Friday, September 16, 2016

The Memory Palace

Cicero tells the tale of a poet who was attending a banquet when he is called away to meet with two young men.  After leaving the dining hall, the ceiling collapses killing all those who remained.  The poet was asked to identify who had been in the room.  He is credited with creating a system of mnemonics, a method of remembering, when he identified who was in the banquet hall by mentally placing them in their location at the table.  The term "memory palace" was coined to describe this method of recalling although it is often called the Method of Loci.  It is frequently used in memory competitions where you select a place you know well like a childhood home and mentally place objects in various rooms in unusual relationship to each other.  You then walk through the rooms and gather the objects.  The basic premise of course is that memory and spatial perception are closely linked.

 It occurred to me that my mother's home was a memory palace. I lived there from age 3 to age 17 and continued to return there for much of my life. When my mother was still alive, I began to go through the house and take pictures of the nooks and crannies within the house. I realized that there already were odd juxtapositions. On one shelf I found a figure of the Spanish princess Marguerite who was painted by Velasquez. The figure was next to a ceramic walrus from a trip to Alaska. In front of it was a menorah. All of this was set against a tray from my grandfather's surplus store in New York.

I never got very far pursuing this concept while my mother was alive and it took on a poignancy when she died and we began to dismantle the house. Recently I began to implement my idea. My objective is to create one foot by one foot paintings of different areas of the house and combine them to form a larger painting. The name of course will be the Memory Palace.

The central painting will be one of the chairs she sat on when she composed her collages. A nearby chair has her sweater over it with the framework of the chair showing through. It is a painting of absence and yet presence, as if she has just stepped away for a moment.

Other paintings I have completed include her plates that sat in the windows with the light filtering through them. Some of them now sit in my window and I look at them through her eyes. Trees form a lattice behind them. In her lifetime those trees sprouted buds, leafed out and changed colors as they passed through all the seasons.I think of her at each new season, savoring the changes on her behalf.

On her bookshelf she had a winged figure, arms raised overhead holding a torch. On the base it says 1986-87 Beverly Manor School, Perfect Attendance. My mother taught first grade for just shy of 20 years. One day when I was visiting her she came into the living room in her flannel pajamas holding the statue cupped in her hands. I of course took a picture, her smiling broadly. It represented a period in her life that she loved. Behind it are books on opera, my father's passion, and nature field guides that were my mother's.

The last one I have completed so far is of her spoon collection. When we traveled together she would always get a spoon for each place we visited. Our travels were a very special part of her life and the spoons represented her memories of them.

When you paint a series of paintings you need to have some common element that connects them visually. When I painted a similar series on the former Jewish community of Radom, Poland, I used a limited palette that echoed the tones of a photograph. I wasn't sure what the linkage would be for this series and thought I should start painting and see what emerged. The first two paintings were very airy, the next two much darker with brown tones more dominant. Even in the two that were airy, brown was an accent, either the structure of the trees or the chairs. I am going to keep that idea in mind and try to create a mix that either uses brown as a structural element or a dominant color. I've since painted two with more golden tones that you can see in interaction with the other paintings below.  I now have a grouping of these six paintings hanging together on my studio wall in this very changeable composition. 

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