Saturday, October 26, 2013

Synapses Snapping

Last year I participated in the Minneapolis Jewish Artists’ Lab and found it both thought-provoking and the genesis of an evolving artist community. I wrote about it in these pages, uncertain if it would resonate with a broader audience, but it seemed there was interest so I will continue to share some aspects of it. I come from each session with synapses snapping, almost too much stimulation to absorb. It is through the act of writing that I am able to integrate it into something to which I can give voice. 

This year I was asked to serve as the Resident Writer and write a blog focused on the Artist Lab for the artists. I am writing that blog on a website called and anticipate going more in-depth for that targeted group, while sharing a more abridged version in these pages.

Recently we gathered for the first session of year two and began to address our new theme of "light". I must confess to some initial skepticism on the topic, but I came away from the session with many directions to explore and convinced that it will provide rich material for creative efforts. Our group has expanded so we greeted our original group with affection and began to get to know our new artists. In some cases I was familiar with their work long before meeting them. I was struck by how many of the artists worked in multiple mediums, using art as a means to explore the world. Curiosity seemed to be the common trait.

The setting truly set the stage for this topic. In fact it was on the stage of the theater, an interesting juxtaposition of velvety black darkness pierced by the glaring beams of spotlights.

One of our facilitators introduced us to the Hebrew word for light “Or” and pointed out that if the first Hebrew letter aleph is swapped out for an ayin it spells “Ivver” which means blindness. She reminded us of the morning blessing that speaks of God opening the eyes of the blind.

My mind wandered to a close friend, the subject of my painting for the last lab exhibition. My friend is legally blind and we have often talked of the gradual encroachment of darkness on her world. I thought of how she keeps her light alive despite that darkness. How would I paint that concept?

I thought of the interviews of elders on which I base my artwork, how sharing story is a way of inviting light in. I've written of Hanna who came to London on the Kindertransport. It was hard for her to open up about her story. For a long time it was sheathed in darkness, sadness. My painting of her story seems to have opened her up by recognizing what she felt and experienced. Now she tells her story to others, proudly identifying her painting. It is as if telling her story brought it into the light. As I considered these different perspectives on light I felt more comfortable with the topic, finding my familiar touchstone of story.

Many of the artists spoke of the fact that light must exist in relationship to its opposite, darkness. Some felt discomfort with darkness while others found it offered a place of quiet self-containment. One of our arts facilitators offered a moving perspective when she spoke of the child in her womb, the source of so much light for her, yet floating in darkness. She imagined that moment when he or she would emerge from that quiet solitude into the bright light of this world.

The photographers among us had a unique relationship with light through their work and spoke of the tension between light and dark. And one reminded us that light is not a simple concept. It can be a particle or a wave and has many facets, infrared, ultraviolet and x-ray. Yet another artist spoke of the other guest at the table, shadow. It was not until I wrote these words that I realized I have a painting in my recent series focused on light (Fire, Light and Legacy) and yet another that addresses the shadow of memory (A Matter of Chemistry). Unbeknownst to me, I had already begun this exploration.

At each session we do an exercise and we were asked to turn our attention to a table which contained objects related to light: a light bulb, an electric flame, a mirror, a glow stick and matches. We each selected one and wrote what it connoted for us. We then gathered with others to discuss what we had written. What to choose? I immediately began an internal exercise to determine “what object is different from the others?" Then I chose the outsider, the mirror. Differences offer more material with which to work. Unlike the others which emit light, a mirror reflects light and cannot exist as a visual presence in darkness. We talked of how we see ourselves in reverse in a mirror and often focus on the superficial. In Jewish tradition mirrors are covered when someone dies and one of our group reported that there is a Hasidic belief that children should not look into a mirror until they can verbalize what they see as they believe it can pose a danger. Others spoke of the impression of softness reflected on a hard surface and the different perspectives a mirror affords us.

Can you hear the synapses snapping?

