Tuesday, April 16, 2019

Where Paintings Come From

The Heartbeat  2019  Susan Weinberg
Do you ever wonder where paintings come from? Well, sometimes so do the artists. Lately my own work seems to be veering off into new directions and I trace its evolution, fascinated by the process itself.

 I was recently tasked with a project that is a partnership between Israeli and U.S. artists. We are each to develop an image based on a theme of exploring the intersections between art, science and Judaism. We then react to our partner’s artwork, each then creating a new image. I’ve written of the first effort, now I am at the reaction piece. In this case I had a starting point, my response to my partner’s image. Now I am somebody who always has a lot to say about my artwork, witness this blog.  My partner represents the alternate school of thought, she tells me that she doesn’t name her paintings because she wants people to see whatever they see in them. 

I had a clue though, she told me that a particular image related to the Weizmann Institute, an Israeli scientific institution that has harbored and trained many scientists. We visited it on our last trip to Israel and I was blown away. The way in which ideas were communicated was extraordinary and effectively bridged the distance to nonscientists.

 My partner’s piece had collage-like elements artfully composed. The one that particularly drew my attention was composed of two larger figures each pointing in opposite directions, sending smaller figures off in different directions. I later learned they were scientists, but they reminded me of refugees. That in turn reminded me of a book I had read by Katie Marton called The Great Escape: Nine Jews Who Fled Hitler and Changed the World. It had traced the journey of nine Budapest Jews who fled the Holocaust, finding their way to the United States and Great Britain. Many of them were in fact scientists, all were pivotal in their field. Each brought their expertise with them, benefiting their new country with their creative work and discoveries. 

 I began to explore Jews in science which led me to the Nobel prize list, 20% Jewish versus .2% in the general population. Most Jews can quote those figures as it is a source of deep pride. So, what causes this preponderance? Clearly there is a Jewish connection and I theorize that the questioning nature of the religion and the outsider status of Jews is a contributing element. To create you need to question and to be able to see the world through fresh eyes, to be a bit of a renegade and not accept the conventional wisdom. Creation is living on the edge, not knowing exactly where you’re going to end up. Both science and art draw upon a creative process as they find their way into the unknown.

I began to explore discoveries by those of Jewish heritage. It is a long list, spanning many disciplines. I noticed that many inventions related to the heart: pacemakers, defibrillators and even the first practical system of electrocardiography were attributed to those of Jewish heritage. The Torah looks to the heart as the seat of wisdom with over 900 mentions. Jews have certainly expended a lot of energy and wisdom towards keeping it beating.

Heart and defibrillator
polio virus and vaccine
In painting I began with a Star of David, not static, but flying into space, almost dancing. A heart sits in the middle of it, the beating heart of Judaism, defibrillation paddles on either side lest it falter. Collaged in are symbols of scientific discoveries by Jews, nuclear chain reaction, quantum mechanics, computer technology, the polio vaccine and the virus it was to conquer. Many discoveries spread out across the world to nations with greater freedom and less bigotry as Jews fled antisemitism.   
Scientists as refugees
What were the sources that fed my iconography? I’ve mentioned the book which caused me to think of refugees, spreading their discoveries around the world. I took the small figures from my partner’s painting and reproduced and reassembled them. Her scientists became scientists as refugees. 

canary in the coal mine

 Antisemitism came to mind as I’ve been working with a friend who is a Holocaust survivor on a presentation on that theme. We talked of the role that long-standing antisemitism played in the Holocaust and its reemergence today. That led me to think of the canary in the coal mine, Jews are targeted whenever bigotry is on the rise. A canary flew into my image, landing on the star. 

 The heart reminded me of a heartbeat. As I considered how to show one, an EKG came to mind. In fact, a man of Jewish heritage was important in its development. The refugees echo the line of the EKG, rising and falling.

 Another subtle influence was the home I lived in for a month in Lithuania when I attended the Vilnius Yiddish Institute. It was an artist’s home and his large canvases filled the walls. The dominant color was white, but not plain white. White over other colors, small iconography showing through. His work spoke to me and the power of white obscuring, but allowing a glimpse, stayed with me.
Some happy accidents came in as well. The original background was a reddish iron oxide, but a heavier application of white on one of the collaged images caused me to imagine the entire background in white. It is always a bit scary to paint over what you have, fearful that you will destroy it and there are always some unintended consequences. The star became more dominant. Just as in cooking, I found I needed to add something to counterbalance.  I collaged in some decorative papers to soften the line and realized that if I let it float above the star it created greater depth.

There is a back-and-forth movement. I draw from reading, writing, discussion and research. I am influenced by my visual surroundings, the images of science and a bit of free association. I may not know exactly where I’m heading, but I gauge my direction as I go, experimenting as I step into the unknown.

