Friday, May 22, 2015

A Sense of the Possible

We just concluded a long weekend of an open studio event that attracts thousands of people to the arts district. I speak with many people about my work and the topics with which it engages. Many of the people who come through have come before and one asked about getting a print of a painting that she had liked on her prior visit. She said she hoped someday she could afford original artwork. It took me back in time to when I first made that promise to myself. I was in my twenties and visited the home of a coworker who I admired. She seemed so much more poised and polished than my awkward young self and I was struck by the original art that hung on her walls. It seemed so grown up, perhaps symbolic of that poise and polish to which I aspired. Someday I'll have original art I vowed. Well I have the original work, not so sure about the poise and polish.

That got me thinking of how we get a sense of the possible and how it affects the course of our life. During the same arts event our grandson and his girlfriend stopped in and I was chatting with his girlfriend about career paths. It too made me reflect on how little I knew of the options that were available when I was her age. The career paths open to women were less apparent in those days and there were fewer female role models to create that sense of the possible.

And yet, I had one tremendous advantage growing up. My parents loved their work so my expectation was that was the norm. I knew it was possible. My father was skilled at creating something new where nothing had existed. That too entered my world of possibilities and was reflected throughout my career. I came to my artwork later in life, at least in a focused way and I brought a career history that informed my sense of the possible. Just as my father, I had learned to create something from nothing and I trusted my abilities to create concepts that turned into carefully executed projects. And yet a career as an artist was new territory to imagine.

Many years ago I knew a man who was an accomplished artist who created large scale projects filled with symbols. I used to research thematic material for him to include and worked with him in developing marketing. And I filed away a sense of the possible. How do you create a concept with legs and how do you communicate it to the larger world? I was learning how to do that even though I hadn't yet claimed that as my possibility.

When I met my husband, he had a more established sense of himself as an artist. He decided to get a studio back when I would have still been dithering about the cost. Working in his studio I began to experiment, to work larger and finally to explore larger themes that spoke to me. I began with a small corner in his studio and gradually expanded until we finally got a studio next door and put a door between them. My own studio, a possibility that I had grown into.

Over time I have felt my way and occasionally I meet an artist whose approach arouses a sense of the possible in me and helps me to envision the possibilities that lie ahead. Often the artists I admire are those who create broader projects around themes, who speak with ease about their work and it's meaning to them. It is no coincidence that is a path I too have pursued.

Admiration is a tap on the shoulder, reminding us to pay attention. Long ago I went to a psychic who told me that she interpreted images and thoughts, but their meaning wasn't always clear to her. If I felt a click with something she said, I should pay attention. I think the universe is full of those pay attention moments and admiration is a tip off to help us find our way.

We shape our work, our life and ourselves each time we watch and learn- incorporating what we admire into the framework of our life. Sometimes it is real art on our walls and sometimes a studio of our own with space and walls to support our own creations.

Saturday, May 9, 2015

Be Strong and Resolute

Recently I shared my work on memory at a caregiver conference within the Jewish community. My husband built three moveable walls for me to hang my work on and we put them to the test with six paintings. They worked quite well in a space that didn't lend itself to hanging work on the walls.

I also tried an experiment with a memory jar, inviting attendees to jot a memory they once shared with a loved one who has lost memory. I had a few paintings that grew out of the theme of a memory jar I had once given my mother as a gift back when her memory was strong. Within it were memories that I cherished of our times together. After her memory began to fail, we have often sat together recalling the memories I put into that jar. It is a way to help her remember her past if only for a brief time. Building on that concept I invited others to share their memories, some of which are below:

Singing together as a duet, "Do You Love Me?" from Fiddler.

Family vacations.

The weekly Shabbat Kiddish recited by Dad.

My mom loved to bake chocolate chip chocolate bundt cake. I can still taste it.

For a non-cuddler, Mom wanted to cuddle at the end.

When I was 15 my step-father wrote me a long letter about how he would always be good to me and my mom. He took me skiing, talked to me about Herman Hesse books, helped me with math... He was/is patient, gentle, smart. He was our rock. I miss him even though he's still alive.

