Tuesday, May 23, 2023

The Pieces That Surprise

Each year, Northeast Minneapolis hosts Art-a-Whirl, the largest open studio event in the country. Thousands of people come through  studios over a three-day weekend. For the artists, that means 18 hours, sitting in our studios and interacting with our visitors. This year was the first year that began to feel more normal after Covid. Many of us have begun to unmask as we welcomed visitors.

As an introvert who has interacted through a Zoom screen for several years, it felt both exhilarating and exhausting. So much of creating artwork is a solitary pursuit and suddenly there are people, so many people! It was fascinating to watch them respond to my work, and to engage with them about my work and about life, for the human experience is often a theme within my work. For three days I get to channel my inner extrovert. I turn into a performer and a storyteller. And I have new insights into my work and my process, as I answer my visitors’ questions.

"What is the piece that feels most important to you?" one woman asked. I tell her that the pieces that surprise me are most dear to me. Sometimes I start out thinking I’m going in a particular direction but if I listen carefully, I end up somewhere entirely unexpected. It feels rather magical. The separation between me, and the universe, feels quite permeable in those moments as our energies align. 

I came out of a career where I was very good at getting results, driving to a conclusion. That doesn’t serve me very well in creating artwork. It is all about letting go of the process and letting it guide me, learning to unlearn. The work that I do revolves around story, often difficult ones. I paint about family history, which takes me into the Holocaust. I’ve painted about both loss of memory and of cherished memories. Through an Artist Lab, I have painted on themes of change and transformation, brokenness and wholeness, often using nature as a metaphor. 

Stepping into the Chrysalis

The story I tell most often is of a triptych I painted called "Stepping into the Chrysalis" which tells the story of transformation and change. Oddly enough it evolved in a similar manner to its subject matter. I tell of its evolution, then dramatically open the doors as I talk about how we too often go through change with trepidation, eating ourselves alive with worry, much as a caterpillar dissolves into caterpillar soup within that chrysalis. They laugh ruefully, acknowledging this shared experience. 

People often bring friends to my studio after hearing me tell a story that they then want me to tell their friends. Sometimes I watch them retell the story themselves, tickled that it touched them and that they remember the details. One young woman told me that this story of transformation had stayed with her and she often thought about it.

I painted about my mother’s loss of memory in her later years and I post stories as well as the related artwork. I’ve had people respond with tears about subjects that resonated in their own life. Many have loved someone who lost memory and my work touches those raw places. 

Those with Jewish heritage, and many without, respond to artwork based on interviews with Jewish elders or my story of traveling to Poland with a friend who is a survivor to show my artwork about the one-time Jewish community from which both my grandfather and my friend came. 


And many respond to a tall painting of the forest of Ponar with Yiddish text beneath the trees. It is from an old series, but too difficult to store in my loft so stakes its claim to wall space. Ponar is where the Jews of Vilnius were murdered during the Holocaust by their Lithuanian neighbors. The painting has a certain beauty that attracts people to it and when they ask me about it, I always hesitate for a minute, unsure about bringing them into the dark story that underlies it. I tell them about the Polish journalist who lived near the forest and saw the Jews brought to the forest, who afterwards heard the stories of their murder- the woman who hid her child in a pile of clothing, the chase through the forest after someone who fled. Each day he wrote about what he saw and heard, burying his words in jars in the forest, as if the forest could speak. In time it does, those pages surface in archives, then a book, painstakingly pierced together. He reports, “It was a beautiful day,” then writes of the horrors of that day. It is the juxtaposition between beauty and horror, that is the coda to the story.

Ghost Trees

Sometimes I have a story to tell that reads in an entirely different way to a different viewer. A painting titled “Ghost Trees,” that I did shortly after reading The Overstory, has trees separated from their stumps, a reflection of the way in which trees exist in community and the impact of deforestation. It drew an excited response from a young woman who exclaimed “It’s a Minecraft tree!” I soon learned that floating trees are a feature in Minecraft. And here I thought I had been channeling Magritte. 

When story is your creative engine, it makes for interesting conversations,  ones that touch on shared experiences that have deep emotional roots.  I may never know someone’s name, but I often learn their story as well as sharing mine. Sensing a kindred spirit they often suggest books and movies they think I would enjoy. 

