Sunday, July 20, 2014

The Process Begins

So a concept for my next series has begun to take shape, from memory and identity to loss of memory and its impact on identity. I've listed out twelve ideas. Each with a story and underlying imagery. Some I've written about in this blog, the memory jar, blowing kisses. Each has some context relevant to how one can support a family member with Alzheimers. The memory jar offers an example of assisted remembering, how we can help someone recall treasured memories. Blowing kisses relates to my mother interacting with an image of my father on a digital picture screen that keeps images actively before her, reinforcing her memory of loved ones. I work in series so I want to be sure that I have enough to work with. Twelve is enough to begin. Some will fall away and new images will emerge.

I remember a book I read on memory, Moonwalking With Einstein, which spoke of the memory palace as a vehicle to help us retain memory. You take a childhood home or place you know intimately and place visual imagery in each room, often in absurd combinations that are memorable. You remember through imagery, through a spatial sense, through the unusual within the familiar. When I last visited my mom I took pictures of the little vignettes throughout her home, the things in which memory is vested. My mother's home is a memory palace that anchors her memories. I am thinking of a painting called the Memory Palace, small paintings that form a whole, the little elements with embedded memories. Larger paintings will complement the Memory Palace.

I begin to write a grant to fund this effort. Midway through I begin to think about exhibiting this work. How will I get it out in the community? Always a good thing to address in a grant. I email several people who run an Alzheimer's support group for caregivers. I went to it for a time. They are tied in to organizations that address this issue. I outline my idea. They have seen my earlier work and heard me speak, hopefully they liked what they saw. I am asking for their help on spec as I haven't yet begun this series. A few days later they respond with an invitation to showcase my work at a Caregiver Conference, to contribute to a video as part of their PR. Things are beginning to move. I'm tickled to have an invite without the work to show.

Now the challenge with grants is timing. I suppose the bigger challenge is getting them. I've had occasional successes, but all efforts help me to hone my concept. Once I send them in, I let go of expectations. What I think is a great idea might not speak to them. I don't let my sense of self or the value of my work rest in their hands. Artists that do probably don't remain artists. A tough skin is a requirement when you lead with yourself, especially in unfinished, tentative form.

So timing...They fund as of a specific date so I don't want to get too far ahead of myself. But that's OK, I need to figure out my approach and that will take some experimentation. I don't experiment enough for the sake of experimentation, too busy trying to get somewhere. It is hard to shut off my driven personality. It will be a luxury to have the time to play. Perhaps I will use a sketchbook or small panels to try different approaches and themes, a preparatory stage.

I stop in at the art store and buy inexpensive papers and surfaces on which to experiment. I look for semi-translucent qualities, things that suggest holes, lend themselves to layering. Memory is layered, elicited by a word, or deeply buried. How can I express that in a way that adds visual interest?

The topic of the Artists' Lab next year is water. That seems to fit with memory. Memories submerge, bubble up, flow. There is a fluidity to memory. Perhaps there is a way to connect these concepts.

So this is my process, how things come to be. My thinking side explores a framework, then hands it over to my creative side to flesh out. Then the thinking side comes back to build a structure and narrative around the artwork. This duality is both blessing and curse. My challenge is always in knowing how to shift between modalities, how to let each complement the other rather than block.





Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Birthing a Concept

I've been thinking about a new series of paintings and it occurred to me that it would be interesting to trace its development within this blog. There is a process by which work develops, from concept to execution. By the time I look back on it, it feels rather magical. "How did this happen?" I wonder. I hesitate a bit to report on its beginnings, thinking perhaps I should "knock on wood" lest I jinx it, but then you will have a glimpse into one of the false starts that are also part of the process.

First I look for a topic that inspires me, encourages dialogue within a larger community and lends itself to a visual medium. I don't want to just paint pretty pictures for people to hang on their wall. There has to be more to it for it to sustain my interest.

The concept is the hardest step. I don't always know what comes next, but I've learned that each body of work births the next. I often look back to look forward, to find the patterns that will take me to my next step. In 2007 I began with a series on family history. Gold metallic paint and language were my approach, layering with glints of what was hidden, heavily figurative. Text, always text accompanies my work, stories embedded and in this case words also embedded.