I am struck by how many of the memories engage our senses, singing, reciting, tasting, touching, doing things together. We shape memories every day, but the ones that stay with us involve engagement and interaction. I am going to put the jar out for our open studio event next week and see if I can build on my memory collection and ultimately use the memories in a creative project.

I have a painting called Into the Wilderness and have written in this blog about Alzheimer's as a journey into the wilderness, not unlike that of Moses. The conference did a video of people speaking about their experience with a loved one with Alzheimer's. I was interviewed about both my experience and my artwork on memory and spoke of my mother speaking of her world as a wilderness.

Oddly enough the two rabbis who kicked off the conference also used the metaphor of a wilderness, evoking Moses' journey into the wilderness, drawing the parallel of entering the unknown of Alzheimer's. They developed the metaphor quite beautifully. We are confronted with an unknown destination, vulnerable, unable to go back to what we knew and uncertain about what lays ahead. They spoke of those first steps into the Red Sea, when the Israelites were offered the reassurance of Moses, "Al tira'u -Do Not be Afraid" and of how those who came to this gathering sought a similar reassurance. In the midst of the wilderness filled with perils, they also found moments of beauty and power. I have witnessed that as well In my mother's ability to live in the moment. She takes joy in so many things, sometimes over and over.

The rabbis also spoke of loss and the loss of one's humanity that often faces one with Alzheimer's. So often one is treated as a child or ignored. In the desert the Israelites were guided by pillars of cloud and fire. They reminded us that the pillars that guide us in this journey are love, respect and tenderness. They spoke of the isolation of Alzheimer's and how communities such as this gathering helped to respond to that. And they spoke of the manna that would sustain each person on the journey with their loved one. They both opened and closed the conference with the words of Moses when he realized that he would not accompany the Israelites on their ultimate journey. Hazak V'ematz - Be strong and resolute, and fear not, for God is walking with you. (Dt. 31:6)

 

Thursday, May 7, 2015

Creation and Dialogue

It has been a busy few months, filled with talks and shows. Art a Whirl, a huge open studio event still looms ahead and it always makes me consider why I create artwork.

When one decides to be an artist no one tells you the job description. It is so much more than just creating artwork although that is of course where it starts. Let's assume that you've created a body of work that you are pleased with, no small feat. Now what?

And even more important, why?

When I first began to focus on my artwork I did something that I suspect many artists don't. I wrote a strategic plan. Coming from a business background this was a familiar exercise, albeit with a totally different subject. I began with my objectives. Why was I doing this?

Now most business plans are focused on an effort that involves making money and I realized that was not my objective at all. Now mind you, I am not opposed to making money, but I realized very clearly that it was quite ancillary to what I was doing and sometimes diametrically opposed. And frankly, if I wanted to make money, creating artwork was not the most lucrative tool in my toolkit. I had worked in finance for years and it had taken some time to unhook psychologically from getting that nice paycheck. If that was my objective I knew where I could meet it.

Different artists have different objectives and they are not all financial. Much depends on where someone is in their life and those who have come to their artwork after a career in another discipline may bring a different focus. I am in an artist building and many of the artists are in fact trying to cobble together a living from their artwork. That may mean selling through galleries and often teaching or graphic design to supplement the unsteady income of an artist. If that is your objective you have to ask what the buying public wants and what galleries want and that of necessity influences what you create. You want to create what you can sell. Historically many artists have done two lines of work, what would sell and what engaged them personally.

I realized that I was focused on the latter. I wanted to examine those difficult subjects that I am trying to better understand and engage others in dialogue about them. And my subjects have been gnarly, the Holocaust, identity and loss of memory. Not the warm fuzzy subjects you may want hanging over your sofa.

Once I was able to state why I was doing this, my approach became clear. I tell stories and each painting is like a chapter. That means I need to work in series. It also means I want to show work as a series. It is not especially meaningful to me to enter one piece in a show as it loses its broader context. I also want to talk about my work because I want a platform from which to tell stories and create dialogue. And so I've become a public speaker, something I never imagined I would seek out and enjoy.

When I sell paintings from a series it is as if I've ripped a few chapters from a book. It leaves a hole. More recently I've begun to sell work after I've shown a series widely and often I make a print so I can continue to exhibit my work. In fact the last two paintings I sold were committed for sale a year before I shipped them as I had exhibitions pending.

