Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Please Touch

Back when our theme in the Lab was Light, one of our lab members described a restaurant in Tel Aviv where the waiters were blind and customers ate in a totally dark environment.  We were captivated by this idea and remembered it when we created our itinerary.

Have you ever imagined what it would be like to live without sight?  How about without sight and hearing? One of the most unusual experiences that we have had in our visit to Israel was at the Nalaga'at Center. Nalaga'at means "Please Touch", a request that makes perfect sense when you learn about its history. The center was started by people with an unusual disease, Usher Syndrome. People with this disease are born deaf, but in their first decade typically lose their sight as well. When young they learn sign language and by touching the communicator as they sign they learn to read it even without the visual cues.

Today the center offers plays, education and a restaurant in which we are blinded by darkness. The waiters and actors are either deaf or visually impaired or some combination.  We began our visit with a workshop led by two deaf people who taught us how to sign basic words, lip read and pantomime specific words. We ascribed names through gestures which expanded on some descriptor, either physical or perhaps based on personal likes. We learned that sign language reflects the culture out of which it comes. For example the sign for "food" in the United States is holding a hamburger, in Chinese sign language it is manipulating chopsticks.

Following our workshop we moved to the dinner portion of our evening.   We selected our dinner before entering the dining room.  I was careful not to select the fettuccine as I end up wearing it even with advantage of sight. We were also asked to put cellphones and other belongings in a locker prior to entering, lest we or the waiters trip over them. We entered the dining room in train fashion, our hands resting on the shoulders of one of our table mates.  As we entered we joined a world of darkness that our waiters were far more adept at navigating. This was not a blackness to which one's eyes adjust, it was a velvety darkness that allowed no light to gain a foothold. I felt my stomach lurch as we entered and thought of those yoga balance poses that become infinitely more difficult if one closes one's eyes. I felt off balance.

We were guided to our table by our waiter. He then taught us how to pour water into our glass with our finger in the glass so we didn't overflow. I missed the glass anyway dampening the table, but I discovered an advantage in this world of darkness, no one could see it.  We heard the jingle of bells approaching, signaling our waiter Mohammed nearby with our meals.  There was no waiting until everyone was served as there was no way to determine that. My husband and I reached across the table identifying each other's location. That coveted taste of my husband's meal was going to be difficult.  I'd be lucky if I found my own plate.  The inability of others to see quickly eliminated any table manners.  After a few empty forkfuls, I quickly developed a stabbing strategy with the objective of navigating food to mouth.  It wasn't pretty, but then no one saw me.  The food was actually quite flavorful, perhaps enhanced by a focusing of our senses. My special treat at the end was when my husband had the waiter bring some of my husband's leftover meal to me to taste.  We left in train style, grateful for the anchor of the person in front, blinking as we moved back into light as we adjusted to the world of the sighted.

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Common Roots

We arrived in Tel Aviv last night. This is my second trip to Israel, my husband's first. A few years ago I took my late mother, then 86 and losing memory. It was a trip of maneuvering wheelchairs and holding her hand tightly lest she fall, a trip built around her life-long desire to visit Israel. This trip is built around my desire for an arts focused exploration. We are traveling with the Jewish Artists' Lab, a group I've been a part of for several years. My husband, who is not Jewish, decided to join us. I've pulled him into many trips to my ancestral towns so he's gotten a dose of heritage travel, but I suspect there may be elements that are new to him on this one, foreign. There are elements that are foreign to me as well. I wear the hat of a secular Jew.

There are different kinds of hats on our flight. A young lanky man, in a black suit, tzitzis fringes hanging down, searches the overhead bins for a place for his luggage. In his hand, a hard shell case, like that for a guitar, this one in the form of the wide-brimmed hat of the Hassidic Jew.

He has the window seat, my husband the middle and me the aisle. I had anticipated swapping seats with my husband, but reassessed that idea when I took note of our seat mate. There have been stories of religious Jews seeking seat exchanges when placed next to a woman. They will not take the hand of a woman upon introduction. This is foreign to me as well.

At 1am people begin to wake up from their cramped attempt at sleep . Some form a line for the sticky floored lavatories. Others reach for their prayer shawls and stake out a corner by the lavatories for morning prayers. In the back I notice a man framed by both the blue of Delta's curtain and his prayer shawl with its blue stripes, forming one continuous line. He davens, gently rocking forward, prayer book in hand. The morning light falls behind him, drawing my eye in the darkened quiet of the plane.

Our seat mate exits for morning prayers, wrapping himself in his prayer shawl. I think of my father's cousin, a survivor of Auschwitz, telling us of my great-grandfather. "A religious guy" he had said in his thick Polish accent. "This kind of religious?" I wonder. That was a world far from the Americanized secular Jew.

A few rows up on my right a bewigged woman sits next to her bearded husband. She holds a small prayer book in her hand, a ribbon dangling from it. Her husband wears a velvet yarmulke. A small movie screen is set in the back of her seat, a story unfolding for the gentleman who sits behind in a different world than hers. On my last trip I saw more young women, modestly dressed with many children in tow. They wear a wig when married, married to someone like our young seat mate.I am fascinated by this world so different than mine, yet related to a common root if I were to trace back in time.