Language became my stepping stone to the next series. Off I went to Lithuania to study Yiddish in hopes of using it in my artwork. Along the way I was struck with the silence about the Holocaust and did a series on the silence surrounding it, using language and collage-like imagery. Less figurative, a departure. Stories of murder, silence, memory.

The Holocaust, the subject on which I now balanced, finding my footing on this new stepping stone, stepping carefully, gingerly. Off to Poland followed by a series on the former Jewish community of my ancestral town. In the style of a pinhole camera, small, figurative, limited palette paintings edged with darkness. Together they formed a larger whole. A lost community.

Community my new stepping stone. From that lost Polish community to my own Twin Cities Jewish community. Identity and legacy, the theme. I interviewed Jewish elders. Where did they come from? Who were they? What made them Jewish? What was their legacy to subsequent generations? Once again collage-like imagery to capture the depth of story, Each painting, a new experiment growing out of story. I found I preferred larger imagery, fewer details, a strong focal point. Each painting captured memories, a time capsule of stories.

And now I perch on two stepping stones, one a continuation of memories, stories sourced by interview, the other the Holocaust, I paint the Holocaust stories of a close friend, a survivor from my grandfather's Polish town. How do you paint stories of horror, of fear?  You find the human response, how people preserve their humanity in the face of horror. In this case the relationship with her mother became the story. Simplified forms, figurative, a connecting narrative, limited palette. Each memory vividly expressed. Together they form her identity, her sense of obligation to tell the story for those who can't.

If memory and identity are connected, what happens when we lose memory? Do we lose ourselves? My mother in her 80's is losing memory, but I still see her, the person inside this new self. Her identity seems intact, a reader even if she no longer reads, a lover of art even if she can no longer remember her favorite artists. As I recently wrote, she still retains and develops the ability to make art, creating without conscious thought. She described for me how it flows, perhaps better than for those of us who think too much. I am fascinated by this new passage.

How does one paint the absence of memory? How does one paint absence? But not complete absence, things surface, elements remain. Conversely, how does one paint a presence, but a different one than that to which I was accustom. What do we lose? What do we retain? What changes?

It seems a natural step to go from memory and identity to the loss of memory and all that goes with that. I begin to list ideas. What would I paint if I were to paint this story? What are the underlying stories, the themes that this work would raise? I paint for a purpose. I want to create dialogue around topics that call for it. What do I know about this subject? What have I observed? What can I learn? When I work on a series I read widely about my topic. My research begins to stir associations that in turn suggest approaches. And so I begin.

Saturday, June 21, 2014

Everyone Has An Idea

Everybody has an idea and they work it.- my mom

My mother is an artist. She's never had a show and the last art class she took was when she was pregnant with my brother over 60 years ago. She quit when she could no longer fit in the seats. It was her love of art that spurred me on in my explorations, that made it tangible. As a child I used to leaf through an envelope of her drawings, marveling at how she used an eyebrow pencil to capture my uncle's Navy uniform. I tried something similar in an early drawing, mimicking her technique.

We would go to the Chicago Art Institute and she would get postcards of her favorite paintings, lots of Klee and Roualt. Her taste was interesting, often quite contemporary and abstract. An Austrian artist named Hundertwasser was one of her favorites. She put the postcards in a little kitchen gallery, glancing up at them as she cooked or washed dishes, her little oasis of personal expression. When we were children she allowed us to each select a plate from her Van Gogh book to post over our beds. I grew up with his sunflowers watching over me.

My mother became a first grade teacher and carried her love of art into her classroom. She was known for her puppets. She constructed them of paper-mâché with carefully stitched clothing, paws or hooves and tails.

Now 87, she is contending with memory loss. Her world has shrunk as her ability to retain the thread of a story has faltered and reading has fallen by the wayside. My mother is a good problem solver however. Her problem was how to occupy her time now that books no longer filled her days. She is a purposeful person and needed a reason to get up each morning. She found that in a new pursuit, collaging. Or as she calls it, cutting and pasting. Each morning she gets her notebook, her newspaper and her glue and scissors and begins to cut. She marvels at how much good material is thrown out each day that she now makes use of.

