Sunday, June 19, 2016

Our Imperfect Selves

Father's Day once again. I thought I was done with Father's Day when my Dad passed away four years ago. And yet, here I am with a crate of his papers, sorting through them, scanning them and learning new things about my father that make me regret that I didn't know him more fully. Does anyone ever know a parent fully? As a child I saw but a glimpse, fraught with parental authority and my struggles for independence and approval. I saw the clay feet of the man who walked on water in the eyes of the public. I knew the private person, not the man of accomplishment and eloquence. 

My father was a man of many talents who was often challenged by the everyday frustrations of dealing with children. Fortunately for us and for him, my mother was incredibly gifted with children. I wonder sometimes if he felt a bit like an outsider among us. His world was the world of work where he was esteemed and accomplished. In that world he had an innate understanding of how to assemble teams that stayed together for their entire careers. He could paint a vision and bring others into it by the force of his confidence. But he wasn't just talk, although he did that with eloquence that won my admiration. Where did this man who grew up in poverty, the child of immigrants, learn how to weave words together, bringing people together to create something lasting? He created educational programs, buildings and a public TV station, shaping both ideas and people's lives.

I didn't see that growing up. I was a child in my own world. I remember a child's memories; spinning around in a chair at his office, stomping on the metal flooring down the middle of the old engineering lab as I listened for the echoing sound in response. I remember the smell of his pipe tobacco back when professors smoked pipes. The smell of pipe tobacco still sends me hurtling back through time. 

He was impatient and driven. I imagine those qualities were somewhat tempered in a work world where he was forced to bring others along to accomplish his goals. In the world of family where he was king, we saw those qualities in their more unadulterated form, not always his finest moments. In hindsight I often recognize myself in him. I can imagine those recalcitrant children could be annoying. 

Just as I ask if we ever know a parent fully, I could as easily ask if we ever know a child fully. Did he know me or just the outward manifestations? Was he locked inside a parent's eyes just as I was in a child's? My father was a problem solver and sometimes brought that perspective to his children. That was actually when he was at his best. We taught each other. He once told me that he learned he had to deal with me differently. He couldn't spank me for misbehavior and assume that would resolve it. In fact, I would turn around and do exactly the same thing again to assert that he could not control me. We had warring temperaments, perhaps too much alike. I knew how to fight back, he created me after all. He told me that he had learned he had to reason with me. I silently chuckled. I remember my thought process as a child. "Don't let him think he can control you" I had told myself.

When I went off to college in the 1970s he took me aside and tried his reasoning techniques. He began,"I know you're going to experiment with things in college", his tone calm and rational. "But I would appreciate if you didn't try acid," he continued. "Did my father just say that?" I thought. I was a "good girl" in those days, but a cautious experimenter. He understood my curiosity about the world because he shared it. I was so taken with the respectful tone of his request that I agreed to it and later when the opportunity arose, I thought back to our conversation and took a pass. I must confess to being somewhat relieved that I had promised my father.

So now I go through his career papers to sort out what I will send to the library of the university where he spent his career. I consider what aspects of this man they will be interested in even as I reflect on our college send off conversation recorded only in memory. We are complicated creatures and my father more than most. At best we only get glimpses of each other filtered through one perspective. I am grateful for this chance to see him through other perspectives as well and to acknowledge the sheer complexity of our imperfect selves.

Monday, June 13, 2016

Wisdom of the Mothers

Voices of Wisdom... What does that conjure up for you visually? And what exactly is wisdom? Those were questions that faced me when I began the fourth year of the Jewish Artists' Lab with the theme of wisdom. The lab is a group of about thirty artists who gather twice a month to explore a theme through a Jewish lens. At the end of the year we have an exhibition as well as an opportunity to do a reading or performance piece.

I remember my first year in the lab. In hindsight I entered it with some unease. I looked around at some of the very accomplished artists in our group and wondered where and if I fit within them. And then there was that Jewish part. "Was I Jewish enough?" I wondered. Being Jewish was part of my identity, but more culturally than religiously. I found to my surprise that the group had a wide range of Jewish practice. It has been a welcoming place despite one's personal definition and equally important, an intellectually stimulating place.

I like what I call idea art. Idea art takes a broader concept and uses it to inform the art, to draw the viewer in visually, but also intellectually. There is often a use of metaphor and juxtaposition of ideas. The lab approach grows out of ideas so it often exemplifies this kind of art which has ultimately made it a good fit for me.

So back to that wisdom thing... I began this year's lab just three months after my mother had passed away. She was indisputably a wise woman, compassionate, non-judgmental and intellectually curious. She listened with her heart, understanding human frailty, yet seeing the potential in those she encountered. She was a teacher, but also a learner. When we were asked to define wisdom she was my yardstick, the gold standard.

At the time I was going through her home disposing of belongings, but also looking for traces of my mother, not quite ready to let her go. In my search I stumbled across a file titled Notes on Books Read. In it were excerpts from books that spoke to how we can live a meaningful life, face fears and grow into who we are meant to be. Her wisdom gatherings came from diverse sources and disciplines and held a number of Jewish sources. I've written about their contents in The Roundness of Things Part-1 and Part-2. I knew that she would be represented in my wisdom artwork through the words she had gathered, but had to figure out how to translate this visually. I was an artist in search of a metaphor.

