The Art and Alchemy of Ana Thiel

(originally posted on Redroom in January 2013)

“After leaving your show, I noticed only beauty.”
–comment in the guest book for “Layers of Being” (Estratos del Ser)

 

One of the highest purposes of art-making – perhaps its most essential – is to inspire viewers to discover the world in a new way.  If we are very fortunate, a visit to an art exhibition changes us, allowing us to experience our surroundings with fresh eyes, to reinvent the ordinary, to awaken our awareness of what might otherwise remain invisible.

Ana Thiel’s retrospective show “Layers of Being” (Estratos del Ser), now at the Museo de Arte Querétaro, fulfills this promise and more.  Even while standing in the doorway, preparing to enter the Sala, I felt my spirit rise toward its encounter with “Ofrenda” (Offering), as though I were being initiated into something sacred.  With its echoes of Stonehenge as well as ancient Greek columns (indeed there is a pure mound of ground marble at the center of the circle), this elegant yet raw composition opened my heart and deepened my breathing.

It’s almost impossible to resist a physical as well as emotional response to Thiel’s stunning work.  She herself is so clearly engaged with her materials “at the soul level,” as she explains.  As her hands interact with objects found as well as altered, she depicts abstract imagery of wounding and healing, rising and falling, floating and crashing, destruction and reconciliation.

In the video accompanying the show, we are privileged to witness Thiel’s extraordinary relationship with glass – that unique substance displaying the properties of both solid and liquid:  like ice, like water, bubbling in fire.  In several sequences (filmed during Artist Residencies in Japan and France), Thiel wields a pair of heavy shears and cuts molten glass as it’s poured from a ladle.  We watch her performing alchemy.  For this artist, fire is a tool of creation, and imperfections are claimed as beauty.  Her sculptural language is as innocent as rain pooling on stone, as dangerous as the burning of books.

As Thiel’s vast body of work reveals to us, glass is simultaneously fragile and fierce, luminous and dense, translucent and impenetrable.  Her messages are embedded in rust or hidden beneath cracks.  Each piece is open to be read, as books must be read, with the eye as well as the heart.

Like Andy Goldsworthy, like Anselm Kiefer – two artists with whom she has been favorably compared – Ana Thiel is reminding us to love the world, no matter how ephemeral or damaged by time.  We may feel unsettled or even broken-hearted by her works, but we will most certainly feel transformed by them.  I, for one, am infinitely grateful for her gifts.

 

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On the day before Election Day, 2016

Hitler analogies have always disturbed me. As a daughter of two Holocaust survivors, I take this subject very personally. Usually the comparison is intentionally hyperbolic and over-simplistic, designed to provoke fearful knee-jerk reactions, to manipulate and demonize. But here we are, Election 2016, and the resonant imagery is not only terrifying but all too accurate, all too familiar. #WeHaveSeenThisBefore.

I’m not just talking about the demagogue himself, the sneering fascistic stream of hate speech, the threatening and blaming and projecting. I’m talking about the frenzy of the crowds, the eruptions of violence that escalate in seconds from furious jeering to homicidal rage. I’m talking about the slogans – on signs, on t-shirts, on social media walls and real world walls. I’m talking about the explicit targeting of non-whites, the bitter twisted ferocity of entitlement, the fantasy of a restored “Golden Age” (read: White Supremacy), the denial of facts, the exaltation of a “father” who can save “us.”

The echoes ripple outward. The dismissals, early on: He can’t be taken seriously; it’s just a lunatic fringe getting behind that clown, that imposter. He will disappear on his own, for lack of support, after failing to prove his extremist point and moving on. Then the too-little-too-late criticism from the right, the self-serving claims and subtle encouragements that he will be kept ‘in-check’ for “our” own purposes. He will gather crowds for “us” to exploit too. The naivete, the ignorance, the wickedness — all building momentum to coordinate in force. Then, the “testing” of power by way of outrageous words and behavior that should have been denounced and yet were weakly (at best) called out. Thinly veiled — no, transparent!! — threats to freedom, justice, human rights. “I am the only one who can do it,” he says. Guaranteeing deportations by the millions, vowing to “lock up” his enemies. Announcing he may or may not accept the results of the election.

What else do we need in order to remember Germany of the 1930s? Scholars and historians are taking entire pages of text, with hindsight-rich analysis replacing the name of Hitler and inserting this new name. Using the term Nazis instead of the alt-right, and the clarity, the proof, is beyond chilling. We shake our heads about the past. How could they have known? How could so few have read the writing on the wall, and so many fail to see? But we know full well how this scenario plays itself out. We (I mean all of us; I mean, the nation, the world) have a precedent to refer to, an all-too-relevant example, a portrait of what happens when circumstances meet opportunists, when a population seething with grievance (and wildly armed with weapons. Have we failed to include this in our calculations?) chooses to follow a madman enthusiastically promising to use absolute power (power beyond that accorded by the Constitution, power well beyond the law) to destroy the “enemy.”