When she started she was placing discrete images on a page, unconnected to the other images. But an interesting thing has begun to happen. Her images began to overlap, to meld together, color and form juxtaposed in unexpected and interesting combinations. Virtually anything is grist for the mill. Family photos sometimes appear causing me to wince when she uses the originals, even as I rather like the result. I make a frozen dinner for her lunch and notice the image from the box has joined her collage. When we go out she grabs any loose paper, menus, ads, all possible imagery. She works at this like a job, focused and intent, highly purposeful. She knows what she likes. She always did.

I like what she is doing and sometimes envy her ability to suspend planning.  I would agonize over finding the perfect arrangement of imagery. She follows her eye and just as a photographer takes many pictures to get the critical moment, she just keeps producing and as you can see her work is often quite interesting. She tells me"everybody has an idea and works it". This is her idea.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

The Unveil

 Thursday night we had our great unveil. The efforts of the past year culminated in an exhibition on light that shined, both literally and figuratively. The gallery was filled with attendees and of course the artists. I often find that openings are not good times to see the artwork, there is just too much going on. I began to view the artwork only to run into friends and then resume at some point far across the room from where I began. My meandering path through people and art was more of a buffet, filling my plate with nibbles rather than deeply savoring each piece in its entirety. That I saved for a subsequent visit.

I brought my friend to the opening. Both friend and muse, her experience was the subject of my artwork in the show. My friend is legally blind. The first time she asked me to take her to an art show I stammered,"But but, how will you see it?" She patiently explained to me how I would assist her in that effort by reading and describing everything to her. I have found that while this is sometimes taxing, it is a good way for me to fully take in a show. I look forward to our more in-depth visit next week. In the meantime here are some of my initial nibbles.

As we entered we were greeted by Toni Dachis's beautiful sun. With torn paper from past projects she recycled her work into a thing of beauty. Raised textures and colors glowed, promising and inviting.

To our right was Rani Halpern's exquisite cut paper piece that echoes the prayer which speaks of the "Creator of day and night, who rolls back light before dark". Intrigued with our sketchbook project in which she expertly cut the pages into forms and Hebrew text, Rani got a much larger sketchbook and formed it into a star, shaping it into a reflection on day turning into dusk with a background layer painted deep midnight blue. Each layer is beautifully cut with day offering glimpses of the night that is to follow.

As I walked through the gallery I noticed Leah Golberstein's work gently swaying in a breeze of movement. Her delicate handmade paper formed a berth for pomegranates, echoing the nerot tamid, the eternal light.

Behind her work, Ann Ginsburgh Hofkin's forest invited me in. Printed on aluminum was an image of a light from above illuminating the darkness of the woods in a way that caused me to expect something miraculous to follow. Perhaps capturing the moment was miracle enough.
Nearby Kris Prince's large painting also beckoned me into the woods, but in an entirely different fashion as I followed human forms guided by candlelight in a joyous procession.

I detoured to the middle to read the intriguing letters in the pockets of Alison Morse's work. The letters are written from the perspective of workers in the Rani factory disaster and that of the Triangle Shirtwaist factory, I chided myself for forgetting to bring my contribution to her poem for the closing. "I will bring it when I return Alison", I silently promise. She will then take our contributions to weave into a final poem.

Louise Ribnick's work beckoned me nearby with her bright colors and the imagery of a young child running ahead, a meditation on her grandchild, soon to enter the world.

And then a stop at Robyn Awend's word find, searching for light, or at least words on light. I found for someone who loves words, I struggled to find them. With the aid of Toni and her husband, I found a few before moving on.

I glanced up to locate my friend who was in rapt attention as Jonathan Gross described his work to her; A light box of sorts which reflects dust in beams of light. Light is the vehicle to enable us to see what may already quietly exist.

As I left the gallery I noticed Joel Carter's crack in the world created from rock, the light now coming in, an eloquent meditation on the quote from Leonard Cohen, "There's a crack in everything, That's how the light gets in".

In the lobby I chatted with Anita Konikoff about her initial foray into exhibiting her beautiful stitched imagery on the light of Jewish rituals. She asked if one gets past the intimidation of showing when you do it often. "No" I thought, "it is always there on some level. You just learn to forge ahead anyway". I am so grateful to my fellow artists who forge ahead and share their work, creativity and energy.

