Healing Trauma Through Art

Healing Trauma Through Art: The Transformative Power of Art

“The artist is inclined to believe that ‘mind can triumph over matter’ because they often feel that their inner realm is certainly more important and often more real to them than the outer physical world.” – Peter Morrel

In my early forties, I went through an existential crisis; things had to change or cease. Simply put, I cracked open and had to carve a new way. In the following essay, I describe my process with materials and how my vision got formed and eventually materialized. I tell a story of healing from trauma, centered but not exclusively, through making art. For some of us, art is the only path to a sense of freedom; some call it salvation.

Narrative Art tells a story. It generally describes a self-explanatory event from daily life or those drawn from religion, folk tales, myth, and history. Examples of Narrative Art go back to cave paintings from the Bronze Age. The movement of Abstract Art, which came into fashion in the 20th century, rejected and rebelled against familiar narrative themes, branding this work as mediocre and unimaginative. Yet, coded references to events in the artist’s life or political issues were still common. Such artworks require information from the artist to be fully understood. 

I have had an active internal dialogue about making and appreciating art for as long as I can remember. As a child, I observed my mother selecting and cutting design patterns from fashion magazines, making color and fabric selections, and sewing, bringing gorgeous and stylish outfits to life. Through those years, I absorbed the lesson of the detailed attention required to complete these creations. I developed a keen eye towards esthetics and an open attitude toward beauty’s multiple forms and shapes. Two of my mother’s sisters were also involved in the creative process – one painted, and the other made collages. In my youth, I painted, and I loved it. So, maybe making art runs in my blood.

Only after years of pursuing a different kind of creativity – business and financial security – I returned to making visual art. In 2003, the high-tech market conditions changed, and I closed Telesys Enterprises, a circuit card distribution company. It was a challenging period in my personal life, and I felt ready to face some demons that needed to be tamed. Intuitively, I knew that I would find some peace and, hopefully, some relief in the process of making art.  Fifteen years later, I can attest that the time devoted to the craft of making art was pivotal in my healing process. In making art, I was not merely seeking the real nor the unreal, but rather the unconscious, the mysterious layers of self, and the profound shift that comes with being awake.

During my business career, I visited electronics circuit card manufacturers worldwide and consulted with engineers about design issues and the selection of electronic components. Circuit cards themselves are works of beauty. The particular arrangement of electronic components is a design marvel. The intricate systems of assembly lines that produce anything from a smartphone to a guided missile rocket always filled me with wonder. Thus, I had the disposition towards incorporating technology into my creative process. I also felt inspired by the Light and Space art movement, which originated in Southern California in the 1960s. The movement was influenced by cutting-edge materials of post-WWII, such as fiberglass and resins. Its style was abstract and minimalist and often had a slick and glossy finish. I dove into exploring different media, enrolled in various art classes at Santa Monica College, and attended multiple workshops.

I first discovered plexiglass when seeking a solution to complete my house renovation, which required a sizeable focal point to a room. Plexiglass provided the broad, flat, colorful, uninterrupted surface to which I mounted several painted canvases. Plexiglass is a glass-like material made of the chemical called Polymethyl Methacrylate and has been around since the 1930s. Plexiglass is more robust than glass or plastic; it’s available in various colors and thicknesses and is commonly used in commercial advertising, window coverings, and skylights. Sometime later, I attended a fused glass workshop. When I saw the fused glass tiles, I realized that it could be interesting to mount them on top of the plexiglass sheet because both materials possess the same shiny and sensual finished look. At that point, I was playing with the materials and had no idea where it would lead or how deeply it would tap into my story.

I set up a studio in the garage with a large kiln. I learned everything I could about fusing glass and how to combine it with plexiglass into a single vision of compositions, proportions, and colors. While fusing has a high tolerance for connecting imperfectly cut pieces of glass, plexiglass cuts must be precise in order to join them together. I utilized Google SketchUp to prepare design drawings of the plexiglass cuts. The drawings were then transferred to a CNC Laser Cutting Machine. CNC stands for Computer Numerical Control, where the data from the SketchUp drawing controls the laser cutting machine. The heated area of the laser is tiny, reducing deformation, so the pieces fit together perfectly. The people at Laseronics Advance Laser Dies were generous and helpful in executing my particular job requests. I then developed techniques for joining the pieces into panels that supported the glass and incorporated mounting brackets.

