In between I was able to begin some of my paintings from my trip. I was sketching ideas on the plane to Paris. My blog gives me considerable material from which to glean visual imagery. One of the images that stuck in my memory was that of the trees overlooking Ponar, the killing site of Vilnius in which most of the Jews were murdered. They bore silent testimony to the horrors that occurred there. While I usually paint people, I felt compelled to try to capture the imagery of the trees overlooking the burial pits. Below I wanted something that suggested the bodies buried in the pits and decided to go with metaphor and use the letters of the Yiddish alphabet to represent bodies.(see closeup) Lying on their sides they provide a figural suggestion and unfortunately an accurate representation in that the future of Yiddish was largely buried in the pits with its speakers. Bands of upright letters spell out “Gedenken” which means “Remember” in Yiddish. As I neared the bottom of the pit I increased the size of these bands until the letters become clearly apparent. The vantage point of the viewer is from the pits looking upward, perhaps the last view of its many victims. The painting is 24" x 72".
Since my return I’ve read the book “The Ponar Diary 1941-1943 by Kazimierz Sakowicz. This book was written by a Polish journalist who lived in Ponar during the time of the murders. He observed them daily from his attic and wrote about what he witnessed, burying each page in a bottle. I was especially struck by his dispassionate tone in which he would talk about the beautiful day in the same breath as the murders. I wanted the painting to reflect that juxtaposition as well. I’m not sure if I’ve completed this painting or if I will paint out the lower section and rework it, but here’s the image thus far. Its name of course is Gedenken/Remember.
Another painting which I’ve been working on is based on the stories told in the blog entry “Storytelling”. As you may recall we visited a restaurant in Vilnius under which there is a tunnel that ran from the old synagogue behind the restaurant to outside of what was once the ghetto gates. The proprietor of the restaurant showed us the gate to the tunnel. As we stood under the starry night sky we could almost imagine the synagogue that once stood there. She also shared with us a story about an elderly man who came to the restaurant one day. He stood in front of the restaurant for a long time and then came in and asked if he could sit in a particular room, one where one wall is filled with a rack of wine bottles. He looked distressed as he sat there and she asked if she could get him some coffee. He turned to her and said, “This used to be my bedroom”. He had lived in that building when it was part of the ghetto with his mother and sisters. When he stood up to leave he said, “I won’t be back again”. Yet another story she shared with us was about when they were renovating the space late at night. They often felt and saw a presence which she felt was benign, as if it were children. She had learned that the coal chute was often a hiding place for children during the ghetto when hiding successfully meant another day of life. As we left we had told her that if she felt the presence again she should say, “Shalom Aleichem” which means “Peace be with you”.
All of those stories are reflected in my painting titled “Shalom Aleichem”. In this painting an old man is the central figure. I based the painting on an elder Lithuanian man who was attending the Vilnius Yiddish Institute. Behind him are circles within circles signifying the wine rack which gradually melts into a starry night sky. Above him is the gate to the tunnel with the tunnel leading from its lower left corner in the direction of the ghetto gates. A chute with the suggestion of a child flows into it, perhaps a recollection of the old man, perhaps a ghost-like presence.
The third painting I’ve been working on is a language painting based on one of the few buildings left in Vilnius with Yiddish writing. Below the storefront is a window on which visitors have written in Yiddish in the dust. The Yiddish was translated as “You were not killed, the nation of Israel lives”. The painting contains part of the script over the door as well as the handwritten Yiddish for “the nation of Israel lives”. In the corner is a pile of stones such as those left on tombstones to show one has visited the grave. There are images embossed into the painting that are drawn from the synagogue memorial in Riga. Unfortunately they don't show up well in a photograph.
I don't know that I would consider any of these paintings finished yet. That is always a hard call as I often am tempted to change them even when they are hanging in a show. If you are interested in seeing what I am currently working on or past work, you are always welcome to stop by studio 409 in the California Building, 2205 California St. NE, Minneapolis, MN. We are usually open from 12-5 on the second Saturday of each month along with other studios in the building.