Archive for the Art and Culture Category

A psycho-geographic walk in Warsaw

Posted in Art and Culture, Crooked Mirror, Life and What about It, Poland, Travel with tags , , , , , , , , on September 4, 2017 by Louise Steinman

The last days of August I spent in Warsaw, holding animated conversations with my Polish friends about the abounding dangers in their country and my own. On my second morning in town, my friend Wojtek Szaszor a conceptual artist, offered me an unusual gift, a Warsaw map with circles drawn around locales he considered “symbolic chakra-Monuments” of Warsaw.  It was an invitation for what Wojtek calls “a free association- self-guided psycho-geographic tour in the spirit of John Cage,” all within walking distance of his Powisle neighborhood.

Wojtek uses conversations and dialogue as part of his art practice (in the arts district in LA, in the mid-90’s, he was an organizer of the alternative space on Traction Avenue called Spanish Kitchen), and until a few months ago, with his wife—artist and theater producer extraordinaire Joanna Klass, they ran an an “experimental incubator of art” called Curie City in central Warsaw near the Palace of Culture A storefront with theater artists creating new work alarmed the conservative Polish government. Curie City got hassled out of their lease.

What were the criteria for inclusion on this tour? Wojtek suggests that, in these present troubled circumstances, it could be helpful  to “assemble a team” composed of the living and the dead, those who are, he says, the true non-conformists and have some kind of knowledge of what is happening. Very few people in Poland, he added, are true nonconformists. I asked if he would join me on this walk but no, he said, his presence would spoil it.

My first stop was just a few blocks from my apartment, on the banks of the Vistula. The sun was bright and children were soaking up the last days of summer, splashing themselves in the fountain at the base of the Syrene of Warsaw, the mythical symbol of that grand city’s defiance, who rears up on bronze waves on her Piscene tail, holding her sword aloft.  A mermaid as a symbol of a city? I thought about the value of hybrids, what it means to be part human and animal, how hybrid forms are for non-conformists, for breaking norms that we’ve outgrown. And most of all, the siren must be heard.

The statue was unveiled in July, 1939, just a month before the German invasion of Poland. The statue survived the war, but the young poet on whose visage the sculptor, Ludwika Nitschowa, modeled the Syrene, did not. Her unblinking gaze belongs to the young poet and ethnographer, Krystyna Krahelska, who died on the second day of the Warsaw Uprising. Krahelska fought for the AK, the Polish Resistance, under the code name Danuta. She was nursing a wounded AK soldier when she was shot three times by a German sniper.

Her face was pure and idealistic, the face of a woman who would do what she needed to do for her country. It made me think of my young grandmother, who took refuge in Warsaw in 1920, two young children in tow, on her solo journey from Russia during its civil war. She secured her visa to come to the States at the Belgian legation in Warsaw, part of my own mythology. (I have not yet found the Belgian legation in Warsaw) . She did what she felt she must do to get her family to safety. She took risks. And so did Krystyna Krahelska.

I consulted the map for my next site, some commemoration of a woman named Eliza Orzeszkowa, located in a park crisscrossed with paths and lush pines. I needed practice navigating by street map. Where was she? There was the spring house that Wojtek had mentioned, where generations of Warsovians have filled their bottles from a natural spring. And there was the duck pond with some  mallards paddling around; I saw no plaque, no statue.  I sat down on a bench to ponder, to be still. It was a relief not to speak; Wojtek was so right to send me solo.  It took some minutes then I glanced over my shoulder at a noise– Eliza Orzeskowa, obscured by bushes, was staring right at me. Orzeszkowa, I learned, was a 19th century reformer and a prolific novelist who wrote about social conditions and campaigned for social reform in partitioned Poland, fought for the rights of women, espoused tolerance for Jews, and was nominated for the Nobel Prize in 1905. Russian authorities placed her under police surveillance for five years. Her solidity reassured me. I got out my pencils to draw her.

The Marie Curie Museum, on Freta Street in New Town, is in the townhouse where Maria Sklodowska was born. I observed flasks and beakers from her childhood lab, photos of Marie with Pierre Curie on their bicycle honeymoon, her spectacles in a glass case.

