Thursday, June 28, 2018

Not an Elevator Speech

The gallery was filled with people when we entered the Jewish Artists' Lab exhibition. The theme is Crossing the Threshold, a topic that resonates deeply with me. I believe much of life is about our journey across new thresholds as we explore new aspects of the world and of ourselves. As I milled around the room, I was posed a question by a fellow artist. “What do you do when you aren’t painting?” 

Most of the time painting takes up a very small segment of my overall time. Even if I count all my time at the studio, I probably spend a big chunk of that time contemplating what and how I am going to paint. Or painting over my first attempts. Often I am working on other projects. Then I paint a bit and study it from across the room as I contemplate the next step. Hmm, not much to talk about in my painting life right now so I switch directions. 

“I am presenting on my book and beginning to work on a new book,” I replied. Much of my time this year has been focused on talks on immigration that relate to my book.

“Oh, what is the new book about,” I was asked. In that moment I realized I had stepped into a quagmire. I had no elevator speech. I am still discovering what it is about. Writing, at least the kind I do, is about discovery, not too unlike painting. That’s why it is hard to talk about at this stage. I need to allow myself the room to find my way and sometimes I need to be patient with my bumbling around in the dark. I've found that is a part of the process of artwork of any form. That's why they call it creating. We start without knowing where we are going. For most of us that is a bit scary and we need to learn to trust that we'll find our way. Sometimes it is a direction we never anticipated and we need to be patient with the process. It is very much about crossing thresholds into the unknown.

The truth is I’m still weeding through my lived experience to discover if there is a book in it or a series of essays. We live, we experience, we distill and we shape it into a form to share with others. I use both artwork and writing to do that. It is a long process. Sometimes someone asks me how long a painting takes. Do I start my count with the experience that underlies it?

I continued to contemplate that original question. What is it about? Later I started to write a series of sentences beginning with what it is or is not about.  I actually found that very useful in considering my topic (s).  Some may form whole chapters while others are sub-points, but all were important parts of the experience.  Here's what I came up with:

It is about my relationship with my sister, a relationship that bloomed late in life around a shared purpose.
It is about working together with her and accommodating our different personalities and skills.
It is about how amazingly different siblings can be, even in the same family.
It is about my love for my mother in all its iterations. 
It is about how different people know different parts of the same person, each with a unique relationship.
It is about the way relationships change and adapt as circumstances change.
It is about being present in the moment.
It is about finding the meaning in an experience.
It is about finding the essence of a person despite the guise.
It is about partnering.
It is about ceding control.
It is about taking control.
It is about stepping up.
It is about living, dying, letting go and cherishing.
It is about living so we don’t have regrets.
It is about finding another person housed within us.
It is about seeing the world through someone else’s eyes.
It is about loving the whole, but also the parts.
It is not about Alzheimer’s, although that is part of the lived experience, but it doesn't overshadow the person.
It may be in part about my father, but I’m not sure yet.
It is about finding and loving the person trapped in the fog.
It is about the human experience.
It is about discovering who you are as you learn about who your parents were. 
It is about understanding the world through story.
It is about a book that I would want to read.

Not exactly an elevator speech, is it? Or perhaps it requires a very long elevator ride.

And if you are in Minneapolis, stop by the Tychman-Shapiro Gallery at the Sabes JCC to see the exhibition. It is up through August 23, 2018.

Tuesday, June 5, 2018

View from the Late Bloomer Seats

Since my book came out in October, I’ve been talking pretty nonstop. Like most people, I once started out petrified to speak publicly, but have come to really enjoy it. I’ve turned into a bit of a performer. I even can fool people into thinking I’m a natural at this. There are people like that, but I most assuredly am not one of them. Put me on the spot without time to prepare and I can still freeze. I am resigned to my lot in life as the one who does her homework.

You know the type. We’ve got skills and talents, but they require a bit of mining and polishing. It’s not surface glitz. We’ve got to find ourselves and are often late bloomers as a result. My bet is that we are often middle children who learn to work hard as we lack the prize positions of eldest or youngest.

Speaking from the late bloomer seats which I’ve finally secured, it is not a bad way to go through life. It is quite satisfying to continue to discover new capabilities, to surprise yourself later in life with new talents. Who knew I could hold a crowd? Who knew I’d enjoy doing it?

Last evening, I had the unusual pleasure of going first before a crowd of 250 people. That doesn’t happen often for those of us with names that begin with W. In fact, I don’t think it has ever happened without me volunteering. The event was a benefit for the arts and I was one of eight artists selected to tell about my work through 18 images with 18 seconds per image. I’ve attended before and often marveled at how skilled the performers were in carrying it off. It is very much a performance. 

I’ve been intrigued with the format and must confess that when I did a project with the organization, it occurred to me that I might be asked to participate. I wondered if I could do it and roughed out 18 vignettes that flowed together to satisfy my own curiosity.   Yes, I do my homework even before it is assigned. When subsequently asked to present, I confidently could agree. It is an odd format, tightly scripted, telling a succinct story with no time for ad libs, but it worked well and I had the unexpected pleasure of getting to relax through the remainder of the event after a reassuring “You nailed it!”

The week before I had been in NY to present to the Jewish Book Council on my book, another tightly scripted event. Authors flew in from around the country to present to an auditorium of Jewish organizations who might bring them in to speak and sell books. For that event we got two minutes to present with about 45 authors in each group, some who I’ve read and admired, others who I hope to read. Somehow that felt a bit more daunting, even navigating the city to get there was part of the journey. And of course, that was alphabetical as I waited patiently through forty authors. When I stood before the mike and surveyed the auditorium, I waited a minute for the introducer to sit down. As the room quieted and they looked at me expectantly, I felt in control of the room. And when I posed a question, It rang out into the silent room with authority and I took that control. A new trick to remember for that next talk.

Now these were unusual formats, and in some ways much harder than scripting an hour-talk where I can relax into myself and bring an audience into my story. For those I’ve worked out a variety of talks because I don’t want to be doing the same thing over and over. In the process, I’ve learned how to bring my book to life. That has been another learning. The book becomes a jumping off point for more in-depth stories and I continue to expand on its contents. It is a living thing and the talking and sharing becomes as important as the writing. Because many of the people I interviewed had an immigration story, I weave their story into talks on immigration history in the US, using their video clips to illuminate the actual experiences across the last century juxtaposed with the laws and the environment that birthed them. I share the stories we often don’t know. Other times I may tell a Holocaust story of those seeking safety juxtaposed with our policies and laws before, during and after WWII.  I find that the public speaking enriches the book and engages me in unexpected ways in a deeper exploration of the material. Sometimes I do an artistic exploration, talking of my process in moving from story to artwork. Along the way I’ve come to think of the book as a vehicle for unfolding stories with my active intervention. What I find most satisfying is that it is a continual learning experience, for  me as well as my audience.