Sunday, August 28, 2016

Road Trip

Several years ago I traveled with two friends to a Madison retreat for the Jewish Artists Lab. We had such a good time on our drive there, that a road trip became an annual tradition. Our next one took us to see the Jeffers petroglyphs and then on to Pipestone, Mn where we learned of the significance of pipestone in Indian history and visited the Pipestone National Monument where it was mined. That was a hard one to top, but each has its own flavor and has been satisfying in content as well as company. This year's took us into Wisconsin to look at outsider road art in route to Baraboo. The backdrop of this year's trip was the upcoming theme for the artist's lab: Outside, Inside: Exploring Boundaries and Otherness. Outsider art seemed to fall nicely within this topic and we contemplated it as we drove through rolling hills of greenery interspersed with sculptural rock cliffs.

We stopped for lunch near Fountain City in what once was the Fountain hotel and chuckled at the photos of the past where the "working girls" perched in the windows, hands jauntily placed on hips, while locals gathered on the balcony and in front of the building. It too seemed to speak to that outside, inside theme, both literally and figuratively.

Our first outsider art visit was at Prairie Moon, an area with over forty sculptures created by Herman Rusch. When Herman retired he purchased a dance hall and turned it into a museum. The barren land surrounding it called out for something and he began his concrete structures in 1958. He believed that " beauty creates a will to live" and that certainly proved true for him as he made it to age 100. I stood back to get many of the sculptures in my camera lens when I suddenly looked around, feeling that I was being observed. I was startled when I saw a gentleman behind me on the right and laughed when I realized it was a sculpture standing behind a podium. I later learned that it was Rusch himself who decided he wanted to continue to survey his creations far into the future. He made use of concrete with a reddish tone accented by seashells and studded with stones. An elegant arched fence surrounded the property. Within it was a small church structure, tall spires, bird houses and dinosaurs.

One of the art sites we sought was built by German immigrants after they retired and created a new chapter in their lives. They drew from their life as they created their artwork. Paul and Matilda Wegner created Wegner Grotto composed of concrete sculptures and a small church building, all studded with shattered china, glass and seashells as well as a few unexpected surprises such as gunpowder casings and arrowheads.
Like Rusch, neither Paul nor Matilda Wegner received any formal training in art. They were inspired by the Dickeyville Grotto and in 1929 began their creation. Within the Wegner grotto is a 12 foot re-creation of the Bremen ship on which they emigrated in 1885. Their fiftieth anniversary cake is permanently frozen in stone and glass over 80 years later. A small church studded in glass has a Star of David over the door and structures of different churches embedded into the walls representing their rather ecumenical view of religion.

We settled in at a roadside motel which seemed to sync with our road trip theme. In the morning I went to the central building for breakfast and was charmed to discover Diane, my fellow traveler and a poet, reading one of her poems to Renee and Ethel, a mother-in-law and daughter-in-law librarian duo who were also on a road trip. I learned that Renee has written in a journal every day since her son was born, now in his forties. Ethel talked of how she tried to do something new every year since she retired. They spoke of how each time they came to a crossroads in their drive they decided which road to take. "Definitely kindred spirits,” I thought. Ethel put her arm around Renee and said, "I couldn't do it without her."

Our last stop on this leg of our trip was Baraboo, home to the International Crane Foundation and the circus museum, but first we had a stop to make outside of town at Dr Evermor's Forevertron to see the largest scrap metal sculpture in the world. Much to our dismay, we had learned it was closed on that day but we were hopeful we might be able to see it from the road. We scouted the area only to be confronted with a fence with an ominous no trespassing sign beyond which we could see a number of sculptures rising into the sky. The fiction surrounding this unusual site is that Dr Evermor was a Victorian inventor who designed the Forevertron to launch himself into the heavens. The park is the creation of Tom Every from Brooklyn, Wi and includes Thomas Edison dynamos from the 1880s and power plant parts from the 1920s. Foiled in our search for outsider art, we stood glumly outside the fence looking longingly at those enticing sculptures inside.

