Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Cut From the Same Cloth

And another memory from the memory jar offered up by a viewer at one of my shows.  As you will recall I've asked people to contribute memories they shared with someone who lost memory.  This memory read ...

I reminded my mother about our first trip to the greenhouse at Mount Holyoke College when I was two years old and she wore the plaid coat she had made me out of extra cloth leftover from the one she had made for herself. 

What I liked about this memory was its visual nature, but also the way in which something from her mother is repeated in her. 

To begin this painting I did some searching online for images of both this greenhouse and others to capture the sense of profusion of greenery and the latticework of the ceiling.  I ended up with the painting above.

I had actually contemplated several ways to approach this image.  The challenge with any painting is just as we explore one option we close off others.  The first mark we make on a blank canvas takes us one direction, rather than another.  As someone who has always liked to keep my options open and resisted being boxed in, I especially struggle with that.  It dawned on me recently that while I can't easily make the same painting serve multiple options, I can explore them independently.  Nothing but myself boxes me in.  After all Monet didn't feel he could only do one take on the Rouen Cathedral or the haystacks.

The other box I fight is the representational one.  When I tell a story, I want the viewer to get it.  While non-representational images often attract me, they seldom communicate a story clearly. I am a feet on the ground person.  That is something that makes me well prepared for shows and talks, but that I struggle with in creating artwork.   I need to get to a place of experimentation that takes me beyond what lies in front of me.  There was a time that I worked from reflections or took pictures through fish tanks in Chinese restaurants for source material, merging tables and fish into one whole.  These are vehicles to force a feet on the ground personality to play.  I've come to realize that I was never very good at playing.  What we don't learn in childhood we revisit in adulthood.

I've hit on a new approach and I'm interested to see how it works.  I decided that I should first go with my natural instinct to paint these stories as I first respond to them, get it out of the way so I can begin to play.  That is in fact a long tradition among artists. So I don't fight my nature, but consider it a step along the road of a longer process.  The approach of taking a sentence or two from someone else and constructing a painting out of it is already a bit of an experiment.

After an initial painting of each memory, I plan to tackle each painting from a different vantage point, literally. The original greenhouse painting placed me within the greenhouse.  What if I create the viewpoint from outside and let the glass steam up?  A misty, scene presents itself.  Then I take my finger and write in the steamed glass, "Cut from the same cloth".  The parts that fall within the letters are sharper, little glimpses within.  I took a first run at it and came up with this initial result. I already have some ideas for the other paintings in this series.  While it is part of my larger memory series, I can imagine exhibiting it by itself titled From Another Vantage Point.  Hmm, perhaps a bit ahead of to paint.

Thursday, January 14, 2016

In Search of Swans

My husband and I started out one day with a drive to nearby Monticello. We were in search of swans. My interest was spurred by my memory jar. I've written in these pages of my own personal story of providing the gift of a memory jar, filled with memories I shared with my mother. While the jar remained unchanged the story around it evolved, deepening in meaning. Originally a thoughtful gift, as my mother lost memory it became a place to store and recall those forgotten memories. Ultimately it became mine alone, returning to its origin even as my mother returned to hers. I became the keeper of the memories.

I took that concept and created a memory jar to which I invited others to contribute. I asked them to tell me their memories once shared with someone who lost memory. My jar spills over with memories. So many people have shared this experience of a loved one's loss of memory. I am touched as I read through it, especially by those that are written longingly, fondly, to a person they loved who has lost a shared memory.

So how does this relate to my swan search? My intent was to take the most visual of these memories and paint them as part of my memory series. One day a woman stood in my studio and recorded a memory. I mentioned to her that many of the memories seemed to touch the senses, perhaps that is what helps us record a memory in our brains. She laughed and unfolded her memory, offering it to me to read.

I remember when you took the long way through town in the dead of winter, and you stopped by the river, turned off the motor, rolled down the windows and we listened to the hundreds of trumpeter swans.

I could not only hear this memory, but also easily visualize it. It became the first image I painted.

I did a search on-line and discovered that hundreds of trumpeter swans gather in Monticello each winter. I also discovered a YouTube video of them and that became the bones of my painting. Now I wanted to see them in the flesh and feathers.

As we approached Monticello, a 45 minute drive from the Twin Cities,we saw a large plume of smoke. Around it clouds reached upward in the sky, grey bottomed clouds. An old friend used to fly gliders in the thermals. I had learned to identify them by those grey bottoms. I picture a flick of a watercolor brush adding that definition. My husband commented that it must be a power plant. Of course, the plant must be responsible for the swans who gathered in waters that didn't freeze because of its warmth.

We followed our GPS to Swan Park, a lot between two houses on the river. Nearby swan planters graced a home on the river. A sign was posted about the Swan Lady, a woman who fed the swans for 30 years until her death. She made her husband promise to feed them as she lay upon her deathbed. I wondered if he was the man in the video who fed them. Did he grumble at that burden or does he perhaps think of his wife with love each time he lugs buckets of corn out to those noisy creatures. Perhaps some loving grumbling, swans after all mate for life, a fitting coda to promise to feed them for a spouse.

