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.

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