Back in Baraboo we found our way to the International Crane Foundation where 15
species of these elegant creatures live. In the 1940s there were only 15 whooping cranes remaining. Through efforts of places like the Foundation they now number over 300. Much as it takes a passion and commitment to create outsider art, it takes a similar drive to create an organization focused on cranes. Two ornithology students undertook that mission in 1973. In this world the people are the outsiders and staff dress up in crane costumes to interact with the young birds so they won't imprint on people rather than their own species.

Lastly we headed on to the Circus World museum as we considered the fact that circus people are the ultimate outsiders, bringing glamour and excitement to towns and then moving on, always in transit or encamped on the outside of towns. The idea of running off with the circus
was an enticing idea to young people living in small towns, an escape fantasy that has become part of our folklore.

Before we returned to the Twin Cities we did one last stop in Menomonie where we wandered the stunning Mabel Tainter theater and explored antique and thrift shops. Diane was inspired to perform on the theater stage.

When we arrived home Diane gave us each a memento of a tole painted bowl from her thrift shop explorations and Susan shared some of the bounty from her garden. I, in turn, provide this meager offering as my thanks for my wonderful travel companions on our road trip journey.

Some interesting links we discovered in planning this trip:
Roadside America (sites by state)
Midwest Weekends
Dementia Concretia - don't care for the name, but the article is interesting as it seems to reflect a common theme

Monday, August 15, 2016

Using Our Whole Self

You know I'm intrigued by a speaker when I attend more than one of their sessions. At the recent IAJGS Conference on Jewish genealogy, I made sure to stop by several sessions offered by Ron Arons. Ron is a frequent speaker and writer with a broad range of interests including dissecting underlying process. As my interests seem to follow on some parallel tracks, I was hopeful that I might pick up something of relevance to me.

Ron taught a session on Mind Maps for Genealogy. A mind map is an alternative to an outline or a spreadsheet for organizing information. Spreadsheets work well for structured data while a mind map can work for either structured or unstructured data. It is a visual tool designed for the non-linear visual thinker.

A mind map begins in the center with a central theme. Ron gave us an example of his plan for 2016 and rather than record his plan, I began to design my own. I had reading, blog writing, travel for both business and pleasure, painting, working on a book, genealogy for self and consulting for others and public speaking as spokes around the central hub of plan. I began to branch them out to identify more specific components. Then I looked at how they connected to each other. An outline would have each discrete subject, but the mind map acknowledges that often these subjects are not discrete, but rather interrelated. I read topical literature relevant to my travels or on the topics I am exploring in my artwork so reading and travel would be connected as well as reading and artwork. I speak about my artwork and genealogy so there would be additional spokes from speaking on topics which in turn would attach to the artwork and genealogy nodes. Travel leads to artwork and often is tied to genealogy research. Soon I had an octopus of a map. My next step would be to link related nodes.

Now I was beginning to see the connection to genealogy where things are often not discrete. If you are searching for when someone came to the United States there are multiple places that you can search. Census records may reveal that information as could oral history or naturalization records and the data may conflict so you can use the mind map to try to reconcile the sources to arrive at what you believe to be the best data.

What name or names did they go by? You can identify names used from different sources then lay them out in chronological order to see how they evolved over time. Maybe you have a node for transcription errors so you can isolate those that were the invention of a transcriber rather than a name actually employed by the person.

It occurs to me that I do a similar approach when I work out how to paint story in my artwork. In a session that I taught last week, I talked about how oral history was reflected in painting the story of a woman who was on the Kindertransport. She had spoken of the Red Cross letters she received from her parents, the fact that you didn't write much because other eyes were watching and the names Mutti (mother) and Vati(father) that were found in the letters. If I were to do that as a mind map I would have a spoke for visual imagery on which I would list those elements and others. Another spoke might list possible names for the painting. Still another would list the emotions that she felt. All of those elements have to come together in a painting, tying imagery together into an underlying story.

Ron shared information on several programs for mind mapping such as freemind and xmind and I plan to take them for a test drive.

