Saturday, June 22, 2013

Historical Truth vs Artistic License

What do you do when you have completed a painting to your satisfaction, that very elusive goal, only to learn some fact that compels you to change it? Now this is different than when you want to make a change because it will create a more visually compelling image. At this point you are pleased with what you have. Change could alter the very things that satisfy you. When does historical accuracy trump artistic license?

When you paint story, you often encounter historical truths. In two cases I've had the benefit of an actual witness share a detail where I felt I needed to incorporate it, always with some trepidation. I had shared a painting on these pages called Body and Soul of the old Brochin's store and its founder Solomon Brochin. Brochins began in 1906 as a Jewish grocery/deli/community center, an early institution in the Jewish community. Brochin's 98 year old daughter came to my studio during a recent open studio event and I was pleased to hear she felt it looked like him. I had drawn his image

largely from a faded and grainy photo from 1924 crossed with the image of him as an older man in his obituary photo. I had little certainty as to whether I had captured him. She added one salient fact. Her father always wore a yarmulke in the store. Now I had read this in the archives as well and left the suggestion of darkness at the top of his head, perhaps to be perceived as a yarmulke, perhaps shadow. But the new detail I learned was that it was a square yarmulke that one often sees on Jewish men from Russia. When she told me that I excitedly grabbed a small collage I had done of my great grandfather from the Ukraine. In it he wears the same kind of hat. "Yes, that is it" she confirmed. Now she may be the only person who actually still holds that visual memory, but for some reason I felt compelled to render him accurately.

The second detail I needed to correct is in the painting They Walked Together. This is the painting I have done for the Artists' Lab which draws on the story of Abraham's proposed sacrifice of Isaac with a more contemporary twist. It tells my friend Dora's story of a death march from Auschwitz which shares many components of the original story. I had decided the painting called for a poem to link the two stories when I displayed it. Dora and I sat together on her sofa as I quizzed her. What was the time of day? How long had you walked? Where did you sleep? What was the weather? All details I wanted to be able to incorporate into a poem that tells the story.

Dora had actually been on two death marches, one to Auschwitz in August 1944 and one from it in January 1945. This story occurred during the later when it was winter and snow was on the ground, not the time I had envisioned nor painted. Now Dora can't critique the painting as I develop it as she is legally blind. When I described the colors to her she felt it important that I show the snow. What to do? The ground has a greenish cast layered with the deep blue shadows of dusk and the richness of the color and its contrast with the iron oxide pleased me. I ended up doing a wash of blue over the green areas and used medium to suggest the snow. Now I need to live with the change for awhile.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Happy Father's Day: His Spirit Lives On

Last year was the first Father’s Day without my dad who passed away early in 2012.  I thought about him frequently that Father’s Day, conscious of his absence.  All the Father’s Day marketing felt like a disturbance in my universe.

This year I find myself reflecting on memories of my dad.  I can still picture my dad pretty clearly.  I can hear his voice with a bit of gravel in it. “Don’t let the bastards get you down,” he says.  I think about his drive even long after his body had ceased to support it.  My mother and I have chuckled over the idea that perhaps he inhabits the spirit of her cat, her new and beloved companion.  Her cat sleeps on Dad’s side of the bed, uses his bathroom, greets my mother each morning and brings her the comfort of a companion far less demanding than my dad ever was.

I have come to appreciate over this past year how much of my father’s spirit inhabits me.  To my mother’s frequent refrain of “You’re your father’s daughter” I reply, “I hope I just got the good stuff”.  We are all a mixed bag and the qualities that help us achieve in the world are often the very qualities that can make us difficult to live with.   No doubt I got both sides of the coin with a bit of my mother hopefully to soften the edges just as she did in our family life.

I think of my father when I write and words flow, a gift he possessed.  And I especially think of him when I write a letter to a company to protest their handling of a matter.  My father was not one to suffer in silence and with a gift for words, he could voice his displeasure with some eloquence and often humor.  I chuckled at letters I discovered on his old computer after his death, again recognizing much of myself within them.  

