Sunday, February 22, 2015

An Unfamiliar Place

When I first decided to do paintings based on memory loss, I identified some possible subjects drawing on my observations of my mother's experience. Topics emerge in the normal course of our interaction, often from our daily conversation.

I call my mother every morning to help her prepare for her day. Our calls have gradually become shorter as content becomes less important than the call itself. Sometimes she asks me why I'm calling. "To talk to my mother," I reply. I've taken to saying, "Hi Mom, it's Susan" to help her identify both me and our relationship. Sometimes she asks "Where are you?", ever hopeful that I might be coming in and be in route at this very moment. Or perhaps she is confused about who is calling and is looking for an identifier.

The content of my call focuses on which aide is coming to assist her and when. She is still a polite conversationalist, asking me about my life, but I've learned that her attention span is short and will soon return to who is coming and when.

She went through a period of confusion awhile back, which fortunately has abated. It had us worried that we were entering a new period of decline as opposed to that imperceptibly gradual decline we had come to accept. On this particular day she started our conversation by saying "I'm confused".
"Is it good that she can identify it?" I wonder. She continues, "Where is everyone? I feel like I’m all alone. Has everyone forgotten about me? It's like I’m in a wilderness".

My mind seizes on the idea of a wilderness. Perhaps the definition will give me some clue to her experience. I look it up. A wilderness is an uncultivated, uninhabited, and inhospitable region. This is where she lives when she is dislocated, confused. A place that feels unfamiliar to a woman who always feared the unfamiliar.

I peruse the definitions. They speak of a voice in the wilderness as one who is ignored. Being in the wilderness means one who no longer has influence or recognition. Both are apt descriptions of one with Alzheimer's. The presence the person cultivated in their life and work now dissipates. They begin to withdraw, sensing the discomfort of others with this change in the person they knew, feeling their own discomfort with a suddenly unfamiliar world.

Wildernesses also signify a passage. Moses and the Israelites wandered in the desert, also a wilderness, as he shaped a people. Perhaps my mother's wilderness represents a passage as well. A gradual process of losing one's way, letting go of the world as we know it. Preparing for an unknown. It is a passage for me as well. One of letting go of the person who was most central in my life. Learning to accept this new permutation, still with her essence at the core, but different.

I wonder what is in this wilderness. What does she bring with her? What does she leave behind? What does she see? What does she hear?
I wrote a bit about this last year in Into the Wilderness before I began developing these paintings. This was how I pictured it...

Her cat is her companion and gives her comfort, another living, breathing creature. Her cat would accompany her into this wilderness. My mother writes a lot of notes to herself. Not always logical, she writes down times that five minutes later will be obsolete. It is the act of writing that helps fix her reality. I report how long before her companion would arrive, 20 minutes, 15, 10. She writes this down as if to capture time, to make it stand still for her like her oven clock, stuck at ten after eight for countless years. 

I picture a path of yellow post-it notes, a yellow brick road of sorts with her cat leading the way, her shadow behind. A thick and tangled forest in front. The red flash of time through the trees. And my phone call reverberating in waves, an anchor for her as she stands before this forest. I can picture this wilderness with its echoes of noise and light, her following her cat into the unknown.
Many of my paintings go through a long evolution. As you can see this one thus far is amazingly close to my initial description.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Cutting and Pasting

Cutting and Pasting Acrylic on Canvas by S. Weinberg
I've been busy developing my paintings on loss of memory with many in interim stages.  I've debated a bit on what to share with you as they are all subject to change at this juncture.  Sometimes I think a painting is done until I come into the studio and suddenly decide to totally rework it.  So the point of that intro is to keep in mind that what I share is likely to continue to change and evolve.

I am always fascinated by process and as I am in the beginning stage of a new series,  I find myself reflecting on the process that underlies it.  I read about a subject, observe closely, test out some concepts by writing about them in this blog and finally put brush to canvas.  Then I work and rework.  Part of the process is learning how to share what I am working on with other people.  Later in my process I give talks on my work, in fact I am busy speaking about my Jewish Identity and Legacy series currently on exhibition.  For the memory series I am still testing how best to share the stories behind this series.

This weekend we had an open studio where I got to share some of my stories with visitors.  It is part of my process that begins long before I give formal talks.  I think of it as testing the market, learning what people respond to even as I learn how to tell a story in a way that engages the listener. While writing about it helps,  there is nothing like a live audience.

