Monday, May 19, 2014

In the Guise of Darkness

Our deadline is fast approaching for the Artists' Lab exhibition.  Recently I sent off my artist statement which forced me to think about how I frame what I do.  This weekend we are in the middle of Art-a-whirl, a huge open studio event. I put my painting out to test the reaction of others and began to tell the story behind it.

The work that I am putting into the show is both poetry and a painting.  The poetry addresses the theme of light through the experience of a close friend.  As I have been developing artwork around her Holocaust experience it was a natural extension to ask her if she had associations of light and darkness within the Holocaust. But there was another thread, My friend lost her central vision to macular degeneration.  As I've been working on a painting relative to her Holocaust story, I have also been working on one inspired by the subject of sight.  Both threads are joined together by poetry, but as we are restricted by space in the exhibition, I am forced to select one for the show.  I will share the poetry and painting related to sight in a subsequent post. 

Sometimes I develop poetry that expands on a painting.  In this case I reversed the process, beginning with a series of poems.  The poems looked at vision, light and darkness, the way we envision our lives and then re-envision as our world changes, our inner eye and how we find light in the midst of darkness.    

My friend noted that during the Holocaust, darkness often represented safety whereas light meant exposure and danger, quite the reverse of how we often envision the two.  She recalled the smoke from the crematorium and how it spit fire into the night sky, tingeing it red. I pictured this as thick and as heavy as the plague of darkness in Exodus that we had discussed in the lab. 

  By contrast she recalled a different moment when they arrived at a camp.  It was the eve of her 21st birthday when they stepped from a boxcar into a pine forest.  She recalled the midnight blue of the night sky studded with stars and the trees dusted with snow.  That vision of beauty represented hope in a world which offered little.  The painting grew out of the poem below, a blueprint for what emerged.

On the Eve of Your 21st Birthday

Light was often your enemy,
Furnaces spewed fire

In the night
As souls escaped
In final release.
Darkness your friend.
You flattened yourself
against the wall
of the darkened stairwell
Safe from the probing tongues of bayonets.
And sometimes hope emerged
Hidden in the guise of darkness.
On the eve of your twenty-first birthday
You stepped from a boxcar,
A sky of midnight blue,
Stars shining against its darkness,
Evergreens dusted with snow
Bent to bestow their blessing.

One of the things that I incorporated into the painting as well as some of the poetry came from our discussion in the lab.   In the lab we learned of how Rabbi Naftali Horowitz looked to the letter aleph which represents the name of God and noted that it echoes the form of our face. If we disassemble it we see two yuds and a vav, two eyes and a nose, figuratively holding God before us in our own face, a divine light surrounding each of us.  In the painting I use the aleph to represent stars and sparks of souls escaping.

 I am never sure how to describe my medium.  I paint and I write poetry, but I also tell stories.  One of the things that I do feels somewhat unusual.  I interpret imagery as described to me by another person, using their inner eye to translate their experience through the filter of my imagination. It is a bit like a game of telephone and I don't always get it right.  My friend, always a stickler for accuracy, took her magnifier to my iPad where I had enlarged my painting.  She informed me that the flame of the crematorium was more like a candle than the wider arc I had represented.  And so I returned to the painting to have it reflect her recollection.


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