Monday, September 30, 2013

Anonymous Words

The Artist Lab gathered recently to hear Adam Heffez talk about the meaning embedded in the graffiti of Israel and the West Bank.  The theme of this past year’s Artists’ Lab was Text-Context-Subtext and I don’t think there could be a topic more to the point than this discussion.  Graffiti is composed of text as well as image. It needs to be evaluated in its context to fully understand its meaning and subtext.  It is an uncensored expression and as such presents insight into the views of the people in the region.

Adam has written a book Words & Walls: Social Commentary through Graffiti in Israel and the West Bank which shares graffiti that represents the views of not only Israelis and Palestinians, but also the division within those groups, reminding us that each group does not speak with one voice.  Adam is a Middle East foreign policy analyst who became interested in the local graffiti in the course of his work in the region. He lives in Washington, DC, but accumulated his material while living in both Israel and Jordan.  

Adam shared a number of images with us on such themes as Holocaust related imagery, Arab-Israeli divisions, terrorism and peace. We frequently began by identifying where the graffiti was located and considering what languages it was written in as we tried to decipher the intended audience and the authorship.  In many cases Adam tracked down the creator of the graffiti so he often had a first-hand interpretation of the meaning. He pointed out that the Arab community was a closed community where saying what one thinks is not encouraged. That means that graffiti is one of the ways that people can express themselves anonymously.  Often we would see conversations where the opposing or amplifying view was expressed in relationship to the initial graffiti.

I have always been intrigued by the visual impact of graffiti, but had never delved into the content.  In the case of Adam’s material I lacked both the language proficiency and sufficient knowledge of the cultural issues to fully grasp it without a guide.  As this exploration began with visual material I would encourage you to access a slide show of some images at Tikkun or Tablet Magazine.  Among these you will see one that I found particularly moving.  It took the national anthem HaTikvah and translated it into more inclusive verse.  Here is the graffiti artist’s version.

As long as deep in the heart
The human soul yearns Inside, backwards, and forward,
To justice, an eye sees
Our hope will not be lost
The hope of the dawn of days
To be cool in our land
The land of [crossed out] and Israelis

Now contrast that with the actual lyrics below.

As long as in the heart within 
A Jewish soul still yearns,
And onward, towards the ends of the east,
An eye still gazes toward Zion;
Our hope is not yet lost,
The hope of two thousand years,
To be a free people in our land,
The land of Zion and Jerusalem.

The focus on a Jewish nation is clearly dominant from a Jewish soul to worshiping facing east.  The altered version appears to be more inclusive to the Arab minority.  A word which we believed was Arab was crossed out and we debated the meaning of that.  Was it saying that both Arabs and Jews were Israelis and amplifying the inclusive message or was it excluding Arabs?

We examined imagery related to keys, a powerful image in the Palestinian community where many left their homes with their house key in their pocket and still expect to return to open the door to their home.  Adam spoke of, a mall which now stood on the site of a former village, a fact that was not acknowledged by the Palestinians from that original town.  Palestinians are stuck in a sort of limbo, afraid to leave the refugee camp as that would end their right to return and unable to move forward with their lives without leaving the camp.  There is a divide within the Palestinian community between those who remain in the camps and those who left and considerable pressure to stay.  Similarly there is a divide in the Jewish community between secular Jews and the Haredim, the ultra-Orthodox.  Graffiti represented different voices from these various communities.

Heffez shares graffiti that represents many perspectives.  He doesn't take one position, but rather his focus is on using graffiti as a means to gain a better understanding of the beliefs of people in the region, beliefs that are unfiltered by political spokespersons. 

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Beneath the Stairs

My painting time will soon be limited as I begin a consulting job, shifting gears to one of my other pursuits. I was telling a friend that I didn't feel that I was using my time as well as I should and she told me an old Yiddish story of a man who complained to the rabbi that his home was too small. The rabbi told him to move his goat into his home. When he returned complaining of how difficult it was to share quarters with his goat, the rabbi told him to now move the goat out. He then returned to thank the rabbi profusely because his home was now so much larger. I suspect that after some months of moving consulting into my time, I too will have a new appreciation for the time that I now have.

I am actually at a good breaking point with two exhibitions in the coming months of my Identity and Legacy series. My husband is hard at work making frames for me. I'll be hanging that show later this month and giving several talks in conjunction with it.

As my window of time narrows, I've been working on a small series of paintings on my friend's Holocaust stories. I spoke some time ago with an organization that focuses on Holocaust education. They suggested I introduce some of my paintings into educational settings. With that in mind I'd like to have a small group that tell powerful stories. As you may recall I had done the painting We Walk Together for the Jewish Artists' Lab based on my friend's story of a death march from Auschwitz.

