Sunday, February 23, 2014

The Psychology of Story

As a bit of a ruminator, I can chew on ideas for a long time, a useful attribute for a blogger. Eventually I find myself in need of new inputs which often come from books and lectures.  The University of Minnesota does a day-long gathering where professors talk on a variety of topics and my interest was piqued by one entitled The Cultural Psychology of Storytelling led by Moin Syed. As story is central to what I do, I was hopeful I might gain some new insights and was not disappointed. Syed is a developmental psychologist which is a branch of psychology that focuses on how people change over time. While many think of this area as focused on children, it is actually much broader. He noted that for a long time many people did not think much happened later in life in terms of development. I beg to differ, I thought. As one in that later stage I am often surprised at how much one can develop and grow in this very fertile period.

Syed began with a brief review of Erik Erikson's lifespan theory which posits a theory of development that contains eight tensions. It begins with trust and mistrust as infants learning to deal with the world. By adolescence we are struggling with identity or confusion and by my stage in late adulthood one is confronting generativity (legacy) or stagnation. These stages are not really linear, but at different stages in our life specific stages are more the focus of our energies. Erickson's focus was on identity and in fact he coined the phrase "identity crisis".

So the focus of developmental psychology is on who we are, what we are about and how we make sense of our past. So how does this relate to storytelling? We create story to make sense of something that is ambiguous. Storytelling is an innate practice. Syed shared a film of two triangles, one slightly larger, and a circle, moving within and outside of a house like structure. Take a minute to watch it and think about what you see. This was created by Fritz Heider in the 1940s, before you could so easily call it up on YouTube.

He asked us what we saw in this and the answers all related to relationships in one form or another. People often see bullying, domestic violence or custody battles. The finding of the study was that people project people, they anthropomorphize as their effort to make sense of the ambiguous.

I thought of the relationship of this to artwork. It is especially appropriate to the way my husband Martin Arend works as he begins his paintings with an abstract from which he identifies figurative imagery and develops it. What he sees is a reflection of his own life experience. Often others construct other stories about his imagery and his artwork may speak to a viewer in an entirely different way than he intended. Much of our response to figurative artwork is because it relates to a story that is meaningful to the viewer and the more ambiguous the imagery, the easier it is for them to project into it.

There is very little research on story, but tools that present ambiguity are often used to elicit story and hence the perceptions and experience of people. The Thematic Apperception Test picked up on my reflections on artwork as it uses visual imagery such as drawings that focus on themes of power and relationship. The viewer is asked what they see. The Rorschach blot presents an even more visually ambiguous abstract image.

Syed turned his attention to the Labovian Diamond which looks at what attributes make a good story. Created by Labov and Waletzky in 1967, he noted wryly that you don't want to be the second name as you tend to get overlooked. I can relate, I thought, often bristling at the perceived neutrality of alphabetical order. The Labovian diamond starts with "orientation" along one side. To be a good storyteller you need to create some background and orient the listener. Then you move into a "complication". This is the heart of the story, something has to happen. At the point of the diamond you "evaluate" the circumstances, before moving into "resolution", concluding with a "coda", a summary that brings it back to the orientation.

I found myself thinking of my interviewees who spurred my recent body of artwork on Identity and Legacy. Earlier this week I went to yet another funeral, an occupational hazard when you interview people in their 90s. Fannie Schanfield was one of my best storytellers and lived an amazingly full life until age 97. I thought of her stories behind my paintings and began to lay them out along the diamond. Fannie had told me about how as a child her mother designated her to preserve her stories. She would pull her in from play and tell her stories, then advise her to write it down. Ok, that's orientation. She didn't write them down and one day as an adult she came home to her mother burning papers on her history. Hmm, complication! When Fannie asked what she was doing, she retorted, "Did you write it down?", expressing concern that no one cared to retain her history. Fannie evaluated this, got her to stop and when Fannie was in her seventies she began to record her mother's stories. Aha, resolution. She ended her story with the coda, "Ma, I wrote it down". Write down your legacy lest it be forgotten. A perfect fit. (Listen to Fannie tell her story).

