This is the script that I wrote to speak at Temple B'nai Shalom on Friday, June 21. It was great fun and an honor!
When Rabbi Perlin asked me to speak to you about my artistic journey, I was excited and not just a little bit anxious. For those of you who know me well, I apologize in advance. Much of what I am about to say will be entirely too familiar to you. For those who don't know me, I want to give you a bit of background.
My family came to this country at the turn of the last century. I am from Eastern European descent with a bit of West Virginia thrown in for good measure, and to insure that I would be a true Melting Pot American. I grew up in a small town in southern West Virginia where my Jewish heritage was a bit of a curiosity. I didn't realize that my status of "other" would color my perceptions throughout my life. I have always been a bit of an outlier and believe that that personal trait is directly attributable to my 'other' status. I was certainly a cultural Jew, as my father was before me.
So, part of my identity has always been influenced by my growing up Jewish, and as a minority. The other part of my identity has been a life steeped in a love for the arts, specifically visual arts. I can't remember a time in my life that I wasn't interested in art, wasn't thinking about art, and wasn’t making art. Trouble was, I felt that I needed to touch others in a positive way, and it took me many, many years to realize that my art could do that. I had originally thought that art was a narcissistic pursuit. So, I worked as a graphic designer with the flawed thinking that that would be my avenue to reaching others, while also helping me earn my keep. During that time, I was still thinking about art, making art and hopefully improving in that endeavor. After 17 years as a graphic designer, I turned to my husband, Gil, and told him in no uncertain terms that I couldn't work in graphics anymore. When he expressed a bit of exasperation and stated that I had said the same before, I was unequivocal in my response. NO MORE! He got it. I then jumped in with both feet, painting, teaching art to adults, and leading tours at the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery, where I have also been able to teach. I have now been working in my "new" career for almost as long as my first one. I love almost every minute of it. But now as to why I am here at TBS talking to you:
I had no idea that my Jewish heritage could inspire a piece of art that could touch others, would stretch me out of my comfort zone, and would lead me to many other concepts in creativity. But inspiration comes from experience, and my experience was brought to bear in this piece perhaps more than any other experience I have had.
In the fall of last year, I was selected to participate in an exhibition to commemorate the Holocaust. This exhibition was to take place at the Jewish Community Center in Fairfax. My first reaction, which prompted raucous laughter among my artist friends, was that I wasn't Jewish enough. I think that my discomfort was really based on the fact that I was not the child of a Holocaust survivor and that I had not lost any family in the Holocaust. Once I moved past that emotional stumbling block, I started thinking about what I may want to produce. I am not sure where the ideas came from, but come they did in a fast and furious manner. I was allowed two pieces in the exhibition and I knew that I could include a painting that I had already produced. The knowledge that I had a piece that was prepared and ready to go allowed me some creative freedom and relief to try something that may not work out. I am a landscape painter who has spent many years developing my skills in the medium of pastel. For this piece I wanted something that would require the viewer to be more involved with the work rather than just viewing it passively. Once I established that parameter, I began thinking of ways to encourage interaction in the work.