*The Jewish Artists’ Laboratory is an arts initiative through the Sabes Jewish Community Center featuring 24 artists exploring the theme of Light 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, October 23, 2013

Musing on Memory

In a week I leave for Israel with my soon to be 87 year old mother. I am a bit nervous about this trip. I've traveled many times with my mother, but our European trips were almost 20 years ago. It is a daunting thought to realize I am now close to the age she was when we first traveled together. My mother has always wanted to go to Israel, but my father was not a particularly enthusiastic traveler. By the time my mother and I began to discuss a trip, my father's health was not good and my mother would have felt uneasy leaving him. And so it languished. When my father passed away early last year my mother settled into her new life, much more comfortably than she ever imagined. As many elders she is very tied to her home and so we began to build the support systems to enable her to live as she wished, surrounded by familiar things, reinforced by reminders of her history even as memory begins to flag. I realized that familiar things and places are anchors for memory. I wonder how she will respond to the loss of those anchors when we travel. I will need to be the familiar anchor for her.

So much of my artwork deals with memory that I've become intrigued with what sticks and what doesn't. Time perception seems loosely anchored, especially when you no longer need to live by a calendar. Each day I respond to my mother's request as to how many days before I come in. "Eight " I responded today, "One less than yesterday."

"Here I have fifteen ", she said, finding a scrap of paper from an earlier discussion. "Well it was fifteen last week", I reply.

She writes eight down and I imagine all these ephemeral scraps of paper, each with a day, a point in time now past. I report to her that I will arrive on Halloween, knock on her door and say, "trick or treat". "Ooh, treat !", she exclaims in delight.

There are some memories that stay. She vividly remembers when I jumped from a train in Spain as it was leaving the station with me on it and her on the platform, getting smaller. Apparently that was a memorable moment. Recently she was reminiscing about when she worked for a dentist in Brooklyn seventy years ago. I remembered that she had told me he called every young girl who worked for him Miss B, regardless of her actual name. "I think his name was Dr Dendy" she said suddenly, a new piece of information. "Dendy the dentist", I thought, she must just be associating the sounds. I did a search online and came up with someone reminiscing about going to Dr Dendy in Brooklyn. Where did that seventy year old memory bubble up from?

The other thing she remembers are regrets. Fortunately not many of them, but she wishes she could have done more for her mother who lived with us for several years as her memory deteriorated. And she wishes she had squeezed in one more person one Thanksgiving. My mother is a kind person and her regrets are about wishing she had reached even deeper. I think it was around a discussion of regrets that the forgotten trip to Israel came up. Apparently she hadn't forgotten it. "Ok, let's do it", I said, and that failing memory closed on the idea like a bear trap. There was no going back, and so we go forward.

I remind myself that my role on this trip is as my mother's companion. She is in good health, but she is, dare I say, older, and she tires more easily. She still thinks she has the traveling capacity of twenty years ago and I remind her that we are both twenty years older. I am trying not to focus on what I want to do so I don't respond with disappointment if she needs to take a break. I remind myself that just as our other trips; this is a gift for her, but also for me. I get to create memories with my mother yet one more time. She has a refrain. "This is my last big trip" she says. "Then I'll go visit Dad."

"No hurry," I say.

"No hurry", she agrees.

Monday, October 14, 2013

The Power of Story

Last week was the beginning of the Yiddish Fest and I attended two very extraordinary events. The first was a talk by Aaron Lansky, founder of the Yiddish Book Center in Amherst, Massachusetts. I had the good fortune to have heard him at the genealogy conference I attended earlier this year in Boston and was struck by his energy, passion and humor. Even though he touched on many of the same stories, his enthusiasm brought a freshness to them.

If you have read his book
Outwitting History, you know something about his story. As a graduate student he began collecting Yiddish books, often as Yiddish speaking elders or their children were disposing of their libraries. Many of his more colorful stories related to rescues that began with a middle of the night phone call on a rainy night alerting him to a dumpster filled with Yiddish books. Food also seemed to be a theme as each stop at a home entailed eating their way through offerings of Jewish delicacies before beginning their labor of book removal. As I listened to the reverence in which these books were held by the original owners, I thought of the groaning shelves of books that I grew up with. While not Yiddish books, I suspect they grew out of that same reverence, something deeply rooted in Jewish culture.

