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.

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