I settled on the apple, that classic gift from a child to their teacher and the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge. In fact in Genesis it notes that the fruit was desired to make one wise. As I dug further I found rabbinic literature that referenced the time from the Exodus until the giving of the Law as the same time frame for blossoms to mature into fruit. Developing wisdom is a maturation process and I liked this juxtaposition. So now my question was how to express that visually. There are artists who plan ahead, doing sketches, thinking through ideas and then executing their vision. I'm not one of them. I start with a kernel of an idea, dive in and see what comes to me in the process.

So I started painting, apple trees and apples, thinking about the light source, polishing my apples with light and shadow. I had people come through my studio who liked that simple image of the apple tree. "Don't do anything else" they said. I knew I had to ignore that advice. When you paint you can't be afraid to ruin it. It is something we struggle with, when to push it, when to stop. I still had ideas to express so I knew I had to keep going. I wanted to incorporate my mother's words and decided to do that through a book that fans open in the corner. I wrote out her words on thin decorative paper and added pieces that folded creating a three dimensional feeling.
So now what?

I added a few books in a niche of the tree, then named them. One is titled the Pirkei Avot-Ethics of the Fathers, a Jewish text of wisdom which is studied in the period from the Exodus to the giving of the Law (between Passover and Shavuot), another juxtaposition with the apple and our maturation into wisdom. Then I added a book titled Notes on Books Read. In a moment of whimsy I hung a book over a branch with pages spilling out. Those pages curled into a fluid movement, born on a wind upward and out of the image. Smaller open books out of folded paper were added, taking bird-like shapes and adding to the movement. Apples sat on some of those pages, symbols of wisdom carried out into the world on the wings of books.

As we neared the end of the lab, we met with others in our group and discussed our work. I was asked about the as yet unnamed open book hanging over the branch. "What is its name?"

"I don't know." I confessed.

The next day it came to me. It would be the complement to the Pirkei Avot, which is the Ethics of the Fathers. My book would be the Pirkei Imahot - Ethics of the Mothers and contain their wisdom. On its front is written the name in Hebrew with the English on its spine. No such book exists, but it touches our lives through mothers everywhere. For me it represents the wisdom I witnessed daily in my own mother. What wisdom did you get from your mother?

and for those of you in the Twin Cities, stop in to see the show at:

Voices of Wisdom
Tychman Shapiro Gallery
and Shared Walls Exhibition Areas
Sabes JCC

4330 Cedar Lake Road S, Minneapolis
June 16-August 28, 2016
Opening Reception: Thursday, June 16 from 6-8
Art Beat Event: Sunday, August 28 from 5-7

Monday, June 6, 2016

Tendrils of Story

Minneapolis Bridge Collapse (cropped) by Danielle Bora

I read an article in the paper recently that sounded like the outline for a book, one of those composed of separate stories that miraculously converge at the conclusion. The first story would begin with a swim trip for children. Their school bus ride home would end with the yellow school bus perched precariously at the split of a collapsed bridge, hanging half over water. It is 2007 and a bridge has collapsed in Minneapolis during rush hour. The story would focus on a handful of those children on the bus, both during and after, the injuries, the nightmares. Then it would zero in on one family with several children who were aboard that bus.

The second story would be eight or nine years later and explore the rise of ISIS and its impact on the Somali community of the Twin Cities. It would tell the story of young boys suddenly disappearing, reappearing in Syria with the intent to join ISIS, the families left behind puzzled and fearful.

Then back to the bridge, one boy in that family years later, receiving a settlement from the bridge collapse, using it to board a flight that takes him to Turkey, then Syria, funding his friends' journeys as well.

Stories surround us, but we need to pay attention. Reading a lot helps us to recognize the tendrils of story as we walk into them like cobwebs, but it was not until I was writing or painting that I seemed to encounter stories everywhere. It is like a second ghost-like world that always existed, but suddenly becomes visible.

My artwork tells stories and my starting point is to find the story. I began story gathering when I began family history research.  I've learned to step into old photos. To feel the person viscerally. Needless to say I've always loved well-written time travel because in a sense I try to step back in time through imagination. The essence of people is not so different despite our more modern conveniences.

When I went to Lithuania I began to collect stories that in turn became paintings. Some came from books, some I collected from others, some I observed and constructed out of threads. Some were fully formed, but others were poetry and vignettes, gaps left to be filled in by the viewer. I remember one of the old shops in Vilnius with Hebrew lettering on its storefront. In the dust on the window someone had written in Yiddish "You did not die, the nation of Israel lives".  As the viewer I had to identify the juxtaposition of ideas to paint the story.

 I remember the writing on the wall at the Ninth Fort near Kovno, a killing field for the Nazis. On the

I Was Here
wall were carved the names and towns of origin by the Jews held captive on the eve of their execution. It needed something more to complete the story, the sense of the person who carved it into that wall.  I had a painting of a person that I had painted over with just the ghost of the person remaining.  That became the base for the painting I Was Here. 

When I did a series on interviews with elders, I focused on their stories, looking for themes and the personal story arc that informed their life. I wrote poetry to enter their story, to feel it before I could paint it.

And my most recent series on memory loss... This returned me to the personal as I watched my mother go through that most personal of losses. Story was everywhere and told through motifs of memory jars and birthday greetings. I seem to have become more adept at seeing story and perhaps the personal is where it is most easily present. Ultimately story is how we explain and understand the world, how we step into someone's experience and feel it.