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.

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