Another story she told me was also quite vivid and occurred when she was in the Radom labor camp. One morning she was ill so stayed behind at the apartment while her mother went in to work at the kitchen. Suddenly she heard the sound of guards.. She desperately looked for a place to hide. The practice was to do an unannounced sweep of the buildings and to drag out those who were not at work. They would line them up and shoot every tenth one. Not to hide meant a 10% chance of death and a 100% chance of terror.

She looked around in vain until she noticed a small space under the stairs. There was a small door, maybe two feet wide. I used a bit of artistic license and made it a hole with a more interesting form. It was too small for a person, but in desperation she twisted her body to squeeze her head and shoulders in, then her hips and last her feet. Still in her nightclothes she crouched in fearful silence. Above her head she heard the guards' boots resounding on the steps as they ran up the stairs. Then shots of the unfortunate 10% soon followed.

Her mother returned from work fearful that her daughter was no longer alive. She too had heard the shots and knew what they meant.

This painting went through many stages before I was satisfied with the direction it was going. The discarded approaches divided the painting into distinct color fields and showed the entire figure. I take photos along the way and ultimately backtracked to an earlier version that hid portions of the figure and felt more mysterious. It reminded me of a womb or a body within a sarcophagus, fitting perhaps in that her success or failure in hiding could mean life or death. Behind the stairs are the suggestion of ten figures, each with a yellow star, a target.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Legacy Unchained

For the past three years I've been completing a series of interviews with elders at Sholom Home, editing the videos  and finally completing a series of paintings based on their stories.  Until recently I had completed paintings on all of the interviews but one.  That straggler was the one I was finding most challenging.  With a show of this work approaching, I decided I needed to begin that elusive painting.

My interview with Yevgeniy began with the story of his grandparents who lived in a shtetl called Bykhov in Belarus.  His grandparents married at 14 and 12 and had eighteen children.  His mother was the youngest and the most beautiful.  When his father was stationed in Bykhov he fell in love with Yevgeniy’s mother, they married and moved to Minsk.
  Back in Bykhov those 18 children had 294 children all of whom were shot by the Germans in the castle of a Polish count during WWII.  Meanwhile Yevgeniy and his mother were safe in Minsk and were the only family members to survive.  In 1934 his  father left them to move to Birobidzhan,  a Jewish autonomous republic.    At that time they were inviting Jews to move to Birobidzhan which was supposed to be the heaven for Jews.  When his father left the family he gave Yevgeniy three rubles and said that should be enough for his life and they never saw him again. 

Yevgeniy became an author of many books and the stories he told me had a somewhat magical realism quality to them, so many children, the most beautiful woman, a heaven for Jews. 

He also had some significant family relationships that he has written about.  The chief rabbi of Moscow was related on his father’s side.  A Spanish artist named Mazo is related to his father and married Velasquez’s daughter.  Through that line there is a relationship to Spanish royalty.  A soldier in the retreating army of Napoleon married a Belarussian woman and that is how his father’s Belarussian line came about. 

There were so many unusual stories, I wasn’t quite sure how to capture them. When I paint story, I try to find the underlying theme and this jumble of stories made it challenging. Ultimately I went back to the beginning, to a story that he told me about visiting his grandfather as a child.  Eighteen carriages of the many family members would show up to greet him.  They all wanted him to stay with them, but he wanted to stay with his grandfather. 

He described his grandfather through a child's eyes,  a very wise man with lacquered patent leather boots and a watch on a golden chain.  The grandfather told Yevginey that he would inherit the watch when he died and he eagerly awaited that watch.  As this project was about legacy I decided to paint the lost legacy.  You will see the carriages of his family members greeting him at the train station and his grandfather’s watch with a portion of its gold chain.  Note the broken link representing the loss of family.  On either side you will find the pages of a book, carrying us away in story.  In the sky you will see the suggestion of the three moon-like rubles which were his legacy from his father.

This body of work will be exhibited for the first time in its entirety at Sholom West.  You can find more information on the exhibition and on the project at my website.

Monday, September 9, 2013

Unexpected Finds

At a recent session of our arts book club, my husband and I were reminiscing about some museum shows we had attended. A person in the group remarked that we must go to a lot of museums. In truth we do. The first thing we look up in any new city is what art museums there are to visit. We are always in search of those we've not yet discovered and often find them in unexpected places.