The second topic he spoke on was Critical and Creative Thinking for Genealogists. As an artist who had a long career in finance, I rely on both skill sets so am interested in this topic. His point was that genealogy requires both critical thinking (analytic, convergent, vertical, judgment, detail focused) and creative thinking (generative, diffuse, subjective, possibility, yes and). Not only does it require both, but they need to partner up.

He noted that studies have found that there are myths about creativity that simply aren't true. We often are told that some people are born with it and it can't be learned. In fact in The Innovators' DNA by Dyer et al they note that 30% comes from genetics, but the rest can be learned. Steve Jobs posited that creativity is connecting things. Picasso noted that good artists copy, great artists steal. Kirby Ferguson in a Ted talk speaks to the idea of copying, transforming and combining.

Creativity takes motivation, being unafraid of failure, curiosity, openness, patience, deferring judgment and playfulness. A big part of creativity is asking questions and challenging conventional thought, also a big part of Jewish heritage. In fact Chief Rabbi Sacks notes that there is was no Hebrew word that meant obey when modern Hebrew was created.

When we apply these skills to genealogy we need to avoid questions that are too broad or narrow. They need to be focused, but also open-ended. Sometimes we need to expand the playing field and explore related people to find our answers or imagine alternate possibilities.Ron suggested that we work on several different problems at one time. That allows us to interleave, make connections between different subjects, problems and approaches. The more knowledge we have on different subjects, the more we open ourselves to creative thinking.

Documents are puzzle pieces and just like puzzle pieces they have multiple data points (edges). The more puzzle pieces, the more connections are possible.
Adam Grant in the book Originals writes that we are more conceptual when we are young, but rely more on experiential creativity which involves tinkering and collaborating as we get older.

What Ron said rang true with my experience. I would add that sometimes we need to unlearn some things to open ourselves up to creativity. It operates under different rules than the productivity culture we absorb in our analytic corporate world. And it has its own schedule and won't accommodate ours. We need to create a fertile environment in which to welcome creativity into our life.

Saturday, August 13, 2016

Telling Our Stories

I just returned from the International Association of Jewish Genealogical Societies (IAJGS) conference in Seattle where I got to reconnect with old friends and make a few new ones.  The conference is focused on Jewish genealogy, a subject that originally drew me back into my Jewish heritage.   

I've been at this for some time now so it is no longer that rush of new information from the early conferences.  The low hanging fruit has long been eaten. I am pleased if I  find a few thought-provoking tidbits that inject a new approach into my research or a document in the Resource Room from a database that I've not yet tapped. Our conference days extended late into the evening so I am just now digesting what I learned.  I hope to share a few posts on highlights and some of those thought-provoking ideas I carried home.

Some highlights included seeing the film Woman in Gold, this time with commentary from Randy Schoenberg.  Randy Schoenberg was Maria Altmann's attorney and successfully sued Austria for the Klimt painting of her aunt that had been appropriated by the Austrian state gallery under Nazi control.  His journey included a dramatic stop at the Supreme Court.  In the film Randy is played by Ryan Reynolds who he related showed up on the set at the end dressed exactly the same as he was.  Randy assured us that his character was somewhat exaggerated in the interests of story and some scenes did not occur in reality, such as the goodby scene between Maria and her parents.  Nonetheless, he noted that many have related to that scene as it echoed the experience within their families. I had first heard Schoenberg at the 2008 conference and enjoyed watching the story unfold via the film and his subsequent comments.

I also enjoyed hearing David Laskin, author of the Family: Three Journeys into the Heart of the Twentieth Century.  I had read and loved his book about the three branches of his family, those who were murdered in the Holocaust, those who went to what was then Palestine and those who came to the United States.  Among those who came to the United States was his great-aunt, founder of Maidenform Bras, the early version of the bra as we know it today. David is a long-time writer and his book reads like an engaging novel.  He shared his exploration into genealogy as he researched his book and the very fortunate discovery of 300 letters in Yiddish that informed his storytelling.  

