way than the narrative, bound to each other, what happens to one, happens to the other.

During our recent open studio event I was visited by some friends from our humanist Jewish group. They asked me if I would be willing to do the commentary at Rosh Hashanah using my painting. Rosh Hashanah is the time when the story of Abraham and Isaac comes up in the readings. The show will be up in the same building during this time so it will be an apt opportunity to explore this work further and my more contemporary interpretation of the themes of the original story.

*The Jewish Artists’ Laboratory is an arts initiative through the Sabes Jewish Community Center featuring 17 artists exploring the theme of Text/Context/Subtext through study and art making. The project is funded through The Covenant Foundation and similar projects are being done in both Milwaukee and Madison. Artists explore how the theme of Text/Context/Subtext is relevant to Jews and non-Jews, to religious and non-religious, to the community and to the individual, to the artist and the non-artist.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

They Walked Together

After returning from the Artist Lab* my overly active brain often goes into overdrive. I was thinking of yet another painting I could do for the exhibition, an idea I had put on the back burner, but of which I was recently reminded. Of course I kicked into gear at 2AM and reached for my iPad to sketch out an image. Sometimes I'm not sure whether to celebrate an idea or mourn sleep.

I had originally been thinking of another direction for my painting. Then at the last Artist Lab we talked about negative space and I began to think about representing a story in a more simplified manner than I typically paint, leaving more to the viewer's imagination. The story I had in mind was one from my dear friend Dora. She and I had talked about me painting some of her stories from during the Holocaust and last week she reminded me of that discussion.

After the Artists' Lab discussion of Abraham being asked by God to sacrifice Isaac, I realized I had a story with some symmetry. We were asked to imagine Abraham's torment upon being asked to sacrifice his child. The limited text allowed each person to reflect on the strength of that bond in their own life and what the prospect of severing that connection would feel like. Dora's story speaks to sacrifice, the strength of that bond between parent and child and how a proposed sacrifice averted death, all elements in the original biblical story, no less dramatic but arranged in a fashion that feels more comprehensible.

The most pivotal relationship in Dora's life during the war was with her mother. They were together in the ghetto, in Auschwitz and in Bergen Belsen. Dora has told her stories many times and is often quite matter of fact, except when she speaks of her mother. Then her voice quivers, tears catch in her throat and she is visibly moved. Her mother died a few years after the war, a huge blow for Dora. She would not have survived had it not been for her mother, for on many occasions her mother took decisive action to save her life.

The story Dora told me was about a death march. When they set out they were given three objects, a loaf of bread, a blanket and a can which she recalled had a picture of a chicken on it. The road was soon littered with cans as they had no way to open them. They tied the blanket around their neck and soon found that it felt like a noose. They shifted it from first one shoulder, then the other. The bread they guarded, saving a portion, not knowing for how long it was to last.

They walked for miles, everyone in a weakened state. The road once littered with cans was soon littered with bodies for if you sat down you got a bullet in the back of your head. Dora, exhausted, asked a guard when they would stop. He motioned to lights ahead at a village as their destination. With that hope she pushed onward. But when they reached the village, they continued on.

With no energy remaining, Dora began to contemplate the appeal of a bullet in the head. She turned to her mother and said she was going to sit down. Her mother and several other women tried to dissuade her for they all knew it meant instant death. Finally unable to dissuade her, her mother said, "All right, we'll sit down together." "Not youuu!" Dora replied. While she could contemplate her own death, the threat of her mother sacrificing her life along with hers allowed her to summon the strength to carry on.

There is an odd parallel to the story of Abraham and Isaac. In each case the threat of death loomed, a parent contemplates the loss of their child and a sacrifice is proposed. It was only when sacrifice was offered that death was averted, sacrifice waived. There is also a paucity of detail in this story, a distillation to essential facts. The three objects create imagery for the story - can, blanket, bread. A path littered with cans, then bodies. In the story of Abraham and Isaac there were also three items, the wood, the firestone and the knife. In the narrative I was struck by the phrase, they walked together, true in both stories in both a literal and figurative sense. What happened to one, also happened to the other. For Dora and her mother who had survived the whole war together, the only certainty was that they would act together.

I knew how I would paint this. A face partially hidden, a blanket tugging like a noose, the road with cans fading into the distance, hands cradling bread, and an arm reaching around cradling Dora, her mother's hands holding her upright. The trees echo the uniforms of the concentration camps and instead of bodies, stones memorialize those who fell.