Listen. My father’s extended family left Germany for Palestine in 1933. They were Zionists, but the timing was not coincidental. Hitler’s rise to power was evidence enough that their departure couldn’t be delayed. Perhaps they’d read “Mein Kampf”? Perhaps they were simply waiting for an economic window. I don’t know. But they left. All except my father’s own nuclear family, one small group of five staying behind in Hamburg. There were three young boys, and there was a family business to maintain. A life they believed in. My father Karlheinz, and his younger brothers Wolfgang and Helmut. Do you see? My grandparents must have thought they belonged. They must have believed in the future of their own German life. Hamburg, 1933.

So, I’m saying this today, one day before Election Day. The barbarians aren’t at the gates. They are here: attending his rallies, surrounding the polling places, pointing guns at the voting booth. They might as well be wearing brown shirts and black boots; they might as well be carrying swastika-splashed flags, beating up their foes in broad daylight. History is right here. Unless we, all of us, with eyes open and with the courage to aim our votes for her, for Hillary, we are all at risk. We can defeat the dark past by bringing light into the present moment. We must. Please vote as if the future of democracy is at stake, as if our very lives are at stake. It is. They are.

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Blurry Boundaries: on trespassing across genre lines

Because my bio refers to me as “novelist, poet and essayist,” I sometimes imagine you, My Inquisitive Reader, wondering how I dare to claim such vast territory. Or perhaps that’s your not-so-subtle eye-roll suggesting I should stop being such a dilettante and pick a genre already. Did I hear someone say “Jack of All Trades, Master of None” or was that just my imagination?

The truth is, I both do and do not believe in genre categorization, considering the argument that such labels are designed to benefit libraries (no offense!) and, frankly, to assist bookstores and their customers (yay!) with shelves shouting CLASSIC or CONTEMPORARY (as if these, among others, are genuinely distinct regions of reading material). I’m not even talking about differentiating among age groups (just how sharp, for instance, is the line distinguishing “appropriateness” of books for a child poised on the threshold between middle grade and young adult?). Somewhere in my not-so-secret heart I’m convinced that the POETRY section might as well have a warning sign saying KEEP OUT. When people tell me that my novels read “like long poems,” I take a careful breath before checking to see if they intend to offer a compliment or a critique.

I’m not the first writer to suggest that there are quite a few readers who are afraid of poems. Although I’m honestly flattered when a reader uses the term “lyrical” to describe my novels, there are plenty in the publishing industry who might call that adjective the kiss of death. And I write “accessible” poetry, I say, smiling in a vaguely sincere/ironic way. Although my novels are definitely non-linear, they are character-driven and narrative oriented. More reassuringly, I can tell you that they are not aiming to be experimental (the e-word being another kiss of death, if you’re a “commercial” publisher).

I’m also not the first author to admit that when people ask me, “What kind of books do you write?” I hesitate before saying “literary fiction.” (See under: How do you explain the difference between commercial fiction and literary fiction?) If the question includes a chirpily helpful mention of the interrogator’s favorites such as, “Sci-fi, mystery, romance…?” I stifle my inclination to groan and instead mumble something like, “I write novels that are mainly about real life.”

As for real life, my “emotionally autobiographical” fiction has been floating hand-in-hand alongside my book of poems – that volume, Gravity, which I fondly call the “autobiographical companion” to my novels. In other words, not only do my sentences and paragraphs bear an often-uncanny resemblance to my lines and stanzas, the content of all my books reflects an essential practice of self-discovery, revelation, and interpretation. Remember what Joan Didion said in her essay, “Why I Write” (a title she deliberately “stole” from George Orwell, and a title many times copied since then). “I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see, and what it means. What I want and what I fear.”

It shouldn’t surprise you to learn, Dear Reader, that I’m writing a book-length work of non-fiction for the first time – even though the territory feels deeply familiar. Fact: I’ve always been following Emily Dickinson’s command to “tell all the Truth but tell it slant.” My themes and concerns have shifted and yet remained the same. In my first two novels, The Speed of Light and Blue Nude, I wrote about inherited grief and trauma, as well as the healing power of storytelling and art making. These books are distinct in characters and settings – the secret life of a Holocaust survivor and his descendants interwoven with the silences of a Central American refugee; a descendant of Nazis in desperate exile colliding with an Israeli woman seeking escape of her own. Yet both books address my fascination with the tangled legacies we carry from our family histories, as well as my hopeful commitment to transforming sorrow into song. In my third novel, Electric City, I take on a much larger canvas of time and place, digging through the geological layers of American identity, indigenous displacement, a path toward the losing – and finding – of one’s true home in the world.