Alas no swans appeared. We had missed the 10:30 feeding and only ducks moved down the river. They moved rather strangely, as if on a moving sidewalk, too fast for those webbed feet paddling beneath the surface. Perhaps the thermals propel the currents as well. The only swans we saw that day were the two planters. We pledged to return during a feeding on another day.  

Thursday, January 7, 2016

Delving Deeper

I began this blog entry with some hesitation. My task: culling through 64 books I read in 2015 and identifying those that really spoke to me. Mind you, I don't even pick up a book unless it is already highly rated and I've carefully considered whether it might interest me. I guard my reading time carefully and try to avoid duds. Occasionally I'll read one for a book club that I would not have normally picked up and am grateful for the opportunity to be introduced to something new. While most of my reading is contemporary it is not just drawn from the current year or two.I began my process by going through my list and identifying those to which I had an immediate response. Surprisingly my list totaled eleven and six of them were non-fiction. Rather than whittle them down to an arbitrary ten, I decided to address them all. Then I considered why I selected them, what spoke to me?

Many of the non-fiction books I read educated me about a subject on which I realized I knew very little. Sometimes historical fiction has that result as well. The best of these personalize the topic, taking it out of the realm of didactic and into that of life. While I like to think of myself as knowledgeable about the world around me, I often am dismayed to realize how much my knowledge skims the surface. Books take me deeper into history and events and into the lives of those who lived them.

Some years ago I interviewed a woman who was approaching 102 at the time. She spoke about the Dust Bowl period and the effect it had in Minnesota, how one couldn't hang clothes on the line because they would be covered with dirt. I was surprised to learn that Minnesota was affected as I thought it was confined to such places as Oklahoma. I knew about the Dust Bowl more through photos than narrative so decided to pick up the book The Worst Hard Time (2006) by Timothy Egan. Now this book has been around for awhile, but I was interested because I had loved the more recent book by Timothy Egan, Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher (2012) on Edward Curtis. That brief recollection in my interview aroused my interest in this topic and I soon learned that my knowledge was cursory at best. Egan tells the story through interviews and documents that give voice to those who were affected. It gives insight into the unintended consequences of government policies, both good and bad.

Another book that was an education was Rez Life (2013) by David Treuer. This book explored the experience of life on an Indian reservation as well as the history behind the reservations. He writes specifically of those that are in Minnesota so I was especially interested in this regional tie. Again I realized I knew little of Native American history and its culture that is such a presence in this area. I came away with a much better understanding of the broken promises of the US government and the history behind today's Indian casinos.
My bookclub selected the book Being Mortal (2014) by Atul Gawande which explores the bias that we have for extending life under any circumstance rather than considering the quality of life. With so many of us losing parents this becomes achingly real and I must confess to thinking of it when we had to make decisions regarding my mother as her body failed.

The Faraway Nearby (2014) by Rebecca Solnit drew my attention because I had read other essays by her in Field Guide to Getting Lost (2006). Her work speaks to me and makes the wheels turn. This book was in part about her mother's loss of memory, an experience that my mother's life was echoing. While her essays may meander they are united by some key metaphors, the harvest of an apricot tree tying the stories of memory together. She writes in a stream of consciousness style sweeping diverse subjects into the same net, then finding the subtle connections between them.

The Family: A Journey into the Heart of the Twentieth Century (2014) by David Laskin was on a topic on which I had much greater knowledge. It traces the journey of three branches of his Belarussian family. One leads to the camps and death, one to early Palestine and the third to the United States where his great-aunt created the Maidenform bra, the first bra of its kind. While I've read many family stories, Laskin is an accomplished writer and captured the flavor of this familiar story writ large.

A Mountain of Crumbs (2011) by Elena Gorokova explores life in the Soviet Union and the ultimate immigration of the author to the United States. It is a beautifully written memoir. While I know stories of life in the Soviet Union from Russian Jews, this memoir broadened my understanding of life in the Soviet Union for its non-Jewish citizens.

So those were the non-fiction books, but the fiction seems to have many of the same qualities of informing through personalizing. A book that has been around for some time, but seems especially relevant in these times of ethnic divide is Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet (2009). This book looks at the experience of the Japanese banned to camps during WWII through the eyes of children who are caught up in these historic events.The Gift of Rain (2009) by Tan Twan Eng is set during WWII on a Malayan Island. Its main character is a young man who is half British and half Chinese who forms a deep friendship with a Japanese diplomat. This friendship faces a challenging road as the Japanese occupy the island. His choices have far reaching consequences as he tries to find the path of both morality and friendship. The history of this time and place was new to me and richly conveyed within the vehicle of story.

How would you live your life if you knew you would live it over and over, able to refine it based on your memory of each prior life? The only drawback is you have to die each time and then live those tedious years as a child over and over as well. This is the premise of The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August (2014) by Claire North. I have a penchant for time travel and this is a clever and intricately constructed novel. While each person is restricted to their one segment of time, they have learned how to connect with others from different time periods who share this unique ability.

