Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Carolyn H. Manosevits Mixes Media and a Powerful Healing Message

“I am passionate about keeping alive the culture, tradition and memory of the destroyed shtetls (small Jewish communities) of Europe.  My art is my vehicle” Carolyn Manosevitz quotes in a recent catalogue of work devoted to her personal experiences of loss.  As a part of a long healing process, in 2003, the artist traveled to Kremenets, her family’s Jewish community in the Ukraine.  She admits that the journey was “a life-changing experience that brought closure to the great loss of my family.” A child of immigrants to Winnepeg, Canada, her artwork tells the story of efforts to work through personal and familial pain suffered because of the destruction of her loved ones by the Nazis during the Holocaust.

Manosevits is an artist, educator, and Holocaust scholar who helped organize this June’s symposium: Responsibility of World Religions in the Age of Genocide, in Aspen, Colorado.  Several of her original works of art were exhibited during the opening reception, where she spoke briefly about her mixed media processes and the healing odyssey that lead to this point in her life.  Individual papers, talks, and panels all addressed issues that are so beautifully echoed in Carolyn Manosevits’ artwork: the power of one individual’s story, our commitment to family and faith, the complex and multi-layered journey through healing, recovering memory, reconciliation, and how incredibly destructive the act of “other-izing” can be. 

Carolyn’s mixed media and fiber assemblage, “Children of Abraham,” features an intricate, pencil drawing of a tree.  Its trunk splits into two main branches, and one of these splits again into two more massive limbs.  The tree itself, though drawn naturalistically, upon closer examination reveals subtly flexing twigs that evoke veins, arteries and capillaries.  From one of the three central limbs dangles a delicate, white paper square with a Star of David drawn on it. The other limb of the pair sports a similarly fashioned card featuring a miniature cross. From the adjacent branch hangs an Islamic crescent moon and star. The three tiny symbol cards, identical in size, quiver, casting their ever-changing micro-shadows and reminding us of the sometimes-tenuous nature of our faith journeys.  Like the symposium itself, this image speaks to the differences in each religion’s traditions, but also shows what is shared:  foundationally similar values, the strength of generational network, and the power of community; all springing forth from and anchored in, a solid sameness and truth.  Humanity is declared and celebrated. Across centuries, and down into the time of the soul of the earth, the roots reach while the limbs intertwine and stretch upward, seeking.

The tree dwarfs a hand-rendered tent that is similarly grounded, offering sanctuary. It is flanked with fabric of red and white contrasting stripes and is tethered to the earth with a chord that goes off the bottom of the picture plane, trusting the same subterranean truths in which the tree is routed. One flap suggests openness and invitation with a tilt of perspective allowing simultaneous views of different sides of the man-made structure. Extending out several inches and above, over the top of the entire composition, Carolyn has draped an amber, fibrous firmament made up of thousands of tiny, interwoven, glistening threads in a remnant that is both unraveling and protecting.  It also provides sanctuary; shielding, sheltering, shadowing, and gently inviting the viewer back down into the tent, perhaps a nod to our civilizing, organizing nature or our reliance on the temporary. The tether leads our eyes further downward and then the trunk gently coax us on a journey back up again, toward the vitality and promise of the tiny branches, reaching outward, once again, in a seamless cycle. The metaphor is at once optimistic, reassuring, and profound. 

Plexiglas shadowboxes spotlight most of Carolyn’s intimate pieces, none greater than 30 inches in any one dimension.  The hand-maid wonderscapes invite us in for adventures of exploration and discovery.  Incredibly tactile, the sensitively crafted scenes scream to be touched and have a Lilliputian charm that makes the viewer want to hit the “shrink” button and travel through them, looking around in all directions.  “Reconstructing the story” is a trio (I, II, III, IV) mixing paint, colored pencil, sculpted papers, collage bits, and hand-written text as well as color-tinted and sepia toned photographs painstakingly layered among gauzy netting-like fibers. Framing edges, pathways, and marks deliberately etched into layers of pigment, all reflect the immutability of fate, witnessing to a conflict and struggling; to remember, to leave a mark, to declare “they were once alive, they were here – hold them, keep them, they are members and need to be RE-membered.” 

“We who are the remnants” and “My children’s children” are similarly crafted with photographic portraits embedded in pigment. The imagery in both evokes kaddish, the Jewish prayers children say for their parents after death.  The subtle coloration of what appear to be family photos, groupings of loved ones, blending in with their richly textured backgrounds, allows a hiding, a fading, and a temporal aspect of release, of bidding farewell.  Into the fields they disappear.  Into the past they drift.  Leaving is not fleeing and is not by choice. It is not a march, a trot, or even a trudge: it is a slow melt. It is the disappearance of a single photographic frame, and the profound loss that renders the victims frozen in the reel of eternal time, which, in turn, is forever altered by their absence. Foreground gives way to background where pathways, arches, and figures simultaneously beckon and block the viewer.  Arms interlock, and shapes around community members morph to suggest spirits accompanying them on their journey, becoming nearly tangible forces; vital, organic, leading.

