I am in an almost finished stage with my painting for the Artists’ Lab* exhibition, but still teetering on the edge of saying it is finished. I recently added a web page with the artwork, story and a poem that knits it together with the story of Abraham and Isaac. Despite this seeming act of closure, I commented to others at the Lab that I might still decide to change it. They directed me to read the sayings that were posted on the walls. Much to my amusement I discovered that each one was on endings and many were quite appropriate to what I was feeling.
Perhaps the one that spoke most directly to me was this:
When I’m finished, I always wonder what would have happened had I made different decisions along the way. (Brent R. Laycock)
I had commented earlier in the Lab that beginnings were difficult because they require us to choose a direction and abandon others. We move from all possibility to one. It is much the same thing which causes me to pause at declaring it finished. Part of me still harbors the thought of the roads not taken and debates whether I should attempt a change. In the case of this painting which is based on a Holocaust story from my friend, I am hesitating over the degree of artistic license that I am taking. Should I make her look more distressed, should the subjects look as emaciated as they most likely would have been after months in Auschwitz. But I have been thinking of this painting more as one based on the concept of parallel stories rather than a Holocaust painting. The Holocaust just happened to be the setting in which it took place.
As the painting developed it reminded me of symbolist work, particularly that of Pierre Puvis de Chavannes, a French artist from the 1800s. I did a search of his work to see if there was anything similar and found his painting Death and the Maiden (on the right), an allegory on the fragility of life.
Here is an excerpt of the painting next to an excerpt of my painting. If you were to see the entire painting, you would note the figure of the grim reaper lurking stage left, perhaps an appropriate reference point for the story which I painted. My painting can be viewed as symbolist also in that the bread represents life, the strewn cans on the road, imprisonment and futility. The stones represent those who did not survive and the trees echo the stripes of concentration camp uniforms.Some of the other quotes that spoke to me were these:
A painting is like the façade of a house…and you’re like a janitor who goes around systematically trying to close all the windows and doors- but when you get to the top floor to close the last window, a wind blows open the one on the first landing. You rush down and close that one, and then one on the middle floor blows open and you rush to close that. But when you’ve closed all the entries to the house, then the painting is closed - not that it’s finished, it’s just that you can’t enter it any longer. (Graham Nickson)
Kind of like a game of whack-a-mole…
And yet another that speaks to me as someone who likes text and context.
The work isn’t complete for me until I add words, as reading is as important to me as painting. (Veronika Funk)
In the Lab we were asked if there was a difference between finishing and ceasing. We referenced the language in Genesis 2:1-4a which reads:
And on the seventh day God finished the work which he had been doing and He ceased on the seventh day from all the work which He had done. And God blessed the seventh day and declared it holy.
Cessation was part of the creation story. Like breathing, it gives it space, the space between our breath as important as the breath itself.
Our discussion shifted to the question of commemorating a conclusion. In the creation story God concludes his work with a blessing and a cessation from work. We looked at I Kings 7:51-8:16 at the conclusion of the building of the Temple. It closes with a blessing and a poem. Well at least I have the poem, perhaps that's the benediction for my work.
With that we turned to the task of creating a ritual for closing our sessions of the Artists’ Lab and for the conclusion of our exhibition. We were all in agreement that it had to involve food and began to map out a ritual that would engage all within the Lab’s community of artists in interacting with the work of our fellow artists.
*The Jewish Artists’ Laboratory is an arts initiative through the Sabes Jewish Community Center featuring 17 artists exploring the theme of Text/Context/Subtext through study and art making. The project is funded through The Covenant Foundation and similar projects are being done in both Milwaukee and Madison. Artists explore how the theme of Text/Context/Subtext is relevant to Jews and non-Jews, to religious and non-religious, to the community and to the individual, to the artist and the non-artist.