I think of my father when I perform an exacting task.  He kept meticulous inventories of stamps in his tiny script.  As a child I watched him pour over his stamp collection with a focus that I now recognize in myself when I research family history.  With his inventories of books, videos and stamps filling his computers I conclude that number counting too is genetic.  Perhaps it is a way to exert some measure of control over the world.  If so, I possess that trait in common with my father.

And I think of my father when I look around my office, with its layer of clutter (this is the not so good stuff).  It is the clinging to information, inquiring minds want to know, I might need it someday gene.  The New York Times articles that he had torn out because the subject interested him, also interested me as I waded through his office after his death.  We shared an interest and curiosity in many things.

So on this second Father’s Day without my Dad, I realize that his spirit does indeed live on.  Happy Father’s Day, Dad.

All Beginnings are Hard

We began our Artists' Lab* with an exercise to loosen up, a few rousing rounds of Do-re-mi which of course begins with the phrase "Let's Start at the Very Beginning" as our theme was beginnings. We were asked to consider why beginnings were difficult. What was the challenge with beginning a painting or any creative effort? I proposed that we begin with all possibilities open, but once we make that first brushstroke we have begun to narrow our options. Each stroke commits us to a direction as it simultaneously closes off others. It is at the beginning that we are most conscious of the weight of those choices. The creative process is often one of carving away from a universe of all possibilities to one singular creation. 
In the Artists' Lab we often reference text for insights and we began with an beautiful excerpt from Chaim Potek's In the Beginning. The character David is told, "all beginnings are hard. You have to work at the job of studying... you cannot swallow the world all at one time." Later David adds, "especially a beginning that you make by yourself. That's the hardest beginning of all."

We then shifted to another book titled Yearnings: Embracing the Sacred Messiness of Life by Irwin Kula. Kula talks of the anxiety and failure that accompanies creativity. The moments of "flow" are unpredictable and much of our time is spent trying to find our way. Creativity comes out of uncertainty and letting go of the familiar so by its very definition is challenging. Kula outlines four stage to creativity: Inspiration, Preparation, Incubation and Illumination. He defines inspiration as identifying a problem we want to solve. Preparation is skill development, the hard work of developing a craft or researching an idea. Incubation is for me the most interesting and difficult stage. I am learning to trust that ideas will come, but in their own time and often by not focusing too intently on the challenge. Kula gives a wonderful example of how Thomas Edison would doze off holding a ball in each hand. When he relaxed enough to loosen his grip the balls would fall to the ground and wake him. He would then make notes on ideas that came to him. I find that much of my writings and ideas for artwork happen in that semi-awake state when ideas flow freely, usually early morning when I awake or as I practice breathing in yoga. The final stage is Illumination. Often it feels a bit magical. It can't be scripted, but rather invited in after we've done the hard work that precedes it.

 We turned to how the Bible treated the subject of beginnings. In Genesis in the first act of creation, God declares, "Let there be light." He later creates Day and Night by dividing the light. How does creation occur? Why through naming and through differentiation. Day is distinct from Night. It is a singular creation that contains all that makes it unique, carved out of the whole of light. Midrash (Jewish commentary) talks about how God created many worlds before he got to the working model that we know so well. Creation is an improvisation, failure a step along the way. All meaningful reference points for artists as we approach the act of creation.

*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.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Blogging From The Other Side of the Keyboard II

Two years ago I wrote a blog about blogging from the blogger's perspective. It dawned on me that today is the four year anniversary of my first blog entry and that invites some further retrospection.

At the time I last wrote about blogging, I wasn't sure where I was going next. Over ninety blogs later I've written about interviews, artwork and reinvention. I've begun to write on more personal subjects as well, elderly parents, my father's death, my mother's adjustment to being on her own. Jewish identity has begun to play more of a role also.

