This project involves interviewing and painting portraits of Holocaust and Residential School survivors. There is a connection between the two groups, both victims of different “final solutions”, forged by the shared experience of living through the horrors of attempted literal, and cultural genocide. Shared empathy between the two groups seemingly helps to lighten the weight of memory. I am of Jewish heritage with family roots in Eastern Europe. My ancestors suffered under anti-semitic regimes prior to and during WW II. Realizing that first-hand accounts are dying with the Holocaust survivors, I felt compelled to, through portraiture, preserve the pain and history that resides in their faces. In a first personal step toward reconciliation, I also wanted to learn about and try to understand the experiences of Residential School Survivors, as a member of a colonial culture that has lived ignorant of these events for too long. The inclusion of people from both groups promises to tell a powerful story.
Through dialogue during sittings and using a combination of sketches and photographic images, I will produce eighteen portraits exploring shared trauma and personal endurance and triumph. Eighteen is the number that corresponds to the Hebrew word “Chai” which means “Iife”. The inclusion of text in some pieces finished to date share poignant words spoken by survivors during interviews. The title of the project is “They didn’t know we were seeds”, which completes a proverb that begins “They buried us”, speaking to incredible human resilience. The subject in each painting gazes directly at the viewer, disrupting attempts at voyeurism and offering the possibility of direct dialogue and engagement. One individual story can be more potent and impactful than numbers and statistics. It is my hope that providing the opportunity for others to see these works and encounter these survivors' stories face to face, will allow them to continue to inform in a unique and ongoing way, ultimately encouraging empathy and compassion.
*I would like to gratefully acknowledge the Saskatchewan Foundation of the Arts for their generous support of this project.