Ok, let's try another. Fannie told me a story about her father that the rabbi retold at her funeral. The background was that in 1926 there had been a fire in the building next to the synagogue. Her father was disturbed by this because he thought that they needed to use electric lights instead of candles, a clear complication. He considered what could be done and brought his neighbor, a tin smith in on this. The tin smith gathered spare metal from work and Fannie's father drew a template. Together they found resolution by constructing two electric candelabras that stood at the synagogue for many years. And now the coda...About fifty years later the candelabras were in poor shape and moved to a back room. Fannie paid to refurbish them so they could be at her daughter's wedding, silent sentinels who embedded the legacy of her father, shining light on yet a later generation.

Interestingly this framework for story can vary culturally. Syed related a study of children and story based in both Chicago and Taiwan and how the coda can differ. In America we tell transgression stories with humor, at least sufficiently after the fact. The classic one in my family is of me as a toddler forced to sit on my booster seat until I ate my peas which I despised. My resourceful early self announced I was done and left the table, only to have my mother lift the booster seat to a layer of smashed peas. In my family the coda is bemusement at this resourceful child with a mind of her own (but obviously not the foresight to realize how quickly her subterfuge would be discovered). That is typical of the American orientation. In Taiwan that story would likely be told with the coda a lesson on how not to behave. Don't be a bad girl and smash your peas.

Some cultures may drop the coda entirely. Japanese storytelling is more open-ended and lets people draw their own conclusions. There is actually a Rashomon effect named after a Japanese film which shows multiple perspectives.

We reinterpret our own past constantly. Syed talked of a longitudinal study which interviewed a woman at 8-10 year intervals and asked her to reflect on the same relationship. They found that she kept reinterpreting the relationship based on her developing life experience. Interestingly we change our memories, but don't remember we changed them as we lose the ability to access our prior conceptions. I mulled over some tumultuous relationships in my mind and felt that I could recall my evolving perspective, but realized the difficulty in challenging this finding without video proof. How do I know what I forgot?

Syed closed his talk by introducing the concept of Master Narratives. A Master Narrative reflects our expectation of how things work. A Coming of Age story is a master narrative. Another common narrative is the Redemptive Narrative. Here Syed presented a curve that started high, dipped down into a trough and then rose upward above our starting point. We start with a good person who falls, but ultimately turns this negativity into something positive, a typical Hollywood rehab story. The contrast to this is the Contaminated Narrative where things go from bad to worse. Clearly the division between those who perceive a glass as half empty or half full.

These narratives vary culturally although there is not much research to date. Syed related that in working with Swedes the Redemptive Narrative didn't resonate. Instead they have an Unsung Hero Narrative.

Interestingly a study of Israeli and Palestinian youth found that Israeli youth had a redemptive narrative while Palestinian youth had a contaminated narrative.

After 9/11 our master narrative was a redemptive one codified by "united we stand". We began with innocence, it was damaged by 9/11, but it brought us together. There is of course an alternate narrative of exclusion as many moved towards exclusion of Muslims, a contamination narrative.

Syed reminded us that a narrative may be one portion of a larger curve. One attendee proposed the Lance Armstrong narrative which began with a redemptive narrative as he overcame testicular cancer and then moved into a contaminated narrative as he fell from grace. Whether his story arc includes yet another redemption remains to be seen.

I am intrigued with how story and psychology relate. It builds upon the concept I've written about previously on the "intergenerational self" where children who know their family history deal better with challenges. No doubt it relates to a master narrative passed on within their family. I also found myself thinking of the two descriptors I use for my diverse activities of finance, genealogy and artwork. I've described the common threads that bind them as solving puzzles and telling stories. Perhaps there is a closer relationship between the two than I've previously identified, with telling stories as a vehicle to explain those more ambiguous puzzles of life.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

The Progression

I am often captivated by process. Lately I have been thinking back on the progression of my creative process. Years ago I used to sit on my living room couch and draw from photographs with pencil. It was the beginning of learning how to see.