To share stories with those who were once strangers is powerful. It builds an awareness of how we are all connected and reminds me of why I do what I do, in precisely the way that I do it. I ended my weekend with that mixture of exhilaration and exhaustion, with gratitude for the opportunity to share stories and artwork and to make those very real connections with others.

Monday, May 15, 2023

The Shape and Contour of a Life

Every Mother's Day, I reflect on the many mothers who have influenced my life. My own mother has been gone now for almost eight years and yet she still feels close to me, embedded in my wiring. We often say, "may her memory be a blessing" and her memory has indeed become one.

I have always had strong friendships with women of my mother’s generation, something that becomes more difficult with time as so few of them are left. This year my friend Dora invited me to join her family for her Mother’s Day brunch. Dora is 99 and was born within two years of my mother. We have gotten together weekly since we met almost thirteen years ago. It was a connection of bashert (Yiddish for fate). We were introduced by two separate friends, one in Israel and one in my community. I was creating a website on the former Jewish community of the Polish town from which my grandfather came. Dora was born in that town. She survived Auschwitz and Bergen Belsen and later came to Minnesota after the war. 

Susan and Dora at  our show in Poland

We have traveled back together to our shared ancestral town. I showed artwork there together with photographs of Dora’s pre-war and ghetto life, photos that survived hidden in her family members’ shoes. On a weekly visit in 2020, just prior to Covid shutting the world down, Dora told me she had a little project for me. Now I should have been suspicious when she said “little.” There is no such thing as a little project, for me or for Dora. They always expand. She wanted to document her relationship with seven generations of women dating from her great-grandmother to her great-granddaughters. She sat between those two poles and reached out her hands to touch them all, from great-grandmother to great-granddaughter, she was the point of connection.

The following week the world shut down. After such steady contact with Dora for ten years, I wasn’t quite sure how we would stay connected, but that “little” project proved to be central to our evolving relationship. It also proved important in giving her a purpose and a connection in a time of great isolation. We set up a weekly phone call and, on that call, I interviewed her. She would talk and I would type. By this time, I knew much of her story. She had told parts of it on video when we were in Poland. Later she told me stories that I painted. Sometimes she used the paintings in her classroom talks as a Holocaust educator. I would interview her and show the image of the painting. She would tell the story. 

But this was somehow different. It was a continuous thread, from childhood through the Holocaust, the loss of family members, the chanciness of survival. She told me of life after the war in a displaced person’s camp and attending university in Germany, going to school with former German soldiers. When asked where she was from, she replied, “The east.” It was only when spring came and she wore short sleeves that they noticed the number tattooed on her arm. In 1950 she and her husband immigrated to America. There she found her way in a new culture, returning to school for a graduate degree, starting a family and a career, then telling her story as a Holocaust educator. It gave me the shape and contour of a life, one which was lived in a purposeful way, with intention. 


After we could get together again, we began to meet at her home. Rather than going out to lunch, I now bring lunch to her. Afterwards we pick up the thread of her story. We are often faced with the limits imposed by aging. Her sight is impaired, so we were reliant on hearing. As her hearing worsened, I improvised with technology so she could hear what I had typed to review and edit. I set up a speaker and used the speak option in Word in a male voice which was easier for her to hear. I would jot her changes and then add them to the version I had uploaded to the Cloud. Her grandson, a journalist, was our editor. He would read through it and make changes, move passages around and leave questions for me if something was unclear. I would pose his questions to her and send him a note back with her replies.

Dora in Warsaw at memorial to deportees

We are nearing the end of the story, writing a conclusion. There was a symmetry in recent events which speaks to the cross-generational theme of this project. Recently, I was at her home when she and her daughter were on Zoom to a class at the university where Dora talked of her experience during the Holocaust. A few days later she testified at the state Capitol in support of Holocaust education. She had been nervous going there. She had spoken to many large groups and never seemed to be ill at ease, but this time she felt the weight of what she was doing. There was a consequence that was important. She had to get it right, to make a difference. I got several emails that day from members of the press trying to locate pictures of her as a young woman. Her daughter, who was with her, didn’t have easy access to the photos and had referred the press to me. I sent the photos off and later watched her and the photos on the evening news. She was the star of the show, an articulate spokesperson seeking to make a difference for subsequent generations, for those great-grandchildren for whom she had written her story.