And there is so much more than what I've mentioned here. With 25 artists, I can't speak of all of the amazing work. I merely offer a taste. Please come for the main meal and enjoy all of the artists' intriguing contributions.

Note: I've written in this blog about the development of my own work for this exhibition. You can see the work and read the story behind it on my website.

Or Chadash, A New Light: Unfiltered Tychman Shapiro Gallery and Shared Walls Exhibition Area
June 12-July 20, 2014 Closing Presentation July 20 5:00-7:00pm (Readings)
Free and Open to the Public

Saturday, June 14, 2014

A Two-Sided Coin

Tomorrow is Fathers' Day. No more do I go in search of cards that speak to some signature trait of my dad. It was never easy to find the right card. My father didn't play golf or fish or watch sports. All the cards that were designed for the prototype dad didn't seem relevant to our world. We weren't gushy so nothing about the best dad in the world and truth be told our relationship had its challenges. I certainly wasn't a Daddy's girl so that genre also fell by the wayside. I used to wonder what a typical father-daughter relationship was like and how did mine fall so far outside the sphere judging by the range of cards. If I was fortunate, I found one with some humor that spoke to some childhood experience.

It is now the third year since my father's death. Now Fathers' Day is a celebration for my husband. A different holiday all together. My son-in-law texts me to check his size. We gather at his daughter's for a combination Father's Day/ birthday party for our granddaughter. My husband has a strong relationship with his daughters and raised them post-divorce. I remember when his oldest daughter warned me early in our relationship to be good to her dad because he was a pretty special guy. I was touched to see the strength of their relationship.

My dad was not the stereotypic father. He was a complicated man, often difficult, wrapped up in his world, driven, self-absorbed, quick-tempered and impatient. He was also a doer, clever at making things happen, creative, a visionary and a principled man. He believed in speaking up, not standing passively by. He was fluent in speech and the written word. An excellent problem solver who delighted in being able to help others. Great to have in a crisis, not so easy in the everyday. He wasn't an easy man to grow up around, but he made an indelible mark, not only on me, but on many who were close to me. My ex-husband revered him. Somehow my father understood what he needed and encouraged him when he most needed it. Ditto for my female friends who he encouraged and helped as they sought careers in traditionally male professions.

I have come to realize how much of him is in me and how much he shaped each of his children, good, bad and otherwise. He liked to be in control and didn't like his universe disturbed. He used to say, "in my house you live by my rules". So I moved out at seventeen and having control of my life has been a central principle since. When I talk to my younger sister I realize she too possesses that need for control. I love her dearly, but give us too much time together and we clash over whose in control. We both responded to my father's need for control and our childhood lack of it. Truth be told, having control of your life is not a bad thing. We sought out education, planned our careers and planned financially; all because those actions gave us control over our lives.

Somewhere along the way, I accepted my father for who he was, a mixed bag with good and bad traits that were often interrelated, flip sides of the same coin. He lightened up later in life. As a grandfather he was able to express his love and adored his two granddaughters. Later in life as memory faltered he reached out to his children with a new fondness that often touched me.

As I've gone through my dad's papers I've had many shocks of recognition. We share many qualities. I have a better understanding of the pride he took in many of my accomplishments for I now know he recognized himself in me as well. Happy Father's Day, Dad.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Openings and Closings

The Artists' Lab exhibit opens this week. Yesterday we got a sneak peek into the exhibition and I was awed with the work of my fellow artists. So many different takes on light, so many creative approaches. It is always a wee bit intimidating.

By now I am far too close to my own work, it is hard to step back and see it through fresh eyes. I struggled with this piece, tired of working with themes that I still find daunting. It is time to move on and I am considering new subjects, but have promised my friend one more painting in the Holocaust series based on her stories. There is an empathetic element to the way I paint, feeling through another's memories. It is perhaps like being an actor and feeling your part too deeply. Sometimes I need to step away and breath fresh air.

What I most enjoyed with this work was the poetry that began it. The poems will hang with the painting and I will read them aloud at the closing on July 20 5-7pm. My favorite audience of course was my friend Dvora on whom they are based. She felt they captured her experience in a very true way and marveled at the little details I recalled from her experience. That gave me much satisfaction.

