Thursday, July 31, 2014

Old Friends, New Friends

Me at 19
Recently my old college roommate was in town. About eight years ago it dawned on me that as a genealogist I was pretty good at tracking people down. I turned my lens to some of the people who I had lost touch with who were important to me at an earlier time in my life. That exploration led to a reunion with two of my college roommates, among them Toni, a woman who once knew the 19 year old me.

Back in those days my roommates studied occupational therapy and often got me to lie on the kitchen table. There they would manipulate my limbs as they applied their classroom learning to a "real" patient. After college Toni joined the Peace Corp and took off to Ecuador for a stretch. Now she sent me an email to tell me that she would be in town and would like to introduce me to her friend from the Peace Corp who now lived in my community.

As I wrote in a prior blog, my latest topic of inquiry is the loss of memory relative to identity. Interestingly her friend focused upon occupational therapy with Alzheimer's patients. Over dinner I asked what that entailed when one no longer had an occupation. She explained that the focus was on the things they they needed to do to exist in their life, but also on the things they could do to occupy their time and energies, much of which my mother managed to discover on her own. Of course I had to share my mother's story and her artistic collage creations.

She told me that the cognitive functions, reading and finance were often the first to go, but some people with strong cognitive abilities were able to sustain those skills for longer. I thought of my father, a college professor. As my father's memory faded, my mother asked him what would they do when he could no longer remember financial matters. "I'll never forget that,"he asserted. Eventually when property taxes went unpaid, I stepped in, but I was amazed that he still retained the ability to transfer money between his accounts and withdraw funds as necessary.

My mother too possessed strong cognitive skills. She returned to college as an adult and graduated with honors. A life-long learner, she loved to take in new information be it through books or experiential learning. Now faced with declining cognitive abilities, she still values being productive and focusing her energies on a consuming task. I remember her typing school papers at the kitchen table where she now does her daily collages. The same energy source fed both activities.

I google occupational therapy and dementia. Dementia, I really hate that word. As if we call someone crazy, demented, when memory flees. What I find speaks of participating in occupational tasks that meet one's need for productivity. My mother didn't need an OT to identify this need. She diagnosed it all by herself and in her "diminished" capacity she has discovered how to meet that need. And I speak of diminished in quotes as I suspect some of her success comes from the very ability to release herself from self judgment that many of us seek to achieve.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

The Process Begins

So a concept for my next series has begun to take shape, from memory and identity to loss of memory and its impact on identity. I've listed out twelve ideas. Each with a story and underlying imagery. Some I've written about in this blog, the memory jar, blowing kisses. Each has some context relevant to how one can support a family member with Alzheimers. The memory jar offers an example of assisted remembering, how we can help someone recall treasured memories. Blowing kisses relates to my mother interacting with an image of my father on a digital picture screen that keeps images actively before her, reinforcing her memory of loved ones. I work in series so I want to be sure that I have enough to work with. Twelve is enough to begin. Some will fall away and new images will emerge.

I remember a book I read on memory, Moonwalking With Einstein, which spoke of the memory palace as a vehicle to help us retain memory. You take a childhood home or place you know intimately and place visual imagery in each room, often in absurd combinations that are memorable. You remember through imagery, through a spatial sense, through the unusual within the familiar. When I last visited my mom I took pictures of the little vignettes throughout her home, the things in which memory is vested. My mother's home is a memory palace that anchors her memories. I am thinking of a painting called the Memory Palace, small paintings that form a whole, the little elements with embedded memories. Larger paintings will complement the Memory Palace.

I begin to write a grant to fund this effort. Midway through I begin to think about exhibiting this work. How will I get it out in the community? Always a good thing to address in a grant. I email several people who run an Alzheimer's support group for caregivers. I went to it for a time. They are tied in to organizations that address this issue. I outline my idea. They have seen my earlier work and heard me speak, hopefully they liked what they saw. I am asking for their help on spec as I haven't yet begun this series. A few days later they respond with an invitation to showcase my work at a Caregiver Conference, to contribute to a video as part of their PR. Things are beginning to move. I'm tickled to have an invite without the work to show.

Now the challenge with grants is timing. I suppose the bigger challenge is getting them. I've had occasional successes, but all efforts help me to hone my concept. Once I send them in, I let go of expectations. What I think is a great idea might not speak to them. I don't let my sense of self or the value of my work rest in their hands. Artists that do probably don't remain artists. A tough skin is a requirement when you lead with yourself, especially in unfinished, tentative form.