I have been captivated by stories set in Nigeria since I fell in love with the writing of Chimamanda Adichie. When I discovered The Secret Lives of Baba Segi's Wives (2010) by African-born poet Lola Shoney, I read it with high hopes. I was not disappointed in this story of four wives and the life circumstances of each that led them to this polygamous marriage. Written through the voices of each wife and their erstwhile husband it presents a story of how women survive in challenging circumstances.

The Invention of Wings (2014) by Sue Monk Kidd is fiction, but based on the true story of the Grimke sisters from Charleston who were abolitionists despite, or perhaps because of their childhood in a slave holding family. A friendship is imagined with a young black female slave that alters the life journey of each of them. I spent a lot of time Googling the lives of Sarah and Angelina Grimke as I read this engaging novel.

When I review this list I note that many of the authors address a different culture, often through an ethnicity that informs their efforts. Whether it is American Indian, Malaysian, Nigerian or Russian these authors are guides into the unfamiliar yet universal. Others address a different time period, be it slave-holding Charleston, the Dust Bowl, turn of the century New York or America during WWII. All skillfully remind me of the universality of the human experience regardless of time or place.

Monday, January 4, 2016

The Fabric of My Year

As I begin a new year, I take stock of the old. Throughout each year I maintain a list of the things I do that make up the fabric of my year. There is something telling in those things to which we pay attention. For me it is talks, paintings, exhibitions, blogs, websites and books. I have a deep need to be productive. Even in December, a month devoted to lying on the couch with a miserable cold, I wrote 8 blogs and read 10 books, activities that lent themselves to my sedentary state.

I've been told this is a little manic, but I've come to accept this need to produce. In recent years I've also learned of the need to gestate. Painting taught me that, an appreciation of the non-linear process that takes its time to find its way. I do not focus on production in my artwork, but rather meander and explore with spaces for silence and contemplation, letting things emerge when they are ready. I begin this new year with ideas for several paintings that are departures from my norm. The ideas came to me while driving, one of my best places for nascent thoughts. And so I enter the new year with some eagerness to explore these new directions.

Each year I try to take on some new challenge that is uncomfortable. Everything was once new and uncomfortable, now much of it fits like a pair of well worn shoes. I don't want to let myself get too comfortable as it is the new things that move me forward, like a tree branching. Then I practice, focusing on growing those existing limbs straight and true. Taking my writing into new venues and honing my skills is a continuing new challenge. It does not operate on a tidy one year schedule, but may represent more of a multi-year, perhaps lifetime challenge.

If I were a tree then 2015 would be the year you would have seen a disruption in my inner rings, much like from flooding or drought. The death of my mother on the 4th of July surely will be found in my core when I am cut down some day. The balance of the year flew by, my sense of time distorted. I am confused by the suddenness of the year end. When did that happen? I am actually quite amazed that life moved forward with me often on auto-pilot. How did I do so much when I felt frozen in time?

I've not been seeking out shows of my artwork as I've been developing a new series and I expect to be in a creating stage throughout this year. Since I work in series my focus is on completing a series so I can show a body of work. Nonetheless I've done smaller shows this year of past work or work in progress. I have continued to give at least one talk every month on a variety of subjects. Sometimes I partner with a friend who is a survivor and we speak about the Holocaust. Often I speak about genealogy or artwork. This year I've combined the two and done a series of talks and workshops for libraries on family history collage. Public speaking is one of those things I enjoy as long as I keep actively doing it. Stop for too long and unease creeps in.

One of my new involvements last year has been my participation in creating a local Jewish genealogy group. I've created a website for them and of course more blogs and talks are a natural outgrowth of this genealogy effort. 

Reading is a bit like eating for me. I do it for both nourishment and entertainment and with two book clubs it has its social aspects as well. It feeds my writing and speaking, giving me new inputs that energize my efforts. I read 64 books in 2015 of which about 40% were nonfiction. As in past years I will write a blog that culls out the books that stayed with me. That is one of my tests of the significance of a book. Do I remember it? Oddly enough how long ago I read it has less to do with that than you would think. The ones that remain have a staying power that has little to do with time.

Travel took a backseat last year to the life events that overtook my year. In 2016 we will spend much of the late winter and spring on the road. We begin the year in California where we will greet a new grandchild, then off to Israel with the Jewish Artists' Lab. This will be an arts focused trip which we look forward to with anticipation. We have tagged a trip to Paris on the backend of this journey which will also no doubt be filled with our usual museum explorations and a lot of walking and food. And of course you'll hear about these art infused travels here. 

This new year will represent the eighth year of this blog. I actually write this blog as well as one for the Jewish Artists' Lab. As with painting there is a gestational stage with writing and periodically I wonder if I'm blogged out. Is there anything new left to say? And yet I know I would miss it deeply if I were to cease writing. This blog has evolved with me and is a mix of my interests and ruminations. As I write what I live, I can only trust that living a life of engagement will continue to feed it.