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It is always worth meditating on Marie Curie– her daring, her intellect, her dedication and imagination, her resilience in surmounting the many tragedies life handed her. As a young woman in Warsaw, she defied the Czar and attended the Flying University, where classes were in Polish. She allowed herself to imagine the freedom, as a woman, to study at the Sorbonne. She coined the term “radioactivity.” As chronicled in the beautiful Lauren Redness graphic novel about Marie, titled  Radioactive: “…in the lab she learned to counterbalance the unknown with the known.” She and Pierre attended séances, they were fascinated by all attempts to “coax the unseen into plain view.” She invented specially outfitted X-ray wagons and drove them herself to treated wounded French soldiers, pioneering new medical treatment on the battlefield.  Her discoveries—of radium, polonium (named for her native country) earned her two Nobel Prizes and were, she hoped, to be used for the common good.  Full stop.
Oh long-lost sisters, oh Vistula siren,
Oh Risk-taking Spirits, oh free radicals
Please guide us, hybrid as we may be

as we find our way

to resist
to exist
in these perilous times.

…and, since Wojtek invoked John Cage, I took the long way home, walking slowly along the Vistula, pausing for awhile under the Slasko-Dabrowski Bridge to listen to the songs the trams made as they clattered by overhead.

Quite beautiful songs, each one unique.

Captiva #climatemarch

Posted in Art and Culture, CAPTIVA, climate change with tags , , , , , , on December 1, 2015 by Louise Steinman
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Ding Darling in the studio (photo LS)

The night before our (very) local climate march (to coincide with the talks in Paris) finds the artists of our residency up late in Bob Rauschenberg’s mega studio in a confab of furious prop-building to the accompaniment of Ukrainian chaos-rock on someone’s iphone. Will shows Susan and Matt how to use the sewing machine to stitch the streamers. Lavinia and I hot-glue the home-made and hand-painted umbrellas to the poles that Bill painted in b/w stripes. LeBrie letters SUSTAINABLE on magenta-painted foam core with lemon yellow letters. Kate is painting, cutting, checking on costumes.

Our #climatemarch intends to enchant our audience—snowbirds on their last day of vacation on this luscious sub-tropical island and local Captivians with their ritual cocktail at sunset hoping for a green flash over the Gulf. We want to connect to voices in Paris and all over the world– and as well to remind all visitors here that the site of their adoration and pilgrimage, the beach itself, Captiva itself, will eventually be, as artist Buster Simpson points out,  “a paradise lost to sea.”

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off to the beach for the staging (photo: Matt Hall)

We are inspired by Bob Rauschenberg’s spirit of art in the service of activism, by the great conservationist Ding Darling, whose Fish House graces the Rauschenberg waterfront and whose prescient efforts on behalf of the wildlife and ecology of Captiva and beyond are on view at the Ding Darling Refuge nearby; by participants at last summer’s Rising Waters Confab here at the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation (especially Gretel Ehrlich and Mel Chin’s storyboard for a film/an action, poodles pulling Inuits from Greenland on sleds through Paris  so that they can speak at the Climate Talks about the disappearance of their way of life in Greenland.) How can artists engage people’s attention about global ecological issues? How can we remind people that the Arctic is Captiva? The Arctic is Detroit? The Arctic is Beirut? Rising waters everywhere…

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drawing by Mel Chin, collaborative project with Gretel Ehrlich

It’s our first collaborative group project and—after discussion– we decide to engage our local audience with humor, good will, with beauty. Will Cotton is a painter and his palette for our props and costumes are from pictures of Balinese rituals (and, though we didn’t realize it until afterwards, Fellini’s “Juliet of the Spirits.”)

People run up to take pictures. Some cheer. Some are puzzled. Some ask questions. When asked to join us, one man demurs, “…I would… but I paid for parking…” Another woman jumps into the surf to join us. We invite two pig-tailed sprites in hot pink two-piece suits to carry the poles with the streamers flowing behind. They’ll never forget this day. Bill explains that the stripes represents a way to measure “how high the water is rising.” LeBrie tells them, “we want there to be beautiful beaches like this for you when you grow up.”