My mother's collages
One of the questions that drives this visual exploration is what happens to identity when we lose memory.  I've written of my mother in Everyone Has an Idea  as she does what she calls Cutting and Pasting.  My mother was a first-grade teacher, known for her artistic talents and love of reading.  As her memory has deteriorated, her past-time of reading became more challenging.  No longer could she remember what she just read to connect the thread to what followed.  While she has aides who come in to assist her, she still has a lot of time on her own, time that once was filled with reading.

More of her collages
My mother is an intelligent and purposeful woman and even with an uncooperative memory she brings her coping skills to bear.  Everyday she would get up and get her newspaper.  This was a very important part of her day, so important that if she didn't get it, I immediately knew I had to call the paper to assure a delivery.  This took on added importance when she began to "cut and paste'.

Now each day she gets her paper and sits down before a notebook, scissors and glue in hand, and begins to collage.  She works at this purposefully, as if it were her job.  It is an extension of her long-time identity.  It is no coincidence that she calls this "cutting and pasting" and that her wall where she puts things up is called her "bulletin board".  She uses the terminology of her career as a first grade teacher and embraces the artistic process that was always part of her life.  Observing her, I can clearly see that identity is persistent.  Just as the Mississippi floods and remembers its original boundaries, so do we return to the familiar etched route from which we came.

I have great admiration for my mother's skills, both her creative skills and also her ability to identify the challenge, find a solution and work it persistently.  That is the woman I admired when she returned to college as an adult and later when she began a career in middle age.  It gives me pleasure to realize that she is still there with all the strength and determination that I have always respected even as her world becomes more difficult to navigate.

When I thought about how to capture this story, I knew it needed to be a portrait.  It also needed the location in which she does her cutting and pasting, at the same kitchen table where she used to type her papers for school.  I decided that I would deconstruct her collages and put the elements in the lower third of the painting, smaller pieces closer to her hands, growing is size as they reach outward, probably more pieces to still add.  For a long time I was uneasy about gluing them down until one day I just did so in a flurry of activity, prepared to paint over them and re-collage if necessary.  It is a collage after all where such things are permitted.  It would have helped if I had a bit of my mother's ability to ignore that part of the brain that worries about making mistakes.  She just keeps going, taking pleasure in the moment with no judgment except if it pleases her eye. Like a photographer who takes a lot of pictures knowing some will work, she actively creates each day.

Monday, February 2, 2015

Emotional Memory

I've been hard at work painting and writing. A new year seems to have brought me new energy. Deadlines help also. I have a show scheduled for my loss of memory artwork so I need to make a dent or it will begin to weigh on me.

I last shared a post with the beginning of a painting based on a Toni Morrison quote that equates "flooding" with "remembering". She talks of how the Mississippi River was straightened and in flooding the riverbanks, water finds its way back to the path it once carved. She spoke of it in terms of writers and the flooding of imagination. I think of it in terms of the emotional memory that leads us back to our well-engrained identity even when functional memory no longer exists.

Emotional memory leads us to the places and people that give us comfort, that feed some sense of who we were and how we still see ourselves. For example my mother likes when I come in because we do things together. Now the things we do are rather limited by her physical capabilities, but she associates me with activity and exploration because that was our history as we traveled together. It remains her emotional memory even as the details of our trips are long gone. Likewise her teaching years were very satisfying to her and hold warm emotional memories, hence her current activities of "cutting and pasting" (collaging) harken back to those times.

This painting is metaphoric, representing the path of emotional memory finding its way home. It is both painting and collage.To move it forward, I found I had to do something that seemed strange. I had to flood it. In my "omnipotence" I had created a river and land masses, together with the suggestion of homes. Now I had to extend the waters to obliterate them. It felt like a creation process in reverse as I let my flood take over, slowly rising over the land and trees I had so carefully created. I'm still debating writing a sentence from the quote over the painting.  You can see I began to do that and then took parts of it out.

The creation-destruction cycle actually is not an uncommon process for an artist. We often get too attached to a painting that is almost right, but not quite. Afraid to destroy our creation, we can remain paralyzed. The only way we can save ourselves is to let go and start over. I find covering a painting with white paint is my favored flooding technique on which to build anew, but here I was actually trying to mimic a flood.

This painting may do double duty in both the memory series and as a piece for the Jewish Artists' Lab exhibition on the theme of water. As a metaphoric piece it can work in many ways and certainly mimics the creation and destruction process contained in Biblical passages.