*The Jewish Artists’ Laboratory is an arts initiative through the Sabes Jewish Community Center featuring 17 artists exploring the theme of Text/Context/Subtext through study and art making. The project is funded through The Covenant Foundation and similar projects are being done in both Milwaukee and Madison. Artists explore how the theme of Text/Context/Subtext is relevant to Jews and non-Jews, to religious and non-religious, to the community and to the individual, to the artist and the non-artist.

Saturday, May 11, 2013

Shared Memories

On the occasion of Mother's Day I've been thinking about my mom and how fortunate I am to still have her in my life. Sometimes I feel a little uneasy when I write of her, worried that I might inadvertently violate some zone of privacy. Frequently I read her my blogs and I recently asked her if it felt uncomfortable when I wrote about her. She replied," No, you're a writer and that's what you're supposed to do. You go right ahead and write about what is part of your life".

My mom has always been my best cheerleader and it is actually an amazing thing to go through life with someone always in your corner. I sometimes wonder if I've stored up enough affirmation from her over the years to be able to carry on someday with only her voice in my head. Since my father passed away she has taken on his voice as well adding, "your father would have been so proud" to her "kvelling" (Yiddish for bursting with pride).

My dad used to call my mom "the original innocent" and that captures her well. She is a kind and loving soul who sees the best in people and in doing so, nourishes it. When I was growing up, my closest friends sought her out for advice and counsel. Neighborhood children used to knock on the door for her. When she went back to school as an adult she became a first grade teacher and she was one of those teachers that everyone remembers. She could see the world through a child's eyes, with a freshness that eludes most of us.

When I was in my 30s a coworker lost her mother at an early age. It was the first time I thought about the fact that someday if we live long enough, we all experience that very fundamental loss. I remembered my mother telling me once that she used to think about how she could create wonderful memories for her children to carry through life. I began to think about how I could return the favor and do that for her.

My mother loves art and used to have a postcard gallery of her favorite paintings in the kitchen when I was a child. She was especially partial to Klee and Roualt. She also had a collection of artist books with color plates of their paintings which could be detached. When I was still very young she let my brother and me choose a painting to hang over our beds. I had Van Gogh's sunflowers and my brother had Van Gogh's boats at Saintes-Maries. Not the typical wall art of a child's room.

My mother was always curious about the world and as a voracious reader she journeyed through books. My father didn't have a particular interest in the stresses of travel so one day I suggested to my mother that we should travel together to see the original artwork that she so enjoyed in reproduction. Over the years we did many trips together and had many adventures. We still talk of when we hitchhiked in France or when the train I boarded pulled out of the station before my mom had time to get on. In shock, I watched her getting smaller in the distance, finally making a split second decision to jump from the train. My mother tells the story of looking down from the Leaning Tower of Pisa convinced that I must have fallen off as I paused to change my film on the side that tilted towards the ground. Her fears were somewhat allayed by the fact that no throng gathered below. We saw wonderful artwork together, seeing those original Van Goghs at a retrospective in Amsterdam and traveling to the areas of Provence where he painted.

My mother kept a journal while I kept a sketchbook and it is through her journal that I watched myself grow up in my mother's eyes, becoming a separate person who she felt she could rely on, someone who could competently navigate the world, no longer the child she needed to protect and worry about.

Traveling with someone who sees the world through fresh eyes allowed me a glimpse as well. I took delight in her delight. We used to make two lists each evening, one titled Surprises and the other the Kindness of Strangers, taking nothing for granted, watching for the small wonders of the world and the best in people. I had thought I was giving her the gift of memories, but it was something even better, the gift of shared memories.

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Negative Space

We began this week's Artists Lab* with a text, that of the story of Abraham being asked to sacrifice Isaac and the things that were unsaid. With little explanatory text we were forced to determine the motivations and feelings through actions alone. The empty space in the story allows us to imagine Abraham's torment at being asked to sacrifice his son, through the experience each of us holds of a parental bond.

That led into an interesting discussion of negative space, whether used in a visual sense or in a written story. What do you leave unsaid? What do you allow your reader or viewer to add from their own experience? This is a release of control and a difficult lesson for me who always wants to explain too much.

Then I thought of my series on the traces of the former Lithuanian Jewish community. I had called it the Silence Speaks Loudly and when I spoke I often talked about negative space, what is defined by what isn’t there. Definition by absence. Traces of writing on a wall suggest a lost community. A coal chute, a gate to a tunnel, bottles in the earth speak to people hidden, stories buried. Perhaps I get there in my own way.

We were asked if we begin a painting with the positive space or the negative. Having just come from my studio where I was beginning a painting, I reflected on my process. I was working on a painting for the Artist’s Lab exhibition on Ruach, God’s breath. I had been taken with the sentence in Genesis of Ruach hovering on the water in the moment before God said, “Let there be light”. To me that is a metaphor for the creative force and I was interested in exploring that idea.

