Monday, April 23, 2018

Inspiration in an Eggshell

I am sometimes asked what artist inspires me. I usually sit for a moment in silence as I contemplate all the artists whose work I’ve enjoyed. It is not that I don’t have one, but rather that I have many and their influence may not always be conscious. I don’t try to imitate a specific artist. I would rather find my own path, but what we view does have an impact, even one of which we may be unaware.

I often go through museums and in the ones that permit photographs, take photos of the work that speaks to me. Sometimes I pick a theme, such as portraits, and photograph only work within that category. What I like about this exercise is that it forces my responses to consciousness, rather than just letting them wash over me and then be forgotten.

When I return home, I take those photos and put them in an electronic file by museum and country or state. I have over 2100 images of artwork from 20 museums in the United States and another 20 overseas. I must confess that I seldom go back to them. What matters is the act of selection, curating my own gallery of sorts and identifying the work to which I respond.

Sometimes I am influenced by artists who I experience in different environments. When I spent a month in Lithuania in 2009, I rented the apartment of an artist,  Vytenis Lingys. Large canvases filled the walls, their dominant color a serene white, with bold color and iconography within that white stillness. When I returned home, I found myself missing those canvases, especially his use of white. I often think of his work when I use white in a painting and remind myself not to shy away from its use. Often, I use it in an entirely different way, washing it over a first attempt and letting suggestions of imagery emerge, but it was from his canvases that I learned to appreciate the emotional power of the space evoked by white.

Inspiration often comes from very unexpected sources and I am often intrigued by ideas that imagery symbolizes. I once was captivated by a bamboo bowl with eggshells embedded in its gold surface. I had given it as a gift to a family member who was going through a difficult time and in my note I wrote about the idea of brokenness and its role in our journey through life. It is no small coincidence that Leonard Cohen had died around then, and I recalled his writing Forget your perfect offering, There is a crack in everything, That's how the light gets in.

It took a year for that inspiration to bear fruit. We had returned from Yellowstone, a place of amazing texture and color, and I decided to do some small paintings to get myself painting again. As I considered the textural elements of the landscape I decided to experiment with eggshells. I gathered them from our breakfast and soaked them to remove the yolk. Later I put them in a plastic bag and crushed them into pieces. I used medium to attach them to the wooden surface on which I worked and then painted portions of them. I was surprised at how they often clumped together, appreciating the difficulty of creating that beautiful bowl with each separate piece so delicately laid out. Still the clumping meant I could build interesting structures. I  later delighted in the way they interacted with paint. Thus began my first foray into painting with eggshells.

Six months later I was working on a project for the 70th birthday of Israel. I've written about that in Walking on Eggshells. I was thinking of newness, birthdays, but also the fact that the State of Israel came to be in part out of the Holocaust, a time of brokenness and destruction. I noticed the bag of eggshells on my paint table, left over from that first attempt. I began to think about the significance of egg shells in conveying those concepts and particularly the fact that brokenness preceded the birth of Israel. I ended up incorporating the egg shells into the painting, not just as surface, but as symbolism.

More recently I have been working on a  painting for the Jewish Artists' Lab on the theme of Crossing the Threshold. I began to think of how we enter a threshold and imagined us leaving a trail of eggshells behind as we enter a place of newness, abandoning the familiar. It is a time when we are fragile ourselves, often fearful of the unknown.This time that trail led to a question mark of eggshells as we face uncertainty. I'll write more on this piece when I declare it finished.

Perhaps next time I am asked about inspiration, I should reply with a much more layered response - a bowl, Leonard Cohen and my breakfast all served as inspiration.

Monday, April 2, 2018

A Tale of Two Sisters

“I’m glad you’re taking it easier on the goals,” my sister commented on our lengthy phone call last night. "I think you push yourself too hard." Now that is a little amusing when you consider that one of the purposes of my call was to get us moving on a book we’ve talked of writing jointly. I had just finished a workshop on storyboarding a book and wanted to share what I had learned. 

