How did this project begin?
The idea for the Memory Project began in my home in France in 2006. I got a card and photograph from my friend Henny. It was of her son Mischa when he was 8 years old before he was diagnosed with the brain tumor that would take his life 13 years later. She asked people to take some time to honor Mischa by thinking about him and if moved to write, draw or send a photo—to create something from the friends of Mischa.
Mischa’s beauty, innocence and strength emanating from the picture astounded me. On what would have been his 23rd birthday, August 18th 2006, I got to work. I tried and tried to capture something of him in paint and pastel.
So many memories came back to me while I was working from the beautiful photograph of Mischa. Memories of him at different ages, memories of my painting lessons from 30 years ago, a mishmash of images, of people appeared on paper and dissolved and transformed into something else with each painting or pastel that I made. It made me realize that we are all in each other. Our lives intertwine. And when we connect deeply, form gives way and for a split second we even are each other.
During that period I woke up in the middle of the night. For years I had been reflecting upon a multi-media installation that I wanted to create. I imagined videotaping myself painting and then exhibiting the painting and multiple video screens that would show the process of paintings being made.
When you see a play or listen to a piece of music you have time to listen or watch the play develop. The story is told in real time. It is different with a painting. You have to choose to take time with it. You don’t see all the layers that what went into making it and I wanted to show those moments during the process when the painting falls apart or when it comes together—so that you the viewer can be inside the process.
How does the project connect to the rest of your work?
When I bolted up in bed that night I was thinking about this project and then I thought about the power of the transformation of loss that I had just experienced painting Mischa.
I thought about the past 20 years of videotaping my parents and family and friends mostly Holocaust survivors who have been sharing their lives with Laurie and I for a documentary that we are making.
In a flash The Memory Project came to me. The photo of my mother’s brother Kalman came into my mind and the entire project became clear to me. The task of the next two years was to realize it with Laurie Weisman who created “The Memory Project” with me.
How has creating The Memory Project and the film Finding Kalman affected you?
I hadn’t planned on was how much I would feel doing this piece and how much closer I would feel to Kalman. In painting him, it was as if I was actually meeting him. My sadness and loss became stronger, but so did his presence, which helped transform the pain. I also felt a sense of defiance. The Nazis and all fascists try to destroy your identity. They break up families, shave your head, take away your clothing…stripping away at your dignity to try to make you feel less human. I felt that as I repeatedly painted my uncle he was becoming more and more tangible and that lost identity was being recaptured. That’s my victory against the fascists.