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photo: Matt Hall

When the sun goes down, we retreat to a near-by Mexican restaurant, sitting around a weathered green and red wooden table. Climate activism stimulates the appetite. The collaborative fervor further bonds us.

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photo: Matt Hall

The walls of the café are oddly adorned with one dollar bills. Will is excited to see bananas growing in a palm above us. A charming waiter from Costa Rica brings plates of local blackened redfish and refried beans, too-sweet margaritas. Then we mount our blue bicycles and dart off into the night like a fleet of pelicans—new constellations above us, new projects ahead.

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“Our Solo Round Star Squeezed Between the Sky and Sea,” painting by Lucinda Parker

 

After dinner with Jane I woke up in the middle of the night

Posted in Art and Culture, Poland with tags , , , , , on May 29, 2015 by Louise Steinman

IMG_6764At dinner with Jane Hirshfield, before her talk at ALOUD, she asked– since I couldn’t tell her all of them– to tell her one conversation I’d heard in Poland that she should know about.  I’ve even forgotten what I said in that moment, since in my heart, I really didn’t know the answer. I woke up at 3 AM that same night, realizing just what it was– that one most important conversation I heard/had in Poland.

It was four iterations of the same conversation, heard on four different occasions in four different cities (Warsaw, Krakow, Sejny, Lublin) with 4 different sets of Polish friends, with Tomasz and Sylwia; with Wojtech and Joanna; with Maja and Adam; with Kris and Malgorzata. And I wrote to Jane: “We would be sitting in some lovely cafe, in Kazimierz, for example, in the sun, eating a beautiful meal—pierogi and beet salad, a glass of chilled Italian white. One person would remark what an idyllic moment this was, and the other would respond, ‘I wonder if this is what it felt like in August, 1939?’ Then we’d talk about Putin and what aggressive moves he might make, just what was he capable of? Then they’d tell me what their “Plan B” was… time to consider that fellowship at the university in Chicago, or that job in London or Los Angeles. Then the partner/spouse would admonish him/her and say, ‘Oh you’re being paranoid, that’s not going to happen…’ and they would talk and disagree and share their worries, about Ukraine, about unpredictability in the Baltics and then you began to wonder just what DID an idyllic day in August 1939 in Poland feel like? Yes, I heard this conversation at least four different times in four different cities in a country that’s been invaded, occupied, torn apart. On a beautiful day in late spring, 2015.

And it was a beautiful spring night in Los Angeles, with Jane about to read poetry at ALOUD, to talk about uncertainty and not knowing, to help us think about how, in its “musics, its objects, its strategies of speech, thought and feeling, a poem plucks the interconnection of the experience of self and all being.” And we sat under the olive trees in the last slanting rays of sun in the garden in front of the Central Library. Image [painting by Andrzej Wróblewski, from the show “Wróblewski Recto/Verso,” Museum of Modern Art, Warsaw [photo of LS and JH by Irene Borger] [Jane Hirshfield quote, from TEN WINDOWS: How Great Poems Transform the World, Knopf 2015]

Notes from a Warsaw Residency, 1

Posted in Art and Culture, Crooked Mirror, Family History, Life and What about It, Poland with tags , , , , on April 13, 2015 by Louise Steinman

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some notes from this Warsaw residency (courtesy Adam Mickiewicz Institute, courtesy Warsaw Bauhaus)… the word “resident” from the Latin <em>sidere</em> to abide awhile, to settle down. To settle down on ul. Smulikowskiego, to read and write and move and think in this quiet flat not far from my friends Joanna and Wojtek, to emerge from this quiet flat to walk in the morning, drink coffee in cafes near the university library, to observe the animated conversations of young Warsavians, the changing exhibitions at Warsaw Bauhaus…

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to enter the Warsaw zoo where the sight of flamingos ignites the landscape, where strolling families are exiting after a Saturday looking at zebras… to a special ceremony to dedicate the villa residence of the Zabinskis, the zookeepers who rescued many Jews during the German occupation of Warsaw..