There is symbolism for almost everything used in the installation. I am a book lover, so utilizing books became an obvious choice for the piece. I chose 12 books to symbolize the 12 tribes. Books often tell stories, so the books became symbolic of the stories that were forever changed, if not ended, as a result of the Holocaust. These books are printed in German, Russian, French, Italian, Polish and Yiddish. I chose these languages to illustrate that the people who were persecuted were not foreigners in their countries. They were citizens who were treated as enemies in their own lands. Each book has been distressed in different ways. Some are torn. If I was able to ascertain if the person portrayed survived, I didn't tear the book all the way through. If I was able to know that the person or people portrayed didn't survive, I did tear the books to the end. Four of the books were shot with an Austrian Lugar. Guns make me a bit squeamish, but I have to admit that it was interesting to go to the firing range and have the books shot. Interestingly, I had trouble watching when the gun was fired. It seemed too real and painful somehow. Finally, several of the books are singed. When a viewer takes a look at each book, they are met with uncomfortable images of fellow human beings. In many cases, the images show humans being treated in inhumane ways. This piece is not meant to lull people into a sense of comfort, even as the main image has been referred to as beautiful. Speaking of the main image, of course, the main image is that of a tree. The tree has been a symbol in so many religious traditions. Judaism uses the tree in its symbolism as well, and using the Tree of Life— the symbol for the Torah— seemed particularly appropriate. I have made many paintings that include trees, and I am not sure that the Tree of Life hasn't been an inspiration in a good bit of my work. The Yiddish book is the only book that really isn't distressed on its interior. I had initially not intended to use a Yiddish book, but our Barbara Kaplowitz gave me a book in Yiddish to use, and I decided that it was a terrific addition. Inside the Yiddish book, I have utilized a photograph of the discovery of the torahs that had been confiscated, and fortunately found before they were destroyed. The Yiddish book symbolizes some measure of hope. That hope is illustrated by the only color on any of the books in the leaf of the sapling. While working on the project, I opened the Yiddish book to discover, to my delight, a bit of English. The bookmark that includes the acorn, is meant to lead the viewer to this quote, which reads:
It seems as if God has been dethroned. Let us reinstate Him in our hearts. Mahatma Gandhi
The discovery of the quote was fortuitous, but in fact, the whole experience of making this piece was fortuitous. People came from what appeared out of nowhere to assist me when I needed it to complete this project. I was asked a few weeks ago if the JCC amassed the books for me. The answer is that I collected all the items to make this piece, but I had help. I will explain. I put out a request to those that I know for books, and several wonderful people came forward. One of my students works as a docent at the Holocaust Museum, where fellow workers gave her books in Russian and German. I contacted my Polish sister-in-law to see if she could get some Polish books for me. Her friend sent me four Polish books in the sizes that I requested and didn't charge a penny to send them to me. One of my friends living in Italy provided me with books in Italian, and then I found the other languages at a used bookstore. As with the books being symbolic of everyday objects, I wanted to display them in something that would appear as an everyday object as well. I had envisioned a dish rack and looked all over to find what would work— with no luck— until one day a man and woman came into my studio. I had met them before and I knew that they liked my work. While talking about working on this piece, I mentioned that I was looking for something that would look like a dish rack to display the books facing outward and that I was having a really tough time finding what I needed. Out of the blue, James said that he could build it for me. You see, unbeknownst to me, James is a woodworker. He told me that he could bang out what I needed in no time. When I asked what he would charge for it, he said nothing. I was flabbergasted, but thrilled. I drew up a plan and he came back to me with a much better drawing of a plan, based on what I gave him and went to work. I was thrilled with what he provided me.
Let me tell you a bit about the other objects in the piece. I had originally decided that I wanted pastel to come off on viewer's hands when they looked at the books. While working, I realized that I didn't want the image of the tree to be disturbed. To solve that problem, I put light color pastel on the backs of each book. My idea was that when one person hurts another, we are all affected. In other words we all carry that hurt with us. Of course, if viewers get something on their hands, they will need to remove what is left behind. Initially, I thought of providing wet wipes, but really was not comfortable with that solution. Out of nowhere, I thought of the tradition of cleaning one's hands after returning from the cemetery following a Jewish funeral. It was perfect. So, believe it or not, I found a wonderful antique pitcher from France on, of all things, Etsy! The bowl was found at an antique store where I also found the napkin for hand drying. Now I had to find a table to place these items. So, I went on another search until I realized that a stool would be a much better solution. I asked one of my fellow artists at the Workhouse her opinion of using a stool rather than a table and not only did she agree that it was a great solution, but she gave me a stool AND loaned me her power-sander so that I could distress the wood to make it work with the rest of the art.
So, there are many stories here. One is about the inspiration that led to this piece; another story is the community of people who came together to help me bring the piece to fruition. But the most important story is the story of those whose lives were ended or changed forever as a result of the Holocaust, and I am forever grateful that I was able to make something to help us remember them.