Lansky talked of their efforts to digitize the books to make them widely available. This effort was largely funded by Steven Spielberg consistent with his efforts to preserve both survivor stories and the stories of Jewish heritage. More recently they are working to apply optical character recognition (OCR) to be able to make them searchable. And of course this comes with a story. Lansky was contacted out of the blue by Assaf Urieli, a gentleman who lives in the French Pyrenees and created Yiddish OCR to aid in searching information on his ancestors. He offered this tool free of charge to the Center, a tool which can revolutionize Yiddish scholarship.

So that was amazing lecture number one. Amazing lecture number two occurred the following evening when I went to hear my friend Dora Eiger Zaidenweber together with her grandson Etan Newman launch her father's memoir of his 2 1/2 years in Auschwitz. A crowd of almost 200 people showed up to hear her speak. I've written previously more of this book, Sky Tinged Red, and the unusual story of its discovery. In brief, while it was written immediately after the war, the first portion was not discovered until her father's death in 1960. Dora translated this in the 1980s only to discover it ended in 1942. It was not until 2007 that she found the original handwritten manuscript in Yiddish which recounted the rest of the story. Even more amazing was the fact that Dora, now legally blind, translated it with the aid of a magnifying machine, one letter at a time. So we have a very unusual story of discovery and an unusual story of translation. The story itself is also unusual in that few people survived 2 1/2 years in Auschwitz, witnessing and participating in its creation, the bombing of the crematorium and ultimately liberation. Isaia Eiger was fluent in many languages and as a result was assigned the role of intake scribe.  Because of these responsibilities  he was in contact with many of the people who entered Auschwitz and writes of them, especially those from his town of Radom.

In addition to her father's tale Dora was asked about her own story. Dora was in both Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen and has shared many of her stories with me in our conversations. We frequently debate the role of personal story. I believe it is the way that most people connect and hence very important. Dora has often opted for more universal themes. I was pleased when a student asked if there was something that stayed with her from her experience and Dora shared two of her most powerful stories. Now that 200 people heard them, I feel that I can share them here as well. Both involve her mother who accompanied Dora throughout the war and was in large part the reason Dora survived.

First Dora recounted her memory of standing naked before Dr Mengele as their fate rested in his hands. Other women had preceded them and the older women were usually sent to one side, to death, and their daughters to the other. The daughters who had escaped the gas chamber often sought to remain with their mother. As Dora and her mother approached Mengele, Dora was behind her mother. Suddenly her mother pushed her in front. Surprisingly both survived the selection even though her mother was in her 40s, an age considered old in that time and place. Afterwards Dora asked her mother why she did that and she replied, " I didn't want you to try to follow me."

The second story showed a similar level of forethought that I hadn't expected. Dora's mother had hollowed out the heels of her burgundy shoes and in each heel she had hidden a small diamond ring. On many occasions they debated if the time had come to trade one of those rings for a loaf of bread, always opting to hold it in reserve. In Bergen-Belsen, typhus was rampant. Dora had become ill and recovered, but was still very weak. One day she was unable to arise for roll call and was taken to the infirmary, a death sentence. Two people shared a bed, 30 inches in diameter, awaiting their place on the pile of bodies that accumulated each day. Dora's mother returned from work and discovered Dora was missing. She went to the infirmary, diamond ring in hand and offered it to the Polish woman in charge in exchange for her daughter.

As you can gather, both Dora and Aaron Lansky are powerful storytellers and I was privileged to witness the power of story in their hands.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Stepping into Someone Else's Shoes

This week is the opening reception for my exhibition at Sholom West.  Sholom is an elder residential facility with a Jewish focus located in the Twin Cities.  Sholom residents were the focus of a three year interview and artwork project that I recently completed.  It began with interviews of elders and often their families and concluded with a series of artwork based on their stories.  I conceived of this idea on impulse and remember my early grant proposals which outlined what even then sounded like a rather immense project.  It wasn't until I narrowed the project to stages that I began to receive grants to support the project.  No doubt some had thought "my eyes were bigger than my stomach".  In fact the project was more complex than I fully realized. Seventeen interviews, transcriptions, edited videos and paintings, twenty-three blog posts and eighteen speeches later I am now talking about this project from the high ground of completion.  Phew!

