Tuesday, May 29, 2012

When We Grow Up

I recently gave a talk about my artwork and shared how it had grown out of my interest in family history. Afterwards I received an interesting question. Do you consider yourself more a genealogist or an artist? I replied that I have a set of skills that cuts across all of the areas that capture my interest...I tell stories and solve puzzles. Those skills are used in my artwork, my genealogy research and even my financial work.

I've thought about that question since and have a bit of a "top of the stairs" response, you know, one of those answers that occurs to you after the fact. So much of our life is about what will we be when we grow up and we are expected to select one option. For me the list of options ran something like this: artist, book illustrator, interior designer, writer, librarian, anthropologist, archeologist, industrial engineer, psychologist, lawyer, nonprofit director, banker, investment manager, treasurer, genealogist, historian, storyteller. Each thing I did opened me up to new possibilities. As a child I loved books and art so I decided a book illustrator might combine the two. My grade school librarian was one of my early role models so librarian made it on the list and I spent my college years working in libraries. A college anthropology class combined with a childhood love of mythology caused me to consider exploring ancient stories and cultures. A stint typing papers in the IE department caused ergonomics to intrigue me, designing things to fit the human body. I actually read and thought about what I typed. When options became realized I found that nonprofit management offered a test tube environment. I could take an idea and make it happen. Financial careers came later in my life as I concluded they offered a way to have control over one's life as well as an opportunity to solve puzzles.

I used to observe people around me who seemed so much more directed on their career path, they WERE an accountant, a lawyer, a money manager. I on the other hand was merely masquerading and had a hard time taking it all as seriously as they seemed to. I didn't have a single-minded drive to be that one particular thing. I was just passing through exploring along the way. I used to counsel people who worked for me that work should be entertaining and that was what it was to me. It was an exploration of things that intrigued me, puzzles to solve, no different than a game of Scrabble except they paid me to play it. That didn't mean I liked everything I did, but I always found enough that I did like to find enjoyment in my career. And even though I didn't bring a single-minded focus on one career, I found success in each of my careers by finding the enjoyment in them. That made me good at what I did which led to some of the success that those more single-minded people were seeking so intently.

So artist or genealogist or for that matter any of the careers that I've explored? I've spent much of my life pushing back on the walls when people tried to put me in one box. Work places have a way of doing that. I still find new disciplines that intrigue me, but even more I find the linkages between different disciplines. Thus my interest in genealogy leads me to the events of world history that affected my family's lives. In turn my artwork becomes a vehicle to tell the stories of family and cultural history. When you are your own boss, choosing your projects based on your interests, you find a more meandering path, but also one that takes you into many disciplines. And if creativity is the melding of disparate disciplines perhaps this approach best allows it to bloom.

Monday, May 28, 2012

My Parisian Family

In July the International Association of Jewish Genealogical Societies (IAJGS) conference is being held in Paris.  I've spent lots of time in Paris so am always searching for something new that I haven't yet discovered.  This time I definitely have something new on my agenda, family members who I've not yet met.   A third cousin survived the war and settled in Paris.

Some years ago I went with a group to Bad Arolsen, Germany.  It was my first trip to Germany and I approached it with some trepidation.  I had a strong aversion to going to Germany and the only way I could do the trip was for the purpose of doing Holocaust research.  The International Tracing Service is located in Bad Arolsen and holds the Holocaust records that have since been shared with other institutions.  I went there with a list of fifty family members who were in Radom, Poland prior to the war.  On the first day I discovered that they had no records for them.  As they were sent to their death in Treblinka, no records were maintained.  I then learned that the meticulous Germans only cared about recording the Jews if they represented inventory, workers to be used until their death with a shelf life of months at best.  Those sent directly to their death went unrecorded. 

I had a week to spend at Bad Arolsen and wasn’t quite sure what I was going to research if none of my family members were in the archives.  Then I had an idea.  I went back to the records of Yad Vashem and assumed that if someone gave testimony, they survived and were family or close friends.  I began to research those who provided testimony and it led me to survivors.  My great-grandmother had a sister who generated a sizeable branch and testimony was given on many of them by one survivor.  When I looked up his file I learned that he had gone to Paris after the war.

Then I did something that I could have done from the comfort of my home.  I did a search on the name at the Holocaust Museum website and discovered that this relative had written a book, a Holocaust memoir.  The book was only available on-line and in French so I ordered it and with my bad high school French and some translation software I was able to decipher it.  I took the most direct route and emailed the Holocaust organization that had published the book.  I’m a relative I reported and inquired as to how I could contact the author of the book.  They kindly put me in touch with his daughter who was much braver with her English than I with my French.  We began an e-mail correspondence.  It is usually the daughters with whom I connect.

I went one step further with the book.  Because I do a Kehilalink for Jewishgen.org for the town of Radom, I often take memoirs and ask if I can include the first chapter on the site.  Typically that chapter talks about Radom.  I’ve found that if I offer to provide a link to where the book can be purchased, there is usually a willingness to allow this.  In this case, I had to actually translate the chapter and then type it up to include it.

So on this trip to France, I hope to meet my third cousin, now in his 90s as well as his children who are more my contemporaries.  I will need to brush up on that poor high school French in order to communicate.  Better start now!

Wednesday, May 16, 2012


I often feel as if I should begin this blog with an apology for not having written recently, a throwback to old letter writing days which frequently began in that fashion. Suffice it to say I’ve been busy. This weekend is Art a Whirl in Minnesota, one of the largest open studio events in the country. Thousands of people will be coming through our studio and seeing much of the work I’ve written about in these pages. I will spend the weekend telling the stories behind my work. While by no means a relaxing weekend, it is certainly an energizing one. It presents a wonderful opportunity to get very direct feedback.

For once we are ahead of schedule with the work hung and many of the preparations already completed. I’ve also been busy creating a website for the California Building where my studio is housed and of course doing the speeches that have become an important element in my work.

Some time ago I got an ipad as a tool to easily show my artwork. I soon realized another benefit to it was to crop my paintings to focus on specific sections. Many of my paintings have elements that I would like to develop further and by working smaller, I have an opportunity to develop the nuances that I find most visually appealing, thus a new series of Nuances was born.

I had done the Hole in Time series on 12” x 12” wood panels and with some still in the studio decided to pursue the idea of Nuances. The painting, Lozan Sha, that I wrote about in a prior entry had several areas that interested me. I especially liked the synagogue, half hidden under white. The synagogue was purposely obscured to create a sense of mystery and a distance from the women’s balcony.

I also liked the imagery associated with the mother’s hand resting on her child’s head as she slept in the pew. The resting hand connoted a sense of safety and security as experienced by a child. Each of these images lent themselves to a more nuanced painting

For the synagogue I first did a very detailed painting, then coated it in a veil of white paint. For the painting of the child, I didn’t seek to reproduce the original painting, but rather to take the idea and develop it further. Similarly I chose the gaze between the young girl and the chicken in Sleeping with Chickens to capture within a small panel.

In this case I decided to make the girl younger than in the original painting and incorporated some of the revisions I had made to signify the alarm of the child at the nearby chickens.

I've been thinking about whether a children's story with illustrations might grow out of some of these interviews so was playing with a character who might represent the child within them.

I’ve found this an interesting way to work and am thinking it may need to be an aspect of each series that I do, a way to explore imagery that interests me and conveys some nuance of the broader story.

If you are in the Minneapolis area, please stop by studio 409 in the California Building this weekend. We are open May 18th 5-10PM, May 19th 12-8PM and May 20th 12-5PM