Eventually I felt competent enough to go public and I enrolled in a life drawing class at the local art college. I was in my late 20s and had just gotten an MBA. I have always had a need to balance myself between opposite polarities, salty-sweet, arty-business. I recall I also took a class in palm reading to add some leavening. I grew up in a generation where going into business was frowned upon so after an intensive business curriculum I felt a need to bolster the other me.

Each week I would go to the ivy covered art building where I straddled a wooden bench called a horse. A plank jutted upward, the horse's neck, and against it rested my drawing board and paper. I would pull out my conte crayon and kneadable eraser and prepare for the model. A robed model would appear, gracefully emerge from the robe and step up on a platform, holding poses that we intently tried to capture. I'd steal glances at my fellow students' work, often quite skillful, and bemoan my ungainly marks. This was much harder than drawing from photographs. And the other students looked so arty. I felt as if I were masquerading, an imposter.

I still have the drawing that captured my eureka moment. The model lay upon the platform, perspective foreshortening his limbs and this time I got it. Something shifted within me and I began to see what was there rather than filling in with a shorthand for what I thought a person looked like. It was not unlike riding a bicycle. I was learning to see just as we learn to balance. I began to go to three drawing co-ops a week. I saw the world as if I was drawing everything. If I spoke to you, I was mentally drawing your face. Each week I would go to the campus art store after drawing and buy a new pencil. That pencil had a very high return on investment thought the MBA in me.

Eventually I fell back to one drawing coop a week and twelve years later I met my husband there. He was more focused on being an artist and more ready to define himself as such. By then I had a career in finance and art was an avocation. He got a studio with several other artists and they began to have a weekly painting coop. I took a morning off from work each week to paint, hurrying back to my other life afterwards, checking carefully for telltale signs of paint on my fingers. In a back room I set up a print making studio and bought a small press. When we moved to our own studio I began painting in earnest. Often I painted from photographs, images of family and random strangers. I did a series of people on subways and buses, still some of my favorite images. I painted steadily and quietly, no ultimate goal in sight. I painted for my own personal pleasure. It absorbed me and immersed me and often delighted me.

So what makes one an artist? In its most elemental form, making art. But if art is a form of communication, does it need a viewer to complete the circuit? At that time I was my own audience, often surprised at my creations, almost as if another hand had painted them. I knew this was part of my process even with no clear destination or audience beyond me.

When I left my job seven years ago I decided to focus on my artwork. I am a purposeful person so I always expected that if I brought energy to it, it would go somewhere, but I wasn't sure where I wanted that to be. I wasn't seeking to make a living at it. That would have changed how and what I painted. I was accustomed to painting for me and I knew that had to be at the core. My interest in family history took me down the rabbit hole, first family history, then Holocaust history and then Jewish identity. Each topic was an exploration of something I needed to figure out and was often accompanied by intensive reading on a topic. Story became central and the way in which I painted began to change. I recently realized that my last three paintings, while based on story, are created out of my head. No model poses for me, no photograph is my source. I imagine the image based on story and try to create it, often painting over many false starts until I arrive at an image that speaks to me. And those painted over versions are an important part of the process. I need to see something to know if it is right and conversely I need to see something to know that it is not quite there.

I've learned many lessons from creating artwork. When I first left my job, I thought I would paint every day, bringing the same commitment to it as I did my job. I soon learned that artwork has a different rhythm. Now I paint in brief spurts, then live with it for awhile to decide next steps. I've learned to have a conversation with the artwork that unfolds over time. And I've learned not to be afraid of destroying a work to create anew. I have more trust in my ability to recreate.

Somewhere along the line I began to share my work with others. I went from being a private artist to engaging others in my exploration. Much to my surprise I found I enjoyed that aspect and particularly enjoyed talking about my work and the stories within it. I also began to widen my scope. Now I paint and write and talk about the things that intrigue me and each action allows me to delve more deeply into a subject. Had you told me seven years ago of this rather organic path I've followed, I would have been quite amazed and probably a bit intimidated, but step by step I have charted a satisfying course. I still believe that creating art is the fundamental definition of an artist, but I have come to believe that interacting with others around the work makes the process much more enriching.