But now I was curious. How many had we actually visited? With my usual dedication to number counting I began to build a list slightly over 130 with almost 60% of them overseas. Not surprisingly France accounted for 25% of the list. Almost half of our total received repeated visits.

Fortunately for me, my husband shares my passion for viewing art as well as the endurance to spend whole days immersed in that activity. I recall a seven hour visit we had at the Prado in Madrid. Exhausted in both mind and body we were trudging back to our hotel, contemplating a Spanish siesta, when we stumbled over a lovely gem of a museum, the Thyssen-Bornemisza. It closed in two hours. A sidelong glance at my husband confirmed he could muster the energy for another two hours and off we went.

When I was recently in Boston for the International Jewish Genealogy Conference, we spent two afternoons at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts as well as a visit to the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. The MFA is a stellar museum that I had never been to so it was a rare treat. John Singer Sargent was a citizen of the world who called many cities home, but did some significant work in Boston. Upon entering we discovered the ceiling murals commissioned from Sargent in 1916 for what was then a new museum building. In addition to a large collection of Sargent paintings, drawings and murals, the museum also has an exceptional contemporary exhibit which reflected thought and artistry, something we do not always find in contemporary exhibitions. We were particularly drawn to a work hanging overhead by Tara Donovan created solely out of styrofoam cups. The form and material interacted with the light to create something much greater than one might imagine. Between Sargent and Donovan we spent a lot of time looking up.

The Isabella Stewart Gardner is a very eclectic museum which has a Sargent painting of its founder that I had only seen in books. Her husband so disliked it that it was not shown until after his death. There is something rather special about standing in front of the original. In addition to these wonderful offerings, we took particular pleasure in the unexpected discoveries at the Pucker Gallery and the Boston Public Library.

The conference had the forethought to arrange a visit to the Pucker Gallery following a film on Samuel Bak. The gallery represents Bak who now lives in the area. Bak came from Vilna, now Vilnius, Lithuania where he and his mother were among the 200 survivors of a city of 70-80,000 Jews. Nuns hid them during the war. His father was murdered shortly before the end of the war. Bak's talent was recognized at an early age and he was invited by the poet Abraham Sutzkever to exhibit his artwork in the ghetto at the age of nine. Although he wasn't in a camp, he heard the stories of others in the DP camps and that influenced his work. After the war he studied art in Poland, Germany and Israel. His work has a number of themes; pears, chess pieces and a childhood friend who died in the Holocaust reappear frequently. Pears were common in Vilna and his stepfather used to play chess with him.

At the gallery there were many pieces on display and accessible on panels that could be pulled out. Upstairs a display of his work filled the walls. Pucker shared stories about Bak's history and the meaning of symbols that reappear. It was a rich immersion into the work of an amazing artist.

As we wandered around Boston we came to the public library. We entered the new portion which while certainly functional lacked the magic of the original which we entered through a connecting courtyard which felt like the many cloisters we had visited in Europe. Around the grand staircase we found murals by de Chavannes representing the muses of Greek mythology. In the Sargent Gallery we found an impressive series of murals titled the Triumph of Religion. The theme was based on the idea of religious freedom and ran into a bit of controversy that caused Sargent to abandon his last painting of The Sermon on the Mount. The paintings begin with the religions of “pagan gods” and then depict Judaism and Christianity. The focus is on the study of religions, not on religious worship, but the controversy arose when Sargent depicted Synagogue and Church. Synagogue was depicted as a blindfolded older woman while Church was depicted as a beautiful young woman. The Jewish community of Boston objected that his depiction demeaned Judaism. Sargent, puzzled by the controversy, was drawing on depictions in Christian art which typically show Synagoga as blindfolded and holding a broken lance, suggesting it was vanquished by Christianity. They represent the inherent bias of Christianity as they are depicted in a church narrative.

I found it interesting that the Jewish community of Boston was sufficiently established to object vocally, perhaps the best argument that some measure of religious freedom did in fact exist at that time. An interesting side note relates to another unexpected Sargent discovery of ours in the War Museum in London. There is a powerful painting called Gassed which depicts the blinded soldiers during the war. Done at the same time, it is argued by Sally Promey in Painting Religion in Public: John Singer Sargent's "Triumph of Religion" at the Boston Public Library that its influence can be seen in this painting.

If you get to the library make sure to visit the Edwin Austin Abbey murals on the The Quest of the Holy Grail. The library offers tours of the artwork and architecture. And if you are interested in learning more about Sargent and his work, two books which offer excellent background are David McCullough's The Greater Journey and Deborah Davis's Strapless.