You may recall, I had written of abandoning my reading and blog goals and descending into laziness and sloth. Now perhaps the laziness and sloth is a bit tongue in cheek, but it speaks to an inner fear of exactly that. Part of what makes life satisfying for me is in the doing and there is an underlying fear of losing the discipline that keeps me in motion. My sister proposed that I pushed myself for my late father who valued drive and achievement. I think it is more that I am similar to my late father. I got the “drive” gene.

Andee (7), me (10) with our grandfather
How do we take a positive quality and keep it from taking over our life? How do we manage our innate qualities so they don't run amok? It takes a while to learn who we are and what is unique to us. It helps to have a sister to do so, someone of the same gender who grew up with the same parents, but somehow turned into a different person. I shared a room with my sister as a child, yet somehow failed to really know her. Oh, I knew her idiosyncrasies. She was scared of thunderstorms as a child. She couldn’t fall asleep without the radio. I couldn’t fall asleep with it. I needed silence, she needed white noise. She used to pile her clothes on a chair and I thought longingly of the day when I would live on my own with an empty chair. Now I pile my clothes on a chair.

Those were the years when we were busy learning who we were. We had the myopia of childhood, a time when we were the center of our own universe. Later when I married, my sister was single. After she married and began to raise a family, I divorced. When I remarried, she divorced. Always out of sync with our lives and living different lives in terms of family. We communicated at the crisis points, always able to talk when lives were in upheaval, but living in our separate worlds and separated by geography.

A Shared November Birthday in the 1980s
We came together when our mother needed support. Our father had died, and our mother was living on her own in the early stages of Alzheimer’s. As is often the case, the daughters are the parental support system. We needed to learn to work together. Much to my surprise, my little sister proved to be a competent person. Who knew? No longer the kid who was afraid of thunderstorms, now capable and thoughtful about how best to support our mother. We bounced ideas off of each other and put together a plan with each of us playing a role, but also drawing on outside support. 

Our differences proved to be complementary. We were both good problem solvers, but she was better with the warm fuzzy stuff. I was better with organizing the facts.  I dealt with finances, she dealt with health matters. Our mother had always associated me with doing things. We had traveled together overseas, and I took her on adventures. My sister had the grandchildren and spent more relaxed family time with my parents. We easily fell into those roles again. As I lived further away, I came in for longer visits. My mother and I explored the city together and even took a trip to Israel. My sister shared more relaxed time with her on shorter weekly visits.  

We both trusted each other to deal with our respective spheres with my mother’s best interests always paramount. When we had different opinions, we worked it through. Along the way we developed a new relationship between us. So now we are talking about jointly writing a book on this shared experience, supporting parents as they go through a series of losses, from memory to life. We join them on that journey, losing them gradually until they leave this world and we then integrate who they were into our daily life. That latter stage especially intrigues me, how we make sense of these important relationships. Along the way our relationship with siblings takes on a new form. If we are fortunate, dealing with those losses together brings us closer. It is an often challenging, but rich experience, if we give ourselves over to it.

I have been going through my email correspondence with my sister, reassembling the history and reliving the ups and downs of those years where our focus was on our mother. The differences between us also emerge. I sent long lists after each visit of what I did from dealing with household problems to taking my mother on outings. The longer the list, the more successful the visit. Perhaps it was my way to exert control over an essentially uncontrollable situation. My sister responds that she is exhausted just reading my lists. Then there is the day to day. I spoke to my mother in the morning, my sister spoke to her in the evening. In between we traded information on conversations with our mother, insights into her and needs we identified. The teamwork is evident. When our mother passed away, I felt all the loss that went with it, but also a desire not to lose this new-found relationship with my sister. Perhaps the book is a way to continue it.

 I'm pretty sure it won't be easy.We are different people but working through and respecting those differences may make this a rich experience also. We have two voices and we will try to let each tell their story, weaving them together at times to let our shared story emerge. As to that question of how we manage our innate qualities, perhaps we do so by making room for someone who brings different qualities, tempering and augmenting our energy in new and different ways.