After a big open studio event well-meaning friends often ask,"Did you sell anything?" It sounds a little strange to say, "That isn't my objective". When I was painting with a different purpose, selling something offered a certain validation. Someone liked what I had created, but validation comes through other channels. During Art-a-Whirl I spend the long weekend telling stories and hearing the stories of others on the topics I address. It is satisfying and pleasantly exhausting. I feel a real connection with the many people who come through my studio. We have conversations about real topics that touch their lives and I realize that we share many points of connection. I test my stories, learning how to construct them for an audience and that carries over to my talks. I see the circuit burning with energy, creation and dialogue feeding each other. And I know why I do what I do.

 

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

A Willing Accomplice

I returned early in the morning on a flight from the town in which I grew up. I go there frequently to visit my mother, but this was a far more complicated trip than usual. It is the time of the Yom HaShoah, the Day of Remembrance of the Holocaust.

Last year I did a talk in my home town on Jewish genealogy for a Jewish organization. Afterwards I had a casual conversation with the director about the difficulty of finding Holocaust speakers as survivors dwindle. Half facetiously I remarked, "You should get my friend Dora". Now Dora lives in the Twin Cities, is in her 90s and is legally blind so travel to downstate Illinois wasn't exactly feasible. Except...

I had known Dora for only six months when we went to Poland together. Not exactly what most would expect with a new and rather senior friend. Dora is from Radom, Poland as was my grandfather. In 2011 we traveled there together where I exhibited my artwork on the former Jewish community of Radom. Dora exhibited photos from before the war and the time of the ghetto, photos that had been hidden in the shoes of family members during the camps.

Now Dora tells me that I make things happen and I seem to, often much to my own surprise. Partially that is because Dora is a willing accomplice. She says yes when most would say no and in combination we do seem to find ourselves in unexpected places. And so I asked if she might be interested and she said,"Maybe".

Logistics were the obstacle to resolve. The limitation of impaired sight was our biggest challenge, but I love to solve puzzles so I began to assemble these pieces and see how they might fit. Dora has a grandson in Chicago and I fly in to Illinois regularly to visit my mother. Dora just published her father's memoir of his 2 1/2 years in Auschwitz so was speaking more actively about the book. A flight to her grandson who in turn drove her downstate and an early morning flight back with me took care of the logistics. I acted as her eyes in booking flights and coordinating information.  We took advantage of the presence of her grandson to have him interview her at the Yom HaShoah and the result was quite magical. Their humor and enjoyment of each other were apparent and spoke to the involvement of the next generation in carrying the stories forward.

I was invited to share my artwork on the Jewish community of Radom, A Hole in Time, which felt very appropriate when lit by the light of memorial candles, commemorating that lost community in which both Dora and I share roots. In an odd way this work has traveled full circle, from the Minnesota town where I live to the Polish town where my grandfather came from and now back to the Illinois town in which I grew up.

On the plane, still not fully awake we began to plan our next venture, another Yom HaShoah talk next week in my community. This time I will interview Dora as we partner yet once again.

Saturday, April 11, 2015

Layers and Juxtapositions

I am visiting my mother in the town and the house in which I grew up. I find I don't sleep well on my visits. Overactive brain, stimulated by memory. One memory connects to another which in turn leads to another until I feel as if my entire memory is unwinding in one continuous coil.

I drive by a house and remember someone who lived there. Names come rushing into my brain from forty years ago. I Google them in the middle of my sleepless night, curious of what has become of them. Often no traces remain, only the residue of memory. They have moved on just as have I.

I am struck by the countless changes to the town itself. Nothing stays the same. Our memories of place are multi-layered because places carry layers of history. So often I still picture a former building in my memory, juxtaposed with its newer incarnation.

I took my mother to a restaurant and when we entered I had an immediate sense of déjà vu. I knew this place. I asked a waitress if it used to be a restaurant we frequented when I was a child. She confirmed my hunch. The location on a busy street and the shape of the room were the only clues, everything else was different, but I could look over at our usual table and see the family of my childhood, watch my father dip his spoon into the whipped cream from my hot chocolate as I protested, guarding my mug carefully with my hand, albeit a little too late. It had a very Ghost of Christmas past feel to it.