This past week I did a talk about the project for a senior group at the local JCC.  In the group were two women, Shirley and Hanna, whom I had interviewed.  I rather anxiously hoped they would like my treatment of their stories.  I ran into Shirley when my husband and I arrived at Sholom to hang the show. ( Did I mention that my wonderful husband builds my frames and "helps" me to hang my shows?)  I showed Shirley the paintings I had done based on her stories and she was tickled at the outcome of our long ago interview.  In my talk I played a little bit of video of her telling of her grandmother keeping chickens by the bed prior to them becoming dinner.

Hanna's story was Everything Stopped, about the sudden cessation of Red Cross letters from her parents in Germany while she, part of the Kindertransport, was living in London during WWII.  I had imagined and painted what it was to wait, not knowing what had happened even as one considered various possibilities, hoping against hope that they were all right. In fact they were not and met their fate in Auschwitz.  The painting was semi-abstract as I imagined a black hole of silence and I wasn't sure how well a more abstract painting might work for her.  I was gratified when Hanna told me it captured her feelings exactly.

There is something about the process of  painting a story that forces you to imagine someone else's experience.  A study came out recently that found when people read literary fiction it caused them to be more empathetic.  They attributed that to the fact that they encountered unexpected situations where they had to infer what someone else felt.  I think painting someone else's story is much the same.  When I painted Hanna's story, I knew the bones of it.  Letters from her family suddenly stopped. I thought about her phrasing, "everything stopped" and how you only know that after waiting.  The awareness of cessation only comes after time passes. Then I imagined waiting with a sense of foreboding. It was from that place that I began my painting.

For the recent Artists' Lab show, I had tried my hand at poetry to complement my painting.  I realized how that too is a means of stepping into someone else's shoes.  The thought occurred to me that each of my paintings comes out of a place similar to that of poetry.  I am often free associating, combining disparate imagery.  That is especially true of the more abstracted imagery.  With that in mind I began to write poetry about my paintings in this series. Here is the one I wrote of Hanna's story.

Suddenly Everything Stopped

Waiting for word,
So homesick my stomach clenches.
I can no longer remember when it didn't.
What is this fear I can not swallow?
When letters come
Cryptic words are carefully chosen
for other eyes watching, always watching.
Vati, Muti
Signed with the pen that their hands held.
My fingers trace the letters as if I could touch them,
Grab their fingers and hold them tight.
I want to tell them
how I struggle
with the shape of English words.
The, this, that,
my tongue below my front teeth
trying to make the sound of thistles and thimbles and thieves.
Thieves threw our piano out the window
Threatened our family
And thinned our belongings.
I polish the stones of the fireplace,
Of the Quaker family
that took me in.
The stones shine with my fear.

My mother gathered my belongings
And put me on the train.
There were other children too,
I was sixteen,
No longer a child
But not yet ready to leave my home.
Only I had to go,
my brother stayed behind.
Now I take care of English children
and an English home
And miss my family,
And miss my family
With a throbbing ache
I didn't know possible.
The Red Cross sends their letters,
Not much, but something.
But now, nothing,
Nothing for months.
Suddenly everything stopped.
Anxiously I await word,
Word that does not come,
A silent void, a black hole of silence
Fills my head
And fear so thick it chokes me.
Something has happened.

In the poem I wove in other elements of Hanna's story.  She had talked of how her mother packed her belongings and put her on the train to a boat to England, the Kindertransport.  She also told me of how Nazis had thrown their piano out the window and of her struggle to learn English. A little research told me that one of the harder things for a German speaker to learn in English is the "th" sound so I played with that a bit in this poem. And she talked of how the British liked the stones of their fireplaces polished and I imagined her polishing them with fear propelling her fingers.

Hanna told me that she expected me to be older to be able to capture her sentiments as I did, as if life's losses bestow a greater sense of empathy.  I think perhaps painting or writing can also be doorways to such understanding.