Project/Artist Statement – Carol Wylie
In April of 2016 I attended the Saskatoon Holocaust Memorial service. As survivor Nate Leipciger spoke of his horrifying experiences in a Nazi death camp, and his ongoing efforts to educate and shed light on the atrocities, I was astounded by the extent of abuse the human spirit can endure. Researchers in psychology and sociology have noted connections between the experiences of Jewish holocaust survivors and Indigenous residential school survivors in Canada. The struggles and generational trauma of Indigenous peoples caused by the residential school experience seems to resonate with Jewish holocaust survivors. Indian Affairs Superintendent Duncan Campbell Scott, in 1910, called residential schools “The Final Solution,” preceding Hitler’s similar pronouncement regarding the “Jewish problem.” Hair was cut and numbers were assigned, dehumanizing and “othering”. The two groups of survivors have connected around strategies of survival and healing. Holocaust survivor Robert Waisman, who meets with Indigenous survivors about his concentration camp experience, speaks of “a sacred duty and responsibility” toward helping residential school survivors heal. He states, “we cannot, and we should not, compare sufferings. Each suffering is unique…I don’t compare my sufferings or the holocaust to what happened in residential schools. We did it [survived] – so can you.” Both Indigenous survivors and Jewish survivors speak of a solidarity forged from the shared need to find ways of healing in the wake of horrendous abuse and literal and cultural attempted genocide.
Holocaust survivors are becoming elderly and dying. Indeed, one gentleman who was part of this project has since passed away. There will soon be no first-hand accounts of these atrocities. After hearing Nate speak, I felt I needed to somehow acknowledge these amazing people who endured and survived unbelievable mistreatment. The inclusion of residential school survivors in the project seemed important in light of connections previously mentioned. I’d also hoped that the act of listening and bearing witness would help me understand that experience a little better and make a small personal step towards reconciliation. As a portrait painter, portraiture is the methodology through which I can offer the strongest statement. Through portraits of individual survivors, I hope to create a silent dialogue between Jewish survivors and Indigenous survivors. The painted portrait is a true meeting of two subjectivities, requiring a commitment of time and engagement unique to the process. Through sketching, photographing, and interview sessions with very generous survivors who expressed willingness to collaborate on this project, I compiled the information and inspiration to complete a series of eighteen portraits. In Hebrew tradition eighteen is the number that represents the word “chai” which means “life”. The subjects with whom I met spoke so honestly and poignantly that, in some cases, their words have been incorporated into the portraits themselves. The project title is inspired by the proverb: “They buried us…they didn’t know we were seeds.”
Portraiture requires direct, intimate interpersonal interaction, and a deeply-rooted interest in people. The intensity of the artist/subject gaze is akin to that of lovers, or of a caregiver and child. It’s an artificial situation that paradoxically allows for authentic connection. Life experience begins with that first gaze between caretaker and infant. As our gaze widens to include others we encounter, it eventually encompasses all of our social engagement. When distilled, our politics, our cultures, our social systems, can be reduced to the simple dialogue between one face and another. After years of portrait painting it’s become apparent to me that the essence of a person reveals itself through the nuances of line and colour in one’s face. After a relatively short period of interaction, for most people, the face reveals all. A well-done portrait has the potential to be a unique record of the sum of an individual’s experience, offering the opportunity for a form of engagement with that person, even in their absence. My hope is that this work will give viewers a chance to encounter a survivor they may never meet. One personal story often has more resonance than statistical abstractions, no matter how appalling. As numbers of holocaust survivors dwindle, and in anticipation of the same eventual loss of first-hand accounts from residential school survivors, these portraits will remain as records of these individual stories. The fact that we all possess individual consciousness, and as Shylock states in Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice (ironically) we all bleed when pricked, levels us within the human experience. We are all connected.
This project explores trauma, ongoing recovery, shared pain, courage, and the indomitable human spirit, as well as an enduring hope that, through truly hearing one another’s stories, humanity will someday be characterized more by its compassion than by its capacity for cruelty.
*I would like to gratefully acknowledge the Saskatchewan Foundation of the Arts for their generous support of this project.
Click link for CBC National News Story on the project:
Upcoming “Seeds” Exhibitions:
Chapel Gallery, North Battleford, SK - February 29 to April 5, 2020
Mann Art Gallery, Prince Albert, SK - June 19 to August 24, 2020
Sidney & Gertrude Zack Gallery, Vancouver, B.C. - September 14 2020
Estevan Art Gallery, Estevan, SK - Summer 2021