Some of Ms. Manosevits’ images seem more narrative than others.  “Krefelder Juden: for Emma” presents a topsy-turvey, slice-of-time world of mostly gray, and unanswered questions. Hints of saffron, violet and sage green function to merely highlight small bits of the primarily black and white composition:  a slightly greened barrier or fence in the foreground, a purplish dress and shadow in the middle ground accompanied by golden-tinted, flying window panes.  Perspective is deliberately unsettling, swinging different planes of chaos at the viewer behind the collaged photograph of a woman glancing down, introspective.  Is she Emma?  Or is someone seeking an already missing Emma? “Juden”: the Jews – are they gone? Are they being mourned, remembered? In the top half of the composition, an ominous maelstrom of cacophonous marks swirl – bits of text; some indistinguishable but deliberate forms, repetitive parallel marks suggesting architecture or industry; a net-like structure; and tiny bits of black and white, all disturbed by a conflagration of smoke, jagged edges, and flecks that appears to be in motion. Are they ashes? Is this the crematorium out in the country, the side of a building in a burning city, or a symbol of our civilizing instincts sinking in a tidal wave of terror? Is this the future, for Emma?  Or a memory of the past, locked in.  Are we being shown a death camp, a death march into oblivion, stone-cold fear, extreme despair?.  Even if you did not know the context of these pieces, or the translation of the word Juden; heavy, aching ambiguity and torn emotions blanket the work. Fury and frenzy permeate portions of the composition, vying for our attention; with the pensive sensitive portrait at the bottom, trapped, and the whirling dervish above; uncertainty hovers, a cyclone of destruction looms.

In contrast, “Echo” is easy on the eye and one of the pieces that holds together well, visually.  There is harmony and balance, even amidst the darkness and despair.  Several rectangles float and appear to lock into place, transforming disturbance into a resolution of sorts.  Again, multi-layers of fibers, papers, bits of collage and re-appropriated photographic imagery are treated with a working and re-working of pigments to render the final surface extraordinarily rich.  All of Carolyn’s work makes you want to look more, to see, and to think.  The pieces encourage contemplation and meditation.  They slow you down.  They are labors of a care, of tenderness and giving back.  We can feel optimism, reverence, and vitality even thought the subject matter evokes an incredible sadness at the loss of so much more than individuals.  Our civilizing has been compromised; it teeters perilously, yet there is hope.  “Seeking the Holy Spirit together” depicts a hand, reaching up into the light. Layering fibers into much of her work alludes to scripture about remnants; torn from the whole, separate, asunder. Including text hints at the power of expression and protest through letter and word, wisdom and book.  Tradition and values live even if people cannot. And of course the photographs themselves declare the power of collective and personal memory as well as the preciousness of each individual. In the catalogue, Rev. Dieter Heinzl shares, “Carolyn is a Holocaust scholar/artist with a passion and deep commitment to Tikkun Olam, the mending of the world. . . her teaching has broadened minds and opened hearts.” 

Monday, July 23, 2012

Making connections in an Olympic year

With the school year quickly approaching, I’m, as always, brainstorming how I will grab these history students’ attention at the beginning of the year.  Using the Olympics as a “hook” might be the perfect connection between past as present.  We can spend some time on the ancient games and culture as well as a few games as case studies.  With my high school students, the 1936 Nazi Olympics would be a great example of how politics drive the actions of a nation and effects the international community- something we will continually come back to over the course of the year.

If making this connection is something you’re interested in, there are some fabulous resources out there.  Most notably, there is an excellent exhibition on the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum’s website, titled “The Nazi Olympics: Berlin1936”.  This is something that is easily navigated by students. It is supported by a teacher’s guide, which holds valuable, well-written activities and discussion questions. (There is also this set of lesson plans developed by the Midwest Center for Holocaust Education to accompany the exhibition.)

Students might also be intrigued by the Jewish VirtualLibrary’s article “The Nazi Olympics”.  It lists out non-“Aryan” medalists in the games.  Students always are amused when they see examples of Hitler’s ideas on Aryan supremacy being nullified.

Every four years, we have the opportunity to watch the world unite for friendly competition.  I believe it is always great to remind our students what we learned from the past and have a frank discussion about what we can improve on today.

Have a great beginning to your school year!

Thursday, July 12, 2012

The value of maps

I recently attended MCHE’s summer course for educators entitled 1942 and the Final Solution. This course helped me put the history of the Final Solution into a clear, concise context through the use of maps, geographical information, primary source documents, and photographs.

As an English teacher, I felt comfortable using literature of the Holocaust with my eighth-grade students. My participation in the teaching cadre and classes/workshops/exhibits offered by MCHE helped me learn historical concepts that I could share with my students as well. This recent class, though, really showed me the importance of geography in the understanding of both the literature and the history.

Although I did share maps with my students, I certainly didn’t teach the geography of the Holocaust in a meaningful and effective way. While I did require that my students “learn” the map of WWII Europe, I didn’t use that information with each historical activity we completed to supplement our literary studies. I would encourage those of you who teach English to include the geography of the  Holocaust as an important area of study for your students no matter the length of your unit. Take the time to include maps and a general overview of the country/culture(s) at that particular time.

Holocaust – Maps and Photographs (a visual narrative by Martin Gilbert) is a compact, yet useful source of interesting, content-laden maps. The following map titles are just a few of those included: Two Thousand Years of Jewish Life in Europe, The Persecution of the Jews of Germany in the First Five Years of Nazi Rule 1933-1938, The Fate of the Gypsies Under Nazi Rule, The Desperate Search for a Country of Refuge. The author’s website, Sir Martin Gilbert Online, is an interesting source of geographical information as well. Another engaging online source which consists of interactive maps is found at USHMM.

In literature the setting is always a key piece of discussion. In the study of Holocaust literature, learning about the geography of that setting can truly enhance student and teacher understanding of the people and the events.