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.

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