Thursday, February 6, 2014

The Exchange

On rare occasions paintings emerge full blown. More often they are like awkward adolescents who have to incur a difficult struggle to find themselves. I have been working on a painting that seems like it has been such an adolescent for far too long. I was beginning to despair as to whether it would ever emerge, but am now seeing a glimmer of hope. It is the third that I have done in my Dora Series and the fourth in the chronology.

The series is based on the stories of my very dear friend and often muse. She comes from the same town in Poland as my grandfather, but unlike him was still there when the Nazis invaded in 1939. At age 15 she was thrust into a world that turned her life upside down, first a ghetto and forced labor camp, later Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen. One day she suggested that I paint her stories which I have gotten to know quite well through our frequent conversations and my travel with her back to Poland.

I am envisioning a series of five paintings that carry her through her experiences during the Holocaust. I will couple the images with a video interview in which she tells the stories and am interested in exploring how to use this material as an educational tool. The images have been selected in part because of her suggestions as to those that lend themselves to a visual medium, but they also include the stories that seem to carry the most emotion. It is no coincidence that three of them involve her mother who played a central role in her survival. Chronologically they carry her from the forced labor camp, to her entrance to Auschwitz, to the death march towards Bergen Belsen and conclude in Bergen Belsen and finally with liberation.

The first was in the forced labor camp. She was ill one day and didn't go in to work. Nazis raided the apartments like truant officers looking for anyone who was not at work. The penalties for truancy were quite severe. They lined up those they found and shot every tenth one. My friend successfully hid beneath the stairs as the boots of the Gestapo thundered over her head. I captured her story in a painting called Beneath the Stairs.

The second painting is one that I've just begun. As she and her mother stood naked before Dr Mengele at Auschwitz, he pointed their fate with his crop. Those who would live another day were sent to one side, the others to the gas chamber. The older women were usually sent to their deaths and their daughters cried out to join them. As they approached the immaculately dressed Mengele, her mother thrust her ahead of her. They both passed his scrutiny, unusual for her mother who was over 40, an age considered old at that time and place. "Why did you do that?" she asked. "I didn't want you to try to follow me" her mother replied.

A few days before Auschwitz was liberated, my friend and her mother embarked on a death march to Bergen Belsen. I've painted this story in We Walk Together. She described the march, the three items they were given and her ultimate despair. As she weighed sitting down and receiving a bullet, her mother countered with a proposal that she sit down with her. "Not you!" Dora replied and with that found the resources to forge forward.

And now we come to the painting with which I struggle, The Exchange. Here's the story. The setting is Bergen Belsen where piles of corpses mount, building from starvation and typhus. Dora became ill. She recovered, but was still quite weak. One day she fell and was unable to rise. Her mother returned from work and found her missing. She had been taken to the infirmary which was but a way station to the pile of corpses. Two people lay in each bed, 30 inches across.

Throughout the war her mother had a pair of burgundy shoes, each with the heel hollowed out. Within each heel was a small diamond ring. Through Auschwitz, two death marches and Bergen Belsen they had held this property, often weighing if this was the time to exchange it for a loaf of bread. Now her mother pried off one heel and extracted the ring. She strode to the infirmary and held it out to the Polish woman who was in charge. "Give me my daughter!" she said.

How to paint this? I pictured the Polish woman with an attitude of resistance blocking the way, Dora's mother with a firm line to her mouth forcefully thrusting her palm forward, the ring cupped within. First I envisioned the walls of the infirmary dividing the space, the suggestion of bodies outside, beds holding bodies within. I wanted to show the shoes, but that would compress the figures. I find that I prefer larger images for greater impact so wasn't quite sure how to do that. The fact that she had walked in those shoes through two death marches without accessing the rings felt like an important part of the story.

Ultimately I removed the division of space and put a figure in with the red shoes as background. The Polish woman's arm blocks the way. Behind it I added the figure of Dora to highlight the idea of an exchange. The painting has gone through many evolutions and may still continue to change, but is beginning to approach completion.