The scope of this blog has grown with me, expanding with each new exploration. The conventional blog wisdom is that one should carve out a niche and explore it thoroughly, attracting a clearly defined audience with a particular interest. I soon learned that didn't work for me. What I've discovered is that my niche in life is a broad one and so is this blog. Many things interest me and one interest soon leads to another. I write about many of them.

One option to allow for focus would be to compartmentalize into different blogs, one on art, one on family history, perhaps one on the personal, addressing the precious and often difficult time with aging parents. Much too complicated for me, the thought alone brings on a severe case of writer's block. I need to just let it flow as I live my life and respond to it.

I find that this period in my life is about breaking down the walls between my various pursuits, finding the common threads that feed them all. We spend much of our work life creating separate compartments, labeling ourselves by our career and separating work and play. This time for me is about merging interests, combining work and play, rejecting labels as limiting in their definition. Instead it is about discovering wholeness and learning to live an integrated life. Hence a blog that comes from the whole person.

While multiple topics allow me to write with greater frequency, they do make it more challenging to define an audience. I am hopeful that many of my readers have a broad range of interests and are open to exploring with me. The growth in readership seems to support that.

When this blog began, I was three years into the process of personal reinvention. I had left a career in finance to explore the things I was passionate about. With less of a focus on income, I had the flexibility to follow directions that intrigued me to see where they led. For me it has often been a process of personal discovery, an exploration of how life unfolds in interesting ways if you can give it the room to breathe. And yet, sharing the personal is often difficult as there is always the sense of being exposed, a challenge for a private person. I still sometimes swallow hard before I press publish, but I find that those are the blogs that receive the greatest response.

I began my blog when I was heading off to the Vilnius Yiddish Institute and beginning an exploration of my family ancestral towns. Over the past several years I've documented travels to Belarus, the Ukraine and Poland, home to my ancestors, as well as Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Hungary, the Czech Republic and even France, all with a perspective on Jewish heritage. While I was not writing in the early stage of my family history research, those giddy days of new discoveries, there were still many discoveries that got documented in these pages.

My family history exploration soon morphed into an artistic exploration. I first exhibited a series on family history shortly before I began this blog. That in turn took me into a series on how Lithuania deals with its Holocaust history and the prewar Jewish community of the Polish town from which my grandfather came. More recently I have written of the interview series with Jewish elders that fueled my current body of work. I began to tell the stories of these explorations, both the stories within the artwork and the story of the creation of the artwork.

As I explored family history it took me into the topic of Jewish identity, something that wasn't a part of my life for many years. I became interested in learning more and have found my recent involvement in the Jewish Artists' Lab a valuable resource in this exploration. And of course, I write about it.

I find myself reflecting on the broad range of activities in my daily life that are the engine for this blog. They are as varied as what I write about. Within a recent week I spent an afternoon with my friend Dora. Dora grew up in the same Polish town as my grandfather and I am currently painting some of her stories from the Holocaust. I think of her as a guide of sorts in life as well as a second mom. I attended an Artist Lab, spent a day at the studio painting and a day at the archives researching Jewish history in Minnesota. In between I read an amazing book by a former attendee of the Vilnius Yiddish Institute on how Lithuania is coming to terms with its history. This stew of friends, artwork, research and reading finds its way into what I write.

Story is central to everything I do and write about. That is driven home to me when I consider the activities that I didn't mention above. I spent a day advising on an investor presentation for a new business venture and many hours in nonprofit meetings. Surprisingly these activities use many of the same "story " skills that I use in the spheres of which I write. When I was advising on the investor presentation, part of my role was to help craft a technical subject into a story. How did this part of the industry evolve? What were the impacts that led to this product? How does the story of the entrepreneur weave into the broader story? When I presented financials at a board meeting, I told the story behind the financials rather than make it just about numbers. This is how I integrate my life, by finding the story in everything that I do. And at its heart that is what writing a blog is about, finding the story and sharing it with you.