MY MOTHER’S RUBBLE
My British mother, once in awhile, would tell me about life in London during WWII. Nazi Germany was terrifying. The bombing incessant. Many she knew died under building rubble. Whole blocks disappeared. What were hallways, bedrooms, and bathrooms became pyramids of brick rubble. Prams in the air, pets flat and quiet. Her fiancée, a British pilot, died early in the war. Scarcity was everywhere.
Being a child, I had no way to truly understand the true meaning of “rubble.” It was only in high school in America, when we were given the assignment of writing about concentration camps, did I first begin to learn the magnitude and scope of what “rubble” could mean.
To reduce to rubble means you take entire societies and break them into fragments.
What you can’t blow up, you burn. As we each stood up in class and read our papers over the course of a week, almost everyone broke down crying. Mine was on Treblinka in occupied Poland where 300,000 were murdered (the last survivor of that camp died in 2018). Most of my classmates were Jewish and they already knew what rubble meant…the reminders were living with them – surviving grandparents with a number tattooed on their wrists. Classmate Wendy Aibel did not just cry. She wailed. For the rest of my life Kathe Kolowitz’s drawings reminded me of that wail in that classroom (as an adult Wendy Aibel-Weiss would be professionally involved in organizations that had to do with children and trauma).
Still, I did not connect those horrors to my mother. I thought she’d be pleased with my effort and scholarship but the mere mention of concentration camps was like pricking an overripe tumor. Offal and bile emerged shrieking, “WHAT’S DONE IS DONE!,” and to get to my Goddamned chores. She wanted a smiley face life. Big flowers on the wallpaper, bright yellow, lots of jewelry, expensive whiskey. I did not understand her reaction but sensed that talking about any problem was a weakness. You were weak if you complained, which she confused with talking. So nothing important, traumatic or life-altering was ever discussed. She was so stuffed with secrets that we would not learn about them until after her death. The woman would have had her arm amputated before she would ever go to a psychiatrist. Say nothing. It will go away. Open another bottle. This all kept her unfamiliar with Love.
I was a confused outsider when we moved to Long Island. Although born in Brooklyn near the Brooklyn Naval Yard – now transformed into shops and where I had my custom wood panels made – my background for Long Island was atypical – I was the military “brat” of divorced parents.
I did not grow up with a library or a pool. We had baked beans in Europe and were glad of it. I had lived in England, France and Germany on American military bases in Post-war Europe and could speak some French and German. I had been left in a French convent in La Rochelle, France when my mother disappeared into America where she would construct another life (you can read about that experience here: SISTERS OF THE CLOTH), and eventually retrieve me back to New York. She was tough, fearless, determined to run from the horror.
An outsider I remained. One generally becomes an artist because of difficult or non-existent childhoods. And although I was protected from the explicit horrors that had happened around me, children like animals, sense sorrow, loss, bereavement, anxiety, fear. My childhood was spent under the emotional rubble of secrets, silence, and denial.
On February 24th, 2022 Ukraine was invaded by Russia. It soon became clear that this was a war not an invasion – a war on a society that Putin wanted to obliterate. I kept hearing the word, “rubble,” over and over and over. History repeating itself. For the first time, I could see my mother sheltering in those subways, hiding in those theater basements, ducking into those doorways.
My mother – along with an entire generation – probably had Post-traumatic Stress Syndrome but back then, you just got on with it.
The woman who had given birth to me was physically beautiful but she suppressed so many wretched moments that it made her very, very difficult. Ugly in fact. She suppressed the reality of war with flowers and pretty dresses and locked up her humanity so tightly one would think she was in fact, not human. Empathy seemed foreign to her. Violence was the go to reaction. If she hit something enough it would behave or maybe just go away. When you grow up with violence as a way of life – either as a culture or as a personal reaction to your own annihilation – it is considered normal to “sort someone out” with a punch in the face. She remained unfamiliar with Love for the rest of her Life. She got lost under the rubble.
Art was my way to cope with her. Art was my way to cope with Life.
I chose flowers to express my sadness and anger at yet more lives being lost, more generations affected, more rubble forming pyramid shapes all over Ukraine.
Flowers are of great cultural significance to the people of Ukraine. I also realized with this Series that flowers to my mother represented innocent times before the war. With the god-like powers of 3d software, I could render my own flowers using wireframed cloth that would react to gravity, light & texture. I felt that I had to “make” my own flowers out of fabric like shrouds for the countless lost. This Series has freed me in unexpected ways – the work has become more abstracted, expressionist and has provoked a deeper understanding of a difficult parent.
My lesson about all of this is this. Perhaps I have worked too much from my head all my life not allowing emotions to become too loud. They seemed to just cause mayhem. Pandora’s Box. Why did I not understand until now that the great art out there in the world that I have long admired comes from a deeper place and that the emotions are loud. You FEEL the art. It took a horrific, unprovoked war in a distant place to jolt me into understanding that actual rubble creates generational emotional rubble. In understanding my mother, I am understanding myself. She was a survivor. So am I except that I wish always to be familiar with Love.