Friday, April 5, 2019

Turning Folklore to Fact

“I often get thrown out of archives and museums at closing time,” I remarked. I was at the local Family History Library with a genealogy client as we watched closing time quickly approach, too quickly.

“Most people say that about bars,” he quipped. 

I burst into laughter. Yes, I thirst for information and art! The places we don't want to leave are indeed telling.

We had come to the local Family History Library (FHL), a small room with computers housed in a Church of Latter-day Saints, a satellite library to the mothership in Utah. I had begun my own genealogy research almost twenty years ago in a similar room at one of the local churches, venturing hesitantly into what felt like a foreign environment. Then it was filled with microfilm readers. That part at least had felt familiar.  I had once distributed microfilm reels in my job at the college library research room. Many years had passed between that early job and that first visit to the FHL and not much had changed.There has, however, been a sea change since I began my genealogy quest twenty years ago, most of it as more records become available on-line.

I recalled an early visit when I curiously studied a microfilm reel of Polish vital records, trying to make sense of the language. It took me yet further back to a childhood memory of studying a book before I could read, the letters just curious marks that I desperately wanted to decipher. I’ve been trying to break codes and solve mysteries ever since.

Soon I had taken the next step of going out to the Utah Family History Library with a group of Jewish genealogists. The library is a large multi-story building across a wide avenue from the Mormon Tabernacle. There I would spend a week happily glued to a microfilm reader from early morning until dusk when they ushered me to the door.  I cranked through the records of the Polish town of my grandfather, no longer intimidated by those foreign records. 

That first visit felt both foreign and familiar.  Looking back, it was when I first re-entered the Jewish community. I had grown up in a Jewish home but done little in that community since. Married to a non-Jewish spouse and without children, I had little to connect me to my Jewish heritage. Family history drew me back in and ironically to the place of my birth, Salt Lake City. My father had been the only non-Mormon professor in his department at the university. My parents spoke fondly of their time there and of the Jewish community. I had no memories of it having left as a toddler. Years later, genealogy took me back to the town of my birth, a Jewish kid born at Holy Cross Hospital in Mormon country. How fitting that I should be exploring my roots where I began. The group of Jewish genealogists felt oddly familiar, like I knew them from somewhere. Many became good friends over time. Less familiar were the people who staffed the library, helpful Mormons who called each other brother and sister. 

Twenty years later the library and its satellites have changed dramatically as they are scanning all those films and moving to digital. No longer do they send microfilm to church libraries across the country. The tradeoff is that many records are indexed by name and the original records are often available on-line at their site familysearch.org. The transcription is more complete than what you’ll find on Ancestry.com. For example, marriage records will often also provide the additional information of parents’ names, a particularly valuable piece of data.

My client’s family folklore was that family had been part of agricultural communities established by Baron de Hirsch. Baron de Hirsch was an important figure in Jewish history. An extremely wealthy man, he established a fund in 1891 to help settle Jewish immigrants in the US and Canada through agricultural colonies and trade schools. We had found a newspaper mention of a family member as an early settler so we were optimistic in our search.

Most people go to familysearch.com and click on the first item in the dropdown, Records. This allows them to search by a family member’s name.  But not all the records are indexed and listed by name so they are only finding a portion of what is available. I wondered if I could access a broader universe by another door. I recalled how I used to access information in those long-ago visits at the Utah library. As it wasn’t then available by an individual’s name, I had searched for the original source by town and then sought an index within the document to lead me to the record.

I went to Search and then to Catalog. There I could search by place. I put in the town and up popped land records. When I pulled it up, an icon came up.

A reel icon means microfilm which is generally not accessible outside of large libraries or the the main one in Utah. If you are lucky, a camera image appears which allows you to search a series of images taken from the film. Sometimes a key shows up over the camera. That means you can only access the record at the FHL. 

The land records were among them and we were there that day in search of those records. An alphabetical index was available. We could barely contain our excitement when those familiar names appeared in the index. We moved to the actual record where we found that they had a wide variety of spellings even within the same record. Vs and Bs and Ws were all interchangeable. We found the first purchases in 1893 by his great-grandfather, just two years after the fund began. The actual record showed the buyer and seller, a description of the land, the purchase price and who was present. 

But there was a surprise. Family folklore was that his great-great grandmother had also come to America and later gone to Israel. She flitted ghost-like through story, but we had found nothing to verify her existence. There her name was listed along with his great-grandfather as the first buyer of property in the family. We know she was there because the record indicates that she was present. And to tie it with a bow, one of the purchases was actually from the Baron de Hirsch fund.