So timing...They fund as of a specific date so I don't want to get too far ahead of myself. But that's OK, I need to figure out my approach and that will take some experimentation. I don't experiment enough for the sake of experimentation, too busy trying to get somewhere. It is hard to shut off my driven personality. It will be a luxury to have the time to play. Perhaps I will use a sketchbook or small panels to try different approaches and themes, a preparatory stage.

I stop in at the art store and buy inexpensive papers and surfaces on which to experiment. I look for semi-translucent qualities, things that suggest holes, lend themselves to layering. Memory is layered, elicited by a word, or deeply buried. How can I express that in a way that adds visual interest?

The topic of the Artists' Lab next year is water. That seems to fit with memory. Memories submerge, bubble up, flow. There is a fluidity to memory. Perhaps there is a way to connect these concepts.

So this is my process, how things come to be. My thinking side explores a framework, then hands it over to my creative side to flesh out. Then the thinking side comes back to build a structure and narrative around the artwork. This duality is both blessing and curse. My challenge is always in knowing how to shift between modalities, how to let each complement the other rather than block.





Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Birthing a Concept

I've been thinking about a new series of paintings and it occurred to me that it would be interesting to trace its development within this blog. There is a process by which work develops, from concept to execution. By the time I look back on it, it feels rather magical. "How did this happen?" I wonder. I hesitate a bit to report on its beginnings, thinking perhaps I should "knock on wood" lest I jinx it, but then you will have a glimpse into one of the false starts that are also part of the process.

First I look for a topic that inspires me, encourages dialogue within a larger community and lends itself to a visual medium. I don't want to just paint pretty pictures for people to hang on their wall. There has to be more to it for it to sustain my interest.

The concept is the hardest step. I don't always know what comes next, but I've learned that each body of work births the next. I often look back to look forward, to find the patterns that will take me to my next step. In 2007 I began with a series on family history. Gold metallic paint and language were my approach, layering with glints of what was hidden, heavily figurative. Text, always text accompanies my work, stories embedded and in this case words also embedded.

Language became my stepping stone to the next series. Off I went to Lithuania to study Yiddish in hopes of using it in my artwork. Along the way I was struck with the silence about the Holocaust and did a series on the silence surrounding it, using language and collage-like imagery. Less figurative, a departure. Stories of murder, silence, memory.

The Holocaust, the subject on which I now balanced, finding my footing on this new stepping stone, stepping carefully, gingerly. Off to Poland followed by a series on the former Jewish community of my ancestral town. In the style of a pinhole camera, small, figurative, limited palette paintings edged with darkness. Together they formed a larger whole. A lost community.

Community my new stepping stone. From that lost Polish community to my own Twin Cities Jewish community. Identity and legacy, the theme. I interviewed Jewish elders. Where did they come from? Who were they? What made them Jewish? What was their legacy to subsequent generations? Once again collage-like imagery to capture the depth of story, Each painting, a new experiment growing out of story. I found I preferred larger imagery, fewer details, a strong focal point. Each painting captured memories, a time capsule of stories.

And now I perch on two stepping stones, one a continuation of memories, stories sourced by interview, the other the Holocaust, I paint the Holocaust stories of a close friend, a survivor from my grandfather's Polish town. How do you paint stories of horror, of fear?  You find the human response, how people preserve their humanity in the face of horror. In this case the relationship with her mother became the story. Simplified forms, figurative, a connecting narrative, limited palette. Each memory vividly expressed. Together they form her identity, her sense of obligation to tell the story for those who can't.

If memory and identity are connected, what happens when we lose memory? Do we lose ourselves? My mother in her 80's is losing memory, but I still see her, the person inside this new self. Her identity seems intact, a reader even if she no longer reads, a lover of art even if she can no longer remember her favorite artists. As I recently wrote, she still retains and develops the ability to make art, creating without conscious thought. She described for me how it flows, perhaps better than for those of us who think too much. I am fascinated by this new passage.

How does one paint the absence of memory? How does one paint absence? But not complete absence, things surface, elements remain. Conversely, how does one paint a presence, but a different one than that to which I was accustom. What do we lose? What do we retain? What changes?

It seems a natural step to go from memory and identity to the loss of memory and all that goes with that. I begin to list ideas. What would I paint if I were to paint this story? What are the underlying stories, the themes that this work would raise? I paint for a purpose. I want to create dialogue around topics that call for it. What do I know about this subject? What have I observed? What can I learn? When I work on a series I read widely about my topic. My research begins to stir associations that in turn suggest approaches. And so I begin.