Except for a brief break for college, I lived in this town until my mid 20s, my young adulthood, my early marriage, my first real job. My mother has lived in her home for close to 60 years. I moved away 36 years ago, fearful that I would turn into my parents if I stayed. For many of those years I returned only for a Thanksgiving visit. It is only as my parents began to age that I stepped up my game. When my father passed away I began to come for more extended periods to visit my mom. I began to connect with a few old friends who offered me a needed respite. As I drove around the town I found new haunts and rediscovered old ones, often in a new incarnation. I suppose I was as well.


Past and present juxtapose. Last night I got together with a friend. Years ago she and I together with a small group of women had worked to create a domestic abuse shelter. It grew out of a volunteer gig on a rape crisis line. I used to go to the hospital in the middle of the night to assist women who had been assaulted. My stomach clutched when the phone rang late at night.

Up the street from the restaurant at which I met my friend, was the insurance company that was my first job during the summer between college. I failed two typing tests, but they hired me anyway. The prior secretary filed a pillow under P and took a nap each day on the boss's couch. Why does this trivia take up real estate in my brain?


My friend and I spoke about her visit to her former home and I remembered my first home in this town as a young married woman. I could vividly recall every room, every piece of furniture. We laughed about the spool table in the living room and the orange crate end tables. I thought I was living well.


This morning I was reminiscing with friends over breakfast about a music venue/bar in an old barn that my ex-husband used to play at. We couldn't remember the name and I texted my sister who had once waitressed there. "Second Chance" she replied. I drove by there afterwards and chuckled at its reincarnation, now Second Chance Church.


So often this whole process of memory runs like a TV in the background. We don't pay close attention to its triggers. Because I am working on artwork on the theme of memory, I am hyper attuned. How did I get from here to there? What was the trigger? Where did it take me? I suppose I needed to live long enough to acquire the history to fully appreciate the layers and juxtapositions, the collapsing of time, the sudden jolts of the long forgotten.

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Making Fear an Engine

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Seder_Plate.jpg
This weekend I attended a Seder. Not the kind we had at my childhood home where we awkwardly stumbled through this ritual. No, this was a Seder where many read the Hebrew words with confidence and familiarity. They even knew the Hebrew version of "An Only Kid"! There were points where I felt as vermisht (Yiddish for confused) as my non-Jewish husband.

I started to describe it as a "serious" Seder, but it wasn't quite that either. We acted out the story, made up songs and haiku and limericks and laughed a lot in the process. It was a thoughtful Seder. We discussed oppression and freedom and heroes. We came with assignments. One of them was to bring one of our heroes with us. Now this was an imaginary hero, no place setting required, unlike that mystery man Elijah who actually merits a glass of his own.

I discussed this assignment with a friend and told her I didn't like the term "hero". If I were to play a game of word association, I would come up with such words as hero worship and superhero. I've never been one to idolize anyone. If there is one thing I know with certainty it is that close up we all have feet of clay. It also echoed a childhood school assignment to write about a hero where I felt that same inner resistance. I ended up writing about my mother.

Hmm, I tested the idea. Yep, still works. And so as it came my turn to speak, I introduced my mother to the room. Now I anticipated lots of traditional heroes from others, but by the time it came to me we had many imaginary mothers at the table along with some choked back tears from those who no longer had their mothers in the flesh. Some spoke of their mother giving without expectation. While that is also true of mine, the reason she is my hero is her sense of purpose, and especially her sense of purpose in the face of adversity. My mother, not unlike Moses of yore, always had a lot of fears and worries. She learned to push through them and in doing so taught me to do likewise. We have a similar makeup and from her I learned to make fear an engine, to use it for the energy to take a running leap and tackle the unknown. Now everybody's unknown is different, but fear can paralyze or energize and I am grateful I learned the latter. I thank my mother for that lesson.

When I was growing up my mother returned to college. I remember coming home from school with something I wanted to tell her only to recall in disappointment that she had a class. I also remember my follow up thought, how proud I was of her for returning to school. She decided what mattered to her and pursued it wholeheartedly. In doing so she set an example I hope to honor.