I had been thinking about what that moment would be like and had done a small painting as preparation (see image) prior to the one I was now working on. I wanted a larger canvas to expand on the sky which while dark held movement, an active sky of blue blacks, dark as midnight, but beginning to stir, about to birth light. The creative process is stirred before it happens. I considered whether that first light would be yellow or white and what form it would take. I decided it would be white and would resemble a Lucio Fontana canvas with a slash in the middle, a shocking gash in the heavens. White slices the darkness, just enough light to emit a glimmer so we can see God’s breath spreading out like wings, hovering on either side.

I had created the darkness, the inverse of God’s effort, and then used a wet brush to remove paint and wipe it away where I wanted to create the light and the breath. Light coming from dark, not too different than as told in Genesis, but of course first I had to create dark. So what is positive space and what is negative space? Darkness was as much of a presence as light. Oh how metaphorical!

Just as I was weighing what was what, we shifted gears to view the artwork of two artists Noma Bar and Tang Yau Hoong. Each examined the question of negative space. Interestingly the way they examined it also blurred the line between what is negative or positive space. It depends on your perspective and to see fully you must shift back and forth, negative becomes positive, positive, negative. Remember the classic face and goblet exercise? These two artists each provide a clever and whimsical expansion on that concept.

*The Jewish Artists’ Laboratory is an arts initiative through the Sabes Jewish Community Center featuring 17 artists exploring the theme of Text/Context/Subtext through study and art making. The project is funded through The Covenant Foundation and similar projects are being done in both Milwaukee and Madison. Artists explore how the theme of Text/Context/Subtext is relevant to Jews and non-Jews, to religious and non-religious, to the community and to the individual, to the artist and the non-artist.

Monday, May 6, 2013

Body and Soul

When I began the paintings for the Jewish Identity and Legacy series, I decided story would be my focus and I would only do portraits if they related to the story. Now as I near the end of the series I realize that most of my paintings are figurative, but not always of my interviewees as they are today. In some cases the image may reflect what I imagined the interviewee looked like at an earlier age. In two instances I painted the parent of the person I interviewed because they played such a significant role in their stories.

One of those paintings was Fire, Light and Legacy, the story of Fannie Schanfield’s mother burning the papers of her legacy. The other was Body and Soul, based on the stories of Dorothy Brochin Wittcoff. I've written a bit of my interview with Dorothy in an earlier post titled Citizens of the World. Brochin’s was an early Jewish grocery/delicatessen in Minneapolis started by Dorothy’s father Solomon Brochin after he immigrated from Russia in 1906. The store was unusual in that one side was a grocery, but the other side had religious articles such as talleisem (prayer shawls), Hebrew books and Yiddish newspapers. It served as the Jewish community center with a back room where people would gather for community meetings and to discuss the issues of the day. The famous Jewish figures who came to town all visited Brochins. Dorothy recalled meeting Chaim Weitzman and Louis Brandeis at the store.

Brochins also played an important role in the story of Jewish immigration to Minneapolis. For several years around the time of WWI, Brochin had a relationship with a Russian bank through which he assisted his neighbors in purchasing steamship tickets to bring over their families.

As I was doing research in the archives I began to search for material that would be relevant to my painting. In 1924 there was a faded image of Solomon Brochin and a profile which gave a flavor for the man. Together with his obituary photo, I began to develop the image as he may have looked in his prime. Solomon talked of how one side of his store fed people’s stomachs, the other their minds, so the title became Body and Soul, both subjects for nourishment.

I also found the store’s early logo which advertised itself as offering a delicatessen, Hebrew books
and steamship tickets. Putting on my genealogist hat, I located the immigration record and city directory listings for the Brochins and traced their journey to Minneapolis and within it. Brochin brought capital with him and after a brief stint at salaried work, he opened his delicatessen/grocery.

He and his wife Anna had seven children between 1907 and 1921. Each of the children was given a Hebrew name, but when they attended school their first grade teacher gave them an American name. Dvora became Dorothy, but sometimes the names were a bit of a stretch. Her brother Sher Yashub became Joe.

So how was I to take this wealth of information and capture it with a painting? I began with a man holding a Yiddish newspaper, his features modeled on her father, Solomon Brochin. To one side there is a barrel of herring and boxes of matzo. Behind him hang talleisem. There is a suggestion of figures gathering and the logo in the upper left. The Hebrew names of the children are written at the bottom and the Americanized names written across the top. The white of the paper is the focal point. Your eye is then drawn to the face framed by tallesiem and then over to the white of the barrel of herring, a triangle between the figure and the nourishment for body and soul.