As the lab's Resident Writer I've been busy writing articles for the catalog and for an on-line magazine and of course the Artists' Lab blog. My own blog is sometimes neglected, but ideas to share abound. More to come shortly.

And just to close out the lab, I thought I'd share some of my work from the sketchbook exchange project. I've already written of some of my sketchbook images in the Sideways Glance and A Flash of Light. My other two contributions were on the themes of luminosity and the art of nature. Instead of drawing, I decided to use some of the photography from my photo library, those source material images I shoot when something captures my eye. I had some amazing photographs of clouds that were truly luminous and cut out the forms and positioned them on opposite pages. One of the artists had drawn circles throughout the book so I painted them in a complementary fashion. The other image I had was of an elaborate spider web. I coupled it with a quote from Picasso on where artists draw their inspiration.

Soon our lab will come to a close and the next year will begin in October. If you are in the Twin Cities stop by the Tychman Shapiro Gallery June 12. 6-8pm for the opening. Then plan to come back without the hubbub and carefully read about and contemplate each work.
 Posted with BlogsyPosted with Blogsy

Monday, May 26, 2014

The Sideway's Glance

At the same time I've been working on my painting based on my friend's Holocaust memories, I have also been playing with  images related to sight, some on canvas and some in a sketchbook. I also began to write poetry about my friend's loss of central vision and the way she needed to use her peripheral vision to see. In the sketchbook I made use of an image of my inner eye and magnifiers that are so important in her ability to perform daily functions. I am often surprised by her sudden unexpected sight. Using her peripheral vision she can often pick up on contrast or movement, always when I least expect it. 

Shrouded in darkness,
Never seeing what lies in front,
The aleph of a face

Closed to you.
You find your light elsewhere,
That of an enlightened mind
Burning brightly.
No mere flicker,
It is an insistent flame.
You are forced to find your sight
in the peripheral,
The sideways glance,
Surprising unsuspecting Sight.
Often surprising me, as well.
You can use those? you ask,
As I grasp the chopsticks.
You can see those?

I reply.

One day I asked her what she sees, trying to think how I would paint it.  How does one paint what one doesn't see?  An odd concept.  Truly negative space.  She told me to squint, squint until I could barely see.

What do you see? I ask.
What does it look like?
Squint until you can barely see.

I close my eyes,
eyelashes flutter.
Graying the world into flickers
Like an old celluloid film.
Can you see my face?
No, I have never seen your face.
I move to your side.
Now, can you see me?
Not clearly,
And yet,
you see me better than most,
who I am,
You recognize
the core of me.

I found myself thinking of the concept of inner light. I recalled her recounting her deep despair over the gradual loss of her sight and her discovery of the Library of Congress books on tape that represented a renewal of her inner light.   

Thirty years ago you knew that
Sight was fleeting,
A gradual loss,
Each year worse
Than the one before.
The year you stopped driving,
A watershed.
An independent woman
In need of others.
You despaired,
Unable to re-imagine
yet one more time,
Chaffing at the losses.
Sight the first but so pervasive.
How does one live when your world changes
in every conceivable way.
Where is the light
when there is only darkness?

I did a profile, then a still life of her magnifier and her magnifying glasses. I first began by filling in with imagery of the things that enrich her life today and then didn't like the imagery so painted over it. Then I began to paint a plant which seemed to work, representing new life. Finally I added the suggestion of me, but greyed out as she sees me. Many times I've sat across from her in her study just like that.

My friend has an amazingly rich life today, reading books on tape, studying the Talmud with her study partner by telephone and talking to groups on the Holocaust. She calls her lack of sight her "handicap", but with a strong will and an interest in the world around her, she has reconstructed a life of deep meaning.  I don't know how I will finish this painting or if it will be one of those unfinished ones that leans lonesomely against my studio wall, but I like her queenly profile.

But after despair came light,
A new vision
Of life without vision.
Your inner light burns brightly,
A tape player
like a cornerstone
On which you build this new edifice.
Reading regained
Through ears, not eyes.
You take it all in,
Stoking your light
Til it roars like a furnace,
Talmud by telephone,
Translation by magnification
Embraced by family
And friends,
to your light.