The breakthrough for my vision happened in a class when I presented a piece comprised of four painted canvases with a horizontal line at the center, mounted on a plexiglass sheet. My teacher, Linda Lopez, whom I consider a treasure, said, “It’s interesting, but what is your intention?” My internal response took me to the issues that loomed over me my entire life – the effects of being a second-generation Holocaust survivor.

Growing up, I always wanted to know more about my father’s experiences and memories of the horror he went through during WWII, but he could never ‘touch the fire.’ He described events with broad brush strokes, never with emotional tones and colors, just the facts and dates. From a young age, I intuitively understood that he could not share the pain, the agony, and the shame. Yet they were bluntly visible, just like the numbers tattooed on his arm. I understood that these layers of experiences and emotions must be like a ‘black hole;’ once you are in, there is no way out. What I was left with was to imagine and visualize, which I did plenty of.

My father survived four different concentration camps. When the Jews were transferred to the camps, they were loaded into cattle trains, standing shoulder to shoulder with no food or water. I often imagined myself in those horrible trains. What would I do? What would I feel? The only solace I could envision is peering out of a slit in the wood panels and composing a symphony of gorgeous colors as the green forests, blue lakes, and snowy white mountains rushed past me.

I decided to focus on and describe one thing only – the horizon line, ever-changing but never-ending. Thus, I started what became a Sisyphean journey of a few years. I dove into the work, creating hundreds of fused glass tiles in various colors and shapes, each different from the other, but all with one constant theme – the line. This became my journey from Auschwitz, as opposed to my father’s, who was taken to Auschwitz. A journey to make peace with my demons and integrate the feelings of shame and anger instead of constantly fighting them off, which never succeeded.

The landscape imagery I attempted to invoke was taken from my inner world but was also drawn from the outer physical world. Copying the landscape along the train route is not really what interests me. I sought to create a coherent and consistent distortion, bending and shaping it at my will. In my interpretation, this is the definition of ‘triumph of mind over matter.’ 

Throughout art history, lines have shaped and given meaning to form. There are endless ways to describe a line drawn between two points. I had to find a way to describe a line, evoking the horizon line as it appears in nature. It was also a way to incorporate organic, amorphic shapes into my mathematically rigid and geometrically bold designs. To achieve this, I perfected a method to twist the glass while in its molten state. It’s a thrilling technique because I basically open the kiln and touch the fire. The composition of colored glass pieces is placed on a kiln shelf, then heated to 1700F. At this point, the color becomes uniformly orange-red, and the glass is liquid enough to be moved. Then, I open the kiln door and twist the molten glass center with a BBQ spatula. It’s an invigorating experience; the glass gives way slowly but consistently and requires swift movement because there are only 10-20 seconds before the temperature drops and the glass hardens. After this, the cycle starts again until all pieces in the kiln are twisted. This motion causes different colors to blend and streak in one-of-a-kind patterns. Only hours later can I see the outcome when the kiln is back at room temperature. It’s always a mystery and a surprise. I call it an exercise in “Let go and let God.” This process is a gift for my perfectionistic proclivities and tidiness because it forces me to accept what is and let go of control.

The writer and Nobel laureate Eli Wiesel said: “The Holocaust cannot be described, it cannot be communicated, it is unexplainable. To me, it is a mystical event. I have the feeling almost of sin when I speak about it.”  Figuring out how to present my work, Eli’s words were looming over me. I needed to devise a way to describe the indescribable and capture the devastation’s enormity. At the same time, to make it about my journey as opposed to the journey of the six million Jews murdered in the Holocaust.