that was two days ago, sitting under chestnut trees listening to Chopin with geese clacking overhead and i swear i heard other creatures (wolves?) adding to the melange of sound and feeling… late afternoon walk on the nearby Vistula, admiring a barge named Atalanta, thinking of the saviors of Atlantis who wandered and collected the shards of Jewish history in Poland after the war, to the present, the vibrant present here in Warsaw today… walking through the doors of the new POLIN Museum and where I will be in conversation with my dear friend Tomasz Kitlinski in just two days… a chance to sit and talk with Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, the scholar, the nimble mind who designed, oversaw, strategized, curated the core exhibition… which, as she points out, is told without foreshadowing or backshadowing, where we are asked to walk through a 1000 years of history, an exhibition worthy of debates, an exhibition that left me emotional and asking questions and remembering that moment years ago, when my friend Cheryl asked, startled, “Am I Polish?”

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To sit in the flat of the journalist Kostek Gebert, with his cat Kescia on my lap, purring… to feel at home in Warsaw. To walk Dobra at night, under the bridge where the tram clacks along, a mysterious night walker passing by, wearing  a coat with a fur collar….

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to wander the Warsaw flea market with Joanna and Wojtek, where discarded dolls speak from boxes of clutter, postcards of alpine flowers and soldiers from a war a century ago, tools that had a meaning in another age, that stretched a woman’s elegant shoes, a Ukrainian ceramic of a fish with a wide-open mouth, bent-wood chairs, 60’s jazz playing on an old turntable, a yellow china teapot my grandmother might have used to brew her dark tea, which she’d drink through a sugar cube, held in her mouth.

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MACIEJ and IDA

Posted in Art and Culture, Beacon Press, Crooked Mirror, Family History, Human Rights, Life and What about It, Literature, Poland, reconciliation, Travel with tags , , , , , , , on June 4, 2014 by Louise Steinman

Maciej and Lulu

My dear friend Maciej Ziembinski, a pioneering journalist and editor (and a central figure in my book, The Crooked Mirror), recently passed away in Radomsko, in central Poland. Maciej was fiercely devoted to this little town, where my mother’s family lived for generations. When poet Adam Zagajewski wrote of those Poles imbued with “the ecstasy of the provinces,” he must have had Maciej in mind.

Before World War II, Jews made up approximately 40% of Radomsko’s population. Very few survived the war and most who did survive left the country. Under Communist rule, there was but one sanctioned narrative of the recent past— the patriotic war against the German Fascists. Discussion of the town’s vanished Jews, of local rescuers or those who betrayed—was taboo. Maciej’s father, who’d rescued a Jewish woman to whom he’d been secretly engaged, raised his son to have an open mind. Even as a young man, Maciej was determined that the history of Radomsko’s Jewish population must be told, too. He understood it was an essential part of the town’s story.

He carried on, he told me, “his own private war with town hall.” When Poland transitioned to democratic rule, he established Radomko’s first alternative weekly. Until then, newspapers were the mouthpiece of the state. He named his paper, most appropriately, Komu I czemi (For whom and what for?). As its editor, he wrote and published over sixty articles about Radomsko’s Jewish history. He oversaw the translation of the Radomsko Yizkor, the Jewish memorial book, from Yiddish to Polish and published it in his paper. He was a principled man. A scrapper, a gadfly.

Pawel Pawlikowski’s exquisite recent film “Ida,” set in b&w provincial Poland in the early sixties– gives you some idea what obstacles Maciej faced under Stalinist rule. (In an interview, Pawlikowski calls his film, “a crooked mirror… so whoever looks can take away different things.”) The film’s young protagonist is a wide-eyed novitiate, an orphan, living an austere life at a convent in the countryside. With her downcast eyes, this young woman is the model of obedience and humility. There is no indication she’s made any inquiries about her origins. Soon she’ll take her final vows. Before she does, however, her Mother Superior orders her to visit her aunt, who’s suddenly requested to see her.