I too came to the conference to share my stories, nothing as dramatic as Schoenberg's or Laskin's, but ones about which I am equally passionate.  I had an opportunity to present about my work on the Jewish Identity and Legacy Project. As an artist and genealogist I had done a series of 17 interviews with elders in Sholom Home, a Jewish residential facility in the Twin Cities.  My interviewees included those who grew up in early Jewish immigrant communities, survivors and immigrants from the former Soviet Union.  These three groups represented those who immigrated to the United States in the 20th century and made up a large portion of the Jewish community.  After completing interviews, I developed artwork on their stories.  I've edited short clips of elders telling their stories and shared both video and artwork.  You can find some of the stories and video at my website  and stay tuned as I am working on a book on this project.

As I worked on this series I learned that it was also an immigration story and many shared either their immigration story or that of their parents.   I explored the immigration laws in force at the time they came to the United States and how that influenced their access to the United States.  For example anti-Semitism and the Red Scare were elements that colored the response to Jewish refugees after WWII, often delaying their ability to immigrate and affecting the environment into which they entered.  The concern of stirring up anti-Semitism resulted in caution about "appearing Yiddish"in early immigrant communities. Fear of anti-Semitism was often a factor driving efforts of the existing Jewish community to help the new immigrants to assimilate.

The one thing all of these talks shared was story, perhaps the most important aspect of genealogy, deepening understanding and connecting us to each other and across generations.

Monday, August 1, 2016

Beyond My Ken

I returned recently from what was probably my last visit to my childhood home, certainly the last while it holds a vestige of what it was. Now it is almost emptied, soon to be readied for sale. It has been six decades since I first lived there. I remember how excited I was when I turned ten and could say I had lived a decade, a word with all the richness of history. Then I could never have imagined six decades during which that home was always a kind of home base.The idea was "beyond my ken" my mother would have said, beyond my sight and understanding, far out on that horizon line on which I now perch. 

We were a family that loved words, their layers of meaning, the rustle of history in their folds. When I was young I used to take a word and ponder it until it disintegrated before my eyes into a vast wasteland, a desert void of meaning.

Desert source link
I was going to write of childhood homes and instead I seem to have followed a trail of words into a desert. I write in the early morning, partially awoken by my dreams of that childhood home, lost in the desert of memory. I follow a trail of words to an understanding still dawning, just out of reach, beyond my ken.

Photo by AimeeLow at
I rebuild that home in memory. I am doing the hard work of reconstruction, waking at 4 AM after mentally reconstructing rooms filled with phantom objects, reconstructing thoughts that once filled rooms and held up their walls from within. It wears me out. I wake with confusion to find myself here in my present.

I mine words looking for clues. Did you know that "ken" is called a fossil word? That means it is obsolete, no longer in common usage except that it is embedded in this phrase, "beyond my ken". My childhood home is a fossil home. It no longer exists as it once did save for being embedded in memory. Even this phrase, "beyond my ken", is a memory, my mother the only one I've ever heard speak it. Now she too is memory. Her solid bulk, warm and soft, all memory.

Yesterday I awoke thinking of my mother's everyday plates bound for Goodwill unless I rescue them. "Have they been sent to Goodwill yet?" I text my sister. "No" she replies. I need to make room to keep these memories, those of tactile form. To do that I must empty my cupboards of my husband's old plates that preceded our history. He graciously agrees to release some of his memories so I can cling to mine. I am struggling with this more than I expected.

It has been a year since my mother died. I have spent that time processing her loss and belatedly that of my father. I've written of going through my parents' papers, rediscovering them and seeing them through the eyes of their correspondents and through their own recorded thoughts. Processing the loss of a person should be much more difficult than the loss of mere things. And yet things contain their presence, place contains their history. It is a sequential loss, first person, then things, then place, the place that contained the person, the things, the memories, and both their history and mine. I remove each layer of loss only to find yet another, a Russian Matryoshka doll of loss, nesting within and within and within.

My father's loss was less challenging because my mother remained, still the vessel of memory ensconced in a familiar place. She was my placeholder so I didn't lose my place. Now she is gone and soon place will follow. It is a foundational shift, the tectonic plates that are parents shift and our world is reshaped, the familiar no longer recognizable. Pieces wash up in my cupboards and windows and dreams, trinkets that remain as memories, taking on new meaning in my world of today.