Materials and Process

How Vision got Materialized

“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 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 real path to a sense of freedom; some call it salvation.

Narrative Art tells a story.  It usually describes a self-explanatory event from daily life or those drawn from religion, folk tale, 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 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. 

As long as I can remember, I have always had an active internal dialogue about making and appreciating art.  As a child, I observed my mother selecting and cutting design patterns from fashion magazines, making color and fabric selections, and sewing, thereby bringing to life gorgeous and stylish outfits.  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 towards the multiple forms and shapes of beauty.  Two of my mother’s sisters were also involved in the creative process – one painted, the other made collages.  In my youth, I painted and was quite taken by it.  So, maybe making art runs in my blood.

It was only after years of pursuing a different kind of creativity – business and financial security – that 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 as well, 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 put together anything from a smartphone to a guided missile rocket always filled me up 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 characterized by abstraction and minimalism 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 a wide variety of colors and thicknesses and 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 the tiles 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 proceeded to learn everything I could about fusing glass and how to combine it with plexiglass into a single vision – the compositions, proportions, colors, and technological aspects of creation.  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.  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 to me: “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 the 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.

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 possible 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 white snowy mountains rushed passed me.

I decided to focus 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.  This was my journey of making peace with my demons.  A journey aiming to integrate the feelings of shame and anger, as opposed to continuously fighting them off, which never succeeded anyway.

The landscape imagery I attempted to invoke was taken from my inner world but was, at the same time, drawn from the outer physical world.  Copying the landscape along the train route is not really what interests me.  I was seeking to create a coherent and consistent distortion, bending and shaping it at my will.  In my understanding, 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 basically, I 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 over 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, when the kiln is back at room temperature, can I see the outcome. It’s always a mystery and a surprise.  I call it an exercise in “Let go and let God.” For my perfectionistic proclivities and tidiness, this process is a gift 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 felt the need to come up with 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 who were murdered in the Holocaust.  The numerous exhibitions I have seen were instrumental in the formation of my vision.

My perspective of art forever changed in 1982 when I saw Mark Rothko’s Seagram Murals at London’s Tate Gallery for the first time.  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.  One hazy rectangle on top of another, painted 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 a meditative space, a place of a 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 of post-WWII.  The movement’s approach to painting was a 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 questions that continually arise for me and are central to my thought process, work, and voice are:

  • How to pay homage to the death, to the survivors, and to my journey of carrying the shadows of the horror?
  • How to present an inspiring work of art where the story does not end with the horror?  Instead, the art offers a vehicle of transformation to resiliency, humanity, hope, innovation, and beauty.

I envisioned a multi-media installation situated 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 the color’s composition of each panel.  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 had the honor of presenting 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.  When I cut a slab of fused glass into perfect rectangles, I am at peak awareness.  During these times, my muscle memory takes over, making sure that none of my fingers will get in the way of the blade.  My eyes are focused on the line between the blade and the glass, while my ears are tuning into an audiobook, all with the highest concentration possible.  This is what I enjoy the most; my mind, hands, and spirit are at the place of oneness, a place of complete flow where time and space lose all meaning.

The beauty I seek to create is my particular tool to touch that which is indescribable, yet the struggle to lift ancestral shame is not mine alone; thus, the message is universal.  The journey into self-realization and discovering the authentic self involves extensive preparation of mind and emotions to recognize, accept, and embrace this everlasting process.  The Tao – ‘The Way’ means knowing one’s place in the cosmos and knowing that one’s place is very small.

Dedicated to my mother, Nechama Ginzberg (1935)

October 2018