Now, with my work-in-progress entitled Survivor Cafe, you could say I’m back where I started. The landscape is both old and new. In this book of non-fiction, I’m asking questions about our personal and collective “conversations” with the past. Continuing my devoted pursuit to discover not what I already know but what I want to know, I’m reviewing the series of journeys – literal and metaphoric – that I’ve taken with my father: to Germany, to Buchenwald (the concentration camp where he was imprisoned), to the country from which he was exiled, and inside the language he (almost fully) renounced. I’m also tracking our broad cultural explorations of memory and memorializing, the parallels and differences between Holocaust and other post-war (re)collections. How do we preserve most authentically the experiences and testimonies of firsthand witnesses once they’re no longer here among us? How do we manage this wrestling with the presence of the absence?

The trouble and the beauty, a friend often reminds me, we get to make our peace with all of it. For this author, that means it all gets to show up on the page, whether the lines extend to the margins or break apart in space, whether the cover says “a novel” or not. Over the course of nearly four decades as a writer of prosaic poetry and poetic prose, I have come to embrace my way of straddling these allegedly separate worlds. Mind the gap, you say? Thanks for the tip, but if you could hear the voices inside my head (and I hope you can), I don’t mind the gap at all. For me, the spaces in between are exactly where I want to reside.

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Refugees Among Us

The heartbreaking photo of the drowned Syrian child seems to be radically awakening the world — preventing anyone from being able to ignore the current humanitarian crisis facing nearly one million Syrians. Images can have so much more power than words, as the saying goes. But we need to be careful with our language too.

Every time I see a headline or caption using the word “migrant,” I flinch a little. It’s a word that might just be doing the opposite of that powerful photo — that is, enabling the reader/viewer to consider looking away.

The use of the term “refugee” as opposed to “migrant” has profound implications regarding the way we (individuals and also governments) either do or do not feel obligated to take action. This is not just a point about words, of course, but about how easy it is to become inured to the suffering of others. “Migrants” can all too easily be regarded with fear and/or detachment, whereas “refugees” are recognizably in dire need of help and support.

My parents were refugees once, and so were my grandparents. They all managed by way of a series of miracles to survive the Holocaust — my mother and her parents enduring the Vilna Ghetto and then a hiding place in the Polish countryside; my father and one of my uncles enduring Buchenwald concentration camp until it was liberated by the American army.

Seventy years later, it’s easy to forget that during the late 1930s and early 1940s, countless European Jewish refugees were turned away by country after country, including Canada, Britain and the United States. Nobody knows how many hundreds of thousands of lives might have been saved had there been more active, collective efforts to rescue and provide sanctuary to families desperately fleeing their murderers. I’m not even talking about what might have been done to stop Hitler sooner, about the Allied war efforts in general, about bombing the railway stations or mobilizing our troops earlier than we did. I’m talking about havens. I’m talking about human rights, and global emergencies.

When President Roosevelt convened the Évian Conference in July 1938, gathering heads-of-state from around the globe, he was seeking to address The European Refugee Problem, which was obvious code for The Jewish Problem. Even Hitler said, regarding the conference, “I can only hope and expect that the other world, which has such deep sympathy for these criminals [Jews], will at least be generous enough to convert this sympathy into practical aid. We, on our part, are ready to put all these criminals at the disposal of these countries, for all I care, even on luxury ships.”

Tragically, very little changed in terms of quotas or bureaucratic policies until it was too late; we know how many millions of victims paid the price for international indifference. Then as now one can see the way language itself can disguise and obfuscate racism and bigotry at worst. It can also, quite simply, limit the extent of human compassion.

Today, defenseless men, women and children, are risking every (little) thing they have in order to escape a war-torn country (way too many of these to count, really, these war-torn countries). These fiercely courageous human beings are crawling and running and starving and drowning. They are not governments, nor are they terrorists, or manipulators looking for handouts. They are just like me, and you, and us, except that they have had the great misfortune to be caught on the “wrong” side of a border between oppression and freedom. They need our hearts to open, and our wallets, and our homes.

We can’t remain silent, or look the other way. We must prevent history from repeating itself yet again.

 

succulent 1

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September

ginkgo sky

 

What is the blue of damage?
Sand poured into an open ear,
ships disappearing over

the curve of the earth. Your plane
has landed, your train has arrived, you are
asleep somewhere on a strange pillow.

The heart turns slower than the moon, but
it does turn, waxing and waning, pulling
on tides. The exit sign flashes

like a painting of paradise
under a gauzy curtain. I pull it aside,
and all the colors come back to me

like someone returning from
far away, like someone returning.