Now she is in her 80s and struggling with memory loss. But purpose remains. I've written in these pages of how she creates collage art each day. Life is harder for her, but she still seeks to live it purposefully. For that she will always be my hero.

Monday, March 23, 2015

A Model of Hope

A few days after I returned from the museum conference in San Francisco, I attended a conference on dementia in St Paul. While the CAJM conference was small, a little over 100 rather hip attendees, the dementia conference had around 1300 people and a lot more grey hair. Many of us in our 60s were attending to learn more about how to support parents coping with Alzheimer's. Because I am doing a series of artwork on memory loss, I also wanted to see if I could learn some facts on which to build my work. Ideally each piece supports a relevant aspect of the disease.

One of my initial questions for exploration was what happens to identity as we lose memory. My sample of two, composed of my mother and late father, seemed to indicate that identity is persistent, remaining even as memory fades. My mother, the former first grade teacher, "cuts and pastes" each day. My father, the college professor, used to make his rounds to tell his stories at the university.

My observation of persistent identity was supported by our speakers. One shared several anecdotes. One was about a gentleman who each day would get up and then pull himself under a bed. What was he doing? Finally someone asked him and he reported that he was fixing the drive train. A former mechanic, he was reenacting a familiar role. They in turn entered his world suggesting he might want a pad because the floor was oily and offered him a blanket.

Another gentleman would poke his head into each room at a certain time of day and check on the residents. A former doctor, he was making his rounds. They asked if he would like a nurse to accompany him lest he start examinations and he happily agreed.

I especially appreciated a talk by John Zeisel, author of I'm Still Here and President of the I'm Still Here Foundation. Zeisel spoke about choosing the model of hope rather than despair for dealing with the disease. The public narrative is largely one of despair complete with social stigma. It is the perspective that it is all downhill from here and results in withdrawal from the world.

I remember when my father was losing memory, a friend of his suggested that his frequent presence in the world in his diminished state would tarnish his legacy. Like an aging beauty, it was presumably his time to retreat to preserve the perception. I think that is often how families respond and I understand where that comes from. My father however was never one to retreat. He would have responded with a none too polite expression.

Zeisel proposed that if we approach with hope we get curious. It occurs to me that my exploration through artwork accentuates my curiosity. When my mother speaks of feeling that she is in a wilderness, I begin to contemplate what that wilderness looks like. It has begun to bring me into a different place.

In a model fueled by hope we see the person for who they are, not her remaining skills, but her essence. We do things together, go places. Our loved one feels less lonely, as do we, for we forge a connection with the person who is there and appreciate their abilities.

He noted that a lot of programs are inspired by Montessori programming.

He spoke of how much of our brain is hard wired to appreciate nature, use landmarks, facial expressions, visual expression and respond to touch. An awareness of these facets can help us in creating meaning for our loved one.

There were two points that he mentioned that tied closely to my observations of my mother. The first was about identity that remains and can continue to be expressed in their environment.

The second observation is that even while they may not remember the particulars about an experience, they remember how it made them feel. My mother associates me with doing things from our prior travels. When I come in to visit she says she looks forward to the fact that we do things. No, she doesn't remember what we do, but that isn't the important part of the experience for her.

A program within I'm Still Here is ARTZ which focuses on arts programming, developing collaborative programs with artists and museums that engage those with Alzheimer's.

Sean Caulfield, director of ARTZ, spoke about their programming and the principles that underlie it. There are three parts of the creative process.

Imagination-freeing one's self from mental constraints

Action -perception, sensory reaction

Reflection - how can we do it better

The first two are unaffected, also consistent with my mother's creation of art. I have often envied her ability to suspend judgment and just create. It is a state artists often struggle to achieve. The ARTZ program works with both the visual arts and poetry and many of the artists create work that both surprises and delights.

I was especially touched by artwork Sean shared from a person who could no longer speak. It was of a tree with the word "mad" written by it. When asked why the tree was mad she wrote "No longer in the forest".

I thought of an elderly person isolated from the world, no longer able to communicate through speech. I'd be mad too. Artwork remains a vehicle for expression. If we listen carefully we might just learn something.