It’s the first time this naïve young woman learns she has living relatives. Within moments of her arrival at her aunt’s flat in Lodz, there is more surprising news. Her dead parents were Jews. Her real name is Ida Lebenstejn. “You’re a Jewish nun,” her aunt informs her with a harsh laugh. Ida’s swift response: “I want to see their graves.” Another hard truth: there are no graves. Most likely her family’s bones are in a pit in the forest.

In Poland, there are hundreds, thousands of adults with stories like that of young Ida in Pawlikowski’s film. They were Jewish children whose frantic parents, during the Occupation, entrusted their precious sons and daughters to Catholic neighbors or clergy. Several of those crooked stories are in my book—one of them is about a survivor named Ania Poniemunska, born in Radomsko in 1937.

In 1941, before they fled to Russia, Ania’s parents left their four year-old daughter in the capable hands of her maternal grandmother, a local midwife. The grandmother escaped the ghetto with Ania, and found shelter with a Polish farmer and his wife. The headman of the village betrayed them. The Germans dispatched the Polish farmer to Auschwitz. They surrounded the village, rounded up all the hidden Jews, marched them to the forest, forced them to dig their own graves. Before she was shot, however, the grandmother handed young Ania into the arms of a farmer’s wife who pretended the child was her own. Of the twenty-three Jews hidden in the village, only Ania survived.

In 2009, when Ania came back to Radomsko with her son for the first time since she’d emigrated to Israel after the war, she was in great conflict. Could she bear to visit the site where her beloved grandmother was murdered? Ania quickly found her way to Maciej; after all, he knew more about the Jewish history of the area than anyone else around.

In Pawlikowski’s film, Ida and her aunt elect to go into the forest, to the place where the unspeakable happened. Ida points to the open pit and asks the man unearthing her family’s remains: “Why am I not here? Why did I survive… not the others?” She needs to know. Maciej advised Ania: “Go to the forest. It is important to your son. It is the big story of your life. It made you who you are.” Maciej understood that. Ania, like Ida, was strong enough to bear the truth. She needed to bear witness.
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[drawing of Ania Poniemunska with her grandmother Chava Borys, by Kasia Kabzinka]

Over the years, Maciej and I spent many afternoons in the Radomsko cemetery—in sun and snow—walking unruly rows of tilting stones. Maciej, between puffs of a harsh Polish cigarette, would tell me stories of the more recent burials– about the few Jews who survived the war and stayed. Over there, he’d say, “that’s the grave of my friend Borkowski; he had an affair with the wife of his friend Andomierski; but they all wanted to be buried near each other anyway.” Maciej was like the narrator in Our Town.

Maciej helped me find the grave of my great-grandmother, Golda Zylberman Wajskopf. That afternoon in the melancholy Radomsko cemetery was magical. Blue butterflies fluttered through yellow gorse. Golda was luckier than most of her relatives—she died fourteen years before the Nazis invaded Radomsko and turned life for all its inhabitants into hell on earth.

“Saviors of Atlantis” is how a Polish friend refers to those non-Jewish Poles who gathered up the shards of Jewish life and history in a post-war Poland, then a broken country living under the strangle-hold of Communism.

Maciej was one of those saviors. He was also a gifted storyteller, a great friend, a good—if sometimes troublesome– man to have in your town. I am among many who will miss him.
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Radomsko cemetery, painting by Natan Spigel, courtesy Natan Spigel Foundation

Photo of Maciej and LS in Radomsko cemetery by Tomasz Cebulski

Dreaming in Russian

Posted in ALOUD, Art and Culture, Family History, Literature, Los Angeles with tags , , , , on March 12, 2014 by Louise Steinman

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[drawing: Vlada Ralko]

News from Ukraine trickles into my weekend haven in Ojai Valley. I peel an orange fresh from the tree, exulting in the scent. A woman in Maidan grates beets for borscht for weary protesters, her fingers stained blood red. The crisis keeps Russia in the headlines and the nerves on alert.