We arrive and fondly greet our fellow travelers as we gather our group and our luggage. We then peel off to get our SIM card for our phone. After a long wait, a man edges in front, a newcomer. "We were here first" I assert, sharp elbows defining my space. My Israeli edge, not too unlike the armor I don in New York. An assertiveness that I think of as necessary in both places. Another culture than that which surrounds me in Minnesota, one buried in my genes as well perhaps. It is not a culture of passivity.

When we arrive at the hotel I am pleased to see my friend Fran who came a few days ago. We had traveled to the Vilnius Yiddish Institute in Lithuania together some years back, studying Yiddish and traveling to my ancestral town in Belarus. We shared long hours of Yiddish homework over our kitchen table in the former small ghetto of Vilnius. We had originally met doing genealogy research in Utah and became good friends over shared lunch breaks from long hours of research. Lots of sharing of food and study. Fran is traveling with us to Haifa and Paris after this trip.
We move in an altered state after 17 hours of travel with only snatches of sleep. A brief dinner and then a night-time graffiti tour. I recall a visit to the lab by Adam Heffez on Israeli graffiti and the political expression often embedded within it. Our guide points out some of the messages, but my sleep deprived eyes and lack of Hebrew fluency focus on the visual elements. Here are a few of the images that I found interesting. And thus ends our first very long day in Israel.

Saturday, March 19, 2016

Shared Memory

And yet another memory from the memory jar...This one was told more like a story.  Here's what was shared:

My memory takes place on an old farm in rural Minnesota.  My grandmother was plowing one summer day and clipped a fawn's leg.  She mended her leg and Toosie became a family member.  One early summer morning I was playing with Toosie on the front yard.  I was about 3 years old and I had an aqua blue oversized toy camera.  I pretended to be a photographer capturing the moment with my curious playmate.  My grandma sat wearing her cat eye glasses and white sleeveless blouse with pure amusement spread across her face.

For those just joining this thread, the story was provided by a young woman visiting my studio and represents a memory she shared with a loved one who lost memory.  I am painting two paintings for each memory, one that is representational of the story as told, the second that plays with the vantage point.  In this case it is from the perspective of the fawn.

Above you can see the scene as I first imagined it.  Grandma with her cat eye glasses sitting on the porch watching her granddaughter and the fawn occupying the foreground of the canvas.  I made her a little older than in her memory.

I often will use a drawing program on my Ipad to do a quick sketch with my finger of an idea and while doodling came up with a totem pole image, all three aligned with the grandmother's arms around her   granddaughter and the fawn facing them both.   I decided to add the wicker chair as well, embracing the three of them in shared memory.  This may not be done yet, but I like the image.  I like the darkness of the sunglasses, the camera's lens and the dark nose of the fawn.  Once more the second image is a more playful take by looking at it from another perspective.

Sunday, March 13, 2016

From a Different Perspective

I have been continuing my exploration of the many ways to tell a story by painting the memories of strangers. I have asked people to submit a memory in the memory jar in my studio if they had shared it with someone who lost memory. At best I have a sentence or two from which to construct a painting and have no way to follow up with the submitter for additional story or context. I have always been one to create my own assignments, to force myself to move forward and learn new approaches. This forces me to use my imagination to create something from very little. It's a visual improv of sorts. I was always terrible at improv in high school debate so I am a little surprised that visual improv seems to be working for me.

I am gradually stretching my assignment. I started by painting the image as I imagined it. Then I decided to look at it from a different vantage point. For example I've shared the first image and the story in my post from In Search of Swans

A briefer version is that this was my starting point:

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 liked the way she thought through each step, turning off the motor before rolling down the windows.  That progression gave the image more depth.  And it wasn't just one swan, it was hundreds.

That vivid image turned into this...

The image was clear in my mind, the car blending into the winter background as if all of a piece. Then I began to contemplate how else I could have approached it. It reminded me a bit of dream analysis where you are supposed to play the different parts of the dream. In this case I play the part of one of the trumpeter swans. I began to wonder if they were as interested in this car and its occupants as the occupants were in the swans.

I started out picturing a swan poised at the end of the hood, wings outstretched, a bit of a hood ornament. Then I sat in a car and realized that you really can't see the hood anymore from the inside looking out. I refined my idea and posed the trumpeter swan looking through the windshield at the occupants inside. I added a hand to the steering wheel as a reminder that there were people inside looking out in stunned silence at the swan looking in. I then added the mirror in the middle blocking part of the swan's head so that you clearly know he's on the outside as opposed to the inside. I don't know if this is done yet, but I think enough is done to illustrate the intent. I continue to consider adding more swans, but am concerned that they might distract rather than add to the image.

I like this approach. It forces me to circle around the image and look at it from different vantage points and different eyes.  It is a far more playful way to approach a painting but I find that I like both approaches.