My perspective of art forever changed in 1982 when I saw Mark Rothko’s Seagram Murals at London’s Tate Gallery. The paintings were mounted high on the warm gray walls, forcing my gaze upward. I sat at the center of the gallery, conversing with the void of the brilliant reds, deep browns, and rich blacks of the amorphous shapes surrounding me. The paintings are one foggy rectangle on top of another, covered in bold yet feathered-like brush strokes, appearing to be illuminated from within. They are organized by, in what seems to me, a mathematical formation. The installation creates space for meditation, a place of silent conversation, where I could project all my drama and longing into the paintings. An immense place where I felt the higher spirits reside.

Mark Rothko was a Jewish-Russian US immigrant who became a leading painter in the Abstract Expressionism movement post-WWII. The movement’s approach to painting was large-scale, non-representational, with rich emotional gestures. It predominately consisted of Jewish artists, reflecting their response to the evil and shock of the Nazi concentration camps and the devastation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It seemed unacceptable and limited for Rothko and his compatriots to respond to these horrific events in a realistic style as if they asked: “How can you paint flowers or reclining nudes after these horrors?”

The Holocaust was an industrial-scale killing, a genocide executed with extreme psychopathic efficiency. The trauma it left, especially on survivors and their descendants, will linger over several generations into the future of humankind. The dilemma that I confronted, which is central to my thought process, work, and voice, are:

  • How do I pay homage to the dead, survivors, and my journey of carrying the shadows of the horror?
  • How to present an inspiring work of art where the story does not end with horror but with an opening to transformation, resiliency, humanity, hope, innovation, and beauty.

I envisioned a multi-media installation in a large room with a high ceiling, as shown in the mockup. It contains two primary works, matching panels along each wall, and video installations in each corner. Together, they immerse the visitor in a powerful visual beauty, inviting the viewer to find themselves reflecting on their unique pain, struggle, and journey of recovery – its heights, turbulence, colors, and shapes. As each viewer will bring their own story and experience of trauma into the room, I hope the installation will bring forth an opening to healing.

The panels are stretched on each wall’s entire length, with consistent intervals to create a sense of continuity. The viewer will find that walking along with the installation, observing the changes of color yet consistently exploring the line’s rhythm, will create a sense of journey. Traveling through particular geography, expressed in a constant exploration of the line represented in each glass tile and each panel’s color composition. The common thread between all the panels is the fused glass tiles, always a horizontal rectangle to arouse association of a landscape viewed from a fast-moving train.

At each corner, the repeating video is a 4-hour-long collage of clips. Most of the video is from a 2009 film of a train journey made in Norway from Bergen to Oslo. The geography is monotonous, with endless white snowfields and blue, grayish sky. The image is meditative, conveying a calm serenity, which breaks every time the train enters a tunnel. The darkness that engulfs the screen is a portal to images that conjure memories of a different train ride: cattle trains and train station signposts from the movie Shoah by Claude Lanzmann, 1985. The audio track accentuates the contrast between the tunnel of dark memories and the brightness of life through its meditative soundscape and agonizing cries. In 2013, I was honored to present my work at the Harriet and Kenneth Kupferberg Holocaust Museum in Queens, NY. I named the installation “The Train from Auschwitz; A Journey from Shame to Self-Realization.”  

At times I am an engineer considering options and executing technical solutions. At other times I am a designer composing a symphony of colors and shapes. Then there are moments I am the craftsman repeating certain activities over and over again to perfection like an instrument. I am at peak awareness when I cut a slab of fused glass into perfect rectangles. During these times, my muscle memory takes over, ensuring that none of my fingers will get in the way of the blade. My eyes are focused on the hedge between the blade and the glass. My ears are tuned with the story I listen to on audible. My concentration is at its peak. It is what I enjoy the most; my mind, hands, and spirit are at a place of oneness, in a state of flow, where time and space lose all meaning.

The beauty I seek to create is my particular tool to touch that which is indescribable. The effort to lift ancestral shame is not mine alone; therefore, the message is universal. The journey into self-realization and discovering the authentic self involves extensive preparation of mind and emotions. It is an everlasting process of recognizing, accepting, embracing, and knowing one’s place in the cosmos is tiny.

Dedicated to my mother, Nechama Ginzberg (1935)

October 2018