It’s both the crisis in Ukraine and my anticipation of Russian-American journalist Masha Gessen coming to ALOUD (tonight!) that explains my gravitation over the past month to memoirs about Russia, both Soviet and post-Soviet. Gary Shteyngart’s Little Failure, Colin McCann’s Dancer; Anya Von Bremzen’s Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking; Emmanuel Carrere’s startling My Life as a Russian Novel ; Geoff Dyer’s ZONA, an inventive meditation on Tarkovsky’s film “Stalker.”

It’s Gessen’s brilliant new book on Pussy Riot [Words Will Break Cement: The Passion of Pussy Riot] that brings her to L.A. tonight; but I also reread her beautiful memoir, Ester and Ruzya: How My Grandmothers Survived Hitler’s War and Stalin’s Peace. Gessen stresses the ways people under those regimes, in order to live, were forced to make moral compromises—in ways most of us have not had to face. “Each of my grandmothers was burdened with a conscience, which meant that both of them at crucial points in their lives tried to find a way to make an honest peace with the system. They had vastly different ways of doing it…”

Reading so many books about Russia may explain why, in a recent dream, in a vast warehouse in a small town, every door I opened (and there were many) lead to the Russian River. And after all, though my father forgot his childhood Russian (he was six when he emigrated from Ukraine, during the Russian Civil War) he told me he still sometimes dreamed in Russian.

Today’s NYTimes features a video of Ukrainian troops in the Crimean city of Sevastopol (famous in my childhood from Pete Seeger’s version) facing off with Putin’s soldiers. The Russians have rifles at the ready, and their captain yells, “Come no further!” but the canny Ukrainians are holding aloft both their own blue and yellow flag as well as a red flag bearing (what the voiceover calls) “Russian symbolics “(apparently hammer and sickle is still in vogue)… “because they know the Russians won’t fire on their own banner.”

This stand-off brought back the memory from 1962, sitting in the den of our house in Culver City with my father, worriedly watching the Cuban missile crisis unfold on TV. I stomp off and return to the table with envelope and stamps and begin writing: “Dear Mr. Khruschchev, I don’t want to die.” I’m not sure what the U.S. Post office did with it; but I dropped it in the mailbox with an eleven year old’s sense of personal urgency.
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In the meantime, during the current stand-off, I console myself with a recent delight– the divine DAKHKA BRAKHA, whose voices and songs fill my ears and heart. They call themselves a “Ukrainian ethno-chaos” band. Eastern Europe meets the full force of global sound. A free and fair trade.

Ukrainian Egg Cup Woman

Posted in Art and Culture, Crooked Mirror, Human Rights with tags , , , , , , , on January 1, 2014 by Louise Steinman

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It’s good to have a talisman (or taliswoman, i suppose) when you’re in a dark place, suffering emotional turmoil, or just needing a visage of joy to counter balance suffering, angst. So here’s to the Ukrainian Egg Cup woman, another (inanimate) character who appears in The Crooked Mirror. Cheryl found her in on a dusty shelf in an antique store in the old city of L’vov (L’viv).

“The cup balanced on the woman’s sturdy head was cheerful too; orange and yellow dots, each looped by a delicate broken line. The Eggcup Woman was probably from the 1940s. Russian constructivist in style but authentically Ukrainian, the woman in the shop had informed Cheryl.

I imagine the artisans in that factory in some Ukrainian city, painting stripes on the red harem pants of a cheerful eggcup at the same time agents of the NKVD arrived unannounced in their black police vans (the infamous ‘chernyj voron’, or ‘black crows’) to arrest scores of Ukrainians on nonexistent charges.

Upon entering any bleak hotel room for the rest of our trip, our first act was to set up an Eggcup Woman. She was our Ukrainian Quan Yin, our Constructivist Buddha, our polka-dot Humpty Dumpty, our talisman of good cheer.”

So here’s to good cheer for the beginning of 2014! Here’s a toast to all those fighting for their democratic (and human rights) all over the world, in freezing squares in Kiev, in Minsk, in Cairo, and more. Here’s to brave Pussy Riot who stood up to Putin, to Reverend Billy who fights the Corporate Medusa… the Ukrainian Egg Cup Woman wishes you all a Happy (and more liberated) New Year!
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