 

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My Tribute to E.L. Doctorow

I had the privilege of meeting E.L. Doctorow twice — a few years ago in San Francisco and a few decades ago in Toronto when I was an aspiring writer attending my first-ever writing conference. I’ll never forget how, in a vast hall cantilevered above the shores of Lake Ontario, where everyone seemed to be holding their breath listening to Doctorow read from “Loon Lake,” I distinctly heard the sound of birds calling to one another across the water. My body absorbed Doctorow’s voice along with the voices of those birds (Were they loons? Could they be?), and I felt myself becoming a little more of a writer than I had been a few moments before.

Later, I waited in line clutching a pair of paperback books for him to sign, my worn-out-from-re-reading-them copies of “Ragtime” and “Loon Lake.” It was the first time I spoke with an author I admired as much as I admired him, and even though I suddenly realized that everyone else in line was holding elegant hardcovers, I inched my way forward until it was my turn to stand in front of him. I tried to explain about the birds. I wanted to know, did he hear them too?

This took place on Oct. 24, 1981. I’m sure because I still have those yellowing books, which have stayed with me for all these years though I’ve just opened them for the first time in quite a while. I see now that there is no inscription, nothing personal, just his signature and the date and the word Toronto. In my memory, which of course is thoroughly interlaced with my imagination, I told him I wanted to be a writer, and he gave me his blessing.

Edgar Lawrence Doctorow is outlived by his 12 novels, as well as essay collections and short stories and plays. He wrote prize-winning bestsellers about the Civil War and about gangsters and about a nearly mythical New York City, about the Rosenbergs’ executions and about the Wild West. In “Ragtime,” which remains my favorite of his novels and close to the top of my list of favorite novels of the 20th century, Doctorow includes several historical figures in a concoction that is as musically hypnotic as it is sociologically illuminating. Houdini is featured alongside Emma Goldman alongside Stanford White alongside Evelyn Nesbit, J.P. Morgan and Henry Ford; all of these gorgeously interwoven with characters from his own fecund imagination.

I did become a writer. And in particular my most recent novel was very much inspired by Doctorow’s exquisite blending of fact and fiction. While I was struggling with my book some years ago, I met him during a book festival at the San Francisco Jewish Community Center and asked for advice about how to manage writing fictionally about public figures. He said, “I treat them like my characters. The way portrait painters create interpretations of their subjects, that is more or less what I do too.” His words gave me courage and revived my enthusiasm; I plunged ahead with what I was doing, allowing my research to nourish and expand my vision rather than constraining the work of art. I interpreted. I painted.

Critics have lengthily discussed Doctorow’s wide-ranging themes and elaborate style; his sly wit and bold experimentation; his erudition and his politics. I’ve often heard Doctorow referenced in literary circles via his infinitely quotable description of the novelist’s task: “Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”

Although I never studied with him in the classroom, I learned from his books that the words and images and characters I choose as a novelist reveal as much about myself as they do about the world I’m mapping. Doctorow covered vast landscapes of time and place with insight and irreverence, depicting tragedy, greed, poverty, crime, beauty — and all of it, yes, a personal collage of history. When the grandfather of Coalhouse Walker Jr. (the gifted pianist from “Ragtime”) makes an appearance on the pages of Doctorow’s much later novel “The March,” I’m guessing that many readers like me were overjoyed to discover that the author chose to revisit one of the forebears of an imaginary Harlem, tracing some entangled roots of American history right inside the pages of his own novels. I am terribly sad that after “Andrew’s Brain,” his last published work, there might well be no more Doctorow on the horizon. But as writer and reader, I am grateful for the dazzling talent he shared with us, the depth and breadth of his navigation. And now, my own mysterious perseverance is calling. The fog stretches on and on. I turn on my headlights, and drive.

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Dear Reader:

I’m sitting in my study, imagining the moment when you turn the first page and begin. I’m here in my chair and you’re in yours. Maybe you’re on a plane or on a couch or in bed; maybe you’re looking out a window or at the sleeping face of your child or some other beloved. And eventually, after a while — hours, days, weeks even — I imagine you turning the last page and maybe wiping away a tear, maybe sighing or smiling. Feeling happy! Not that the book is over but that there is some kind of joy in your heart to believe that two people who want to love and be loved can, if they are lucky and also patient, find their way home. To each other.

jar lights

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Memorial Day 2015

Today I want to thank the soldiers who saved my life. Because you saved my father’s life, and therefore made it possible for me to be born. Maybe you fought for freedom and democracy, or because your own father fought before you were born, or because you wanted an adventure or to get away from home, maybe you fought because you knew in some abstract way that it was the right thing to do. Maybe you had a friend who was Jewish, or you didn’t even know a single Jew but you believed in the human dignity of everyone, or maybe you were Jewish yourself. Maybe you wanted to be a hero, or were trying something, anything, to get past your fears, maybe you just signed up on a whim or dropped out of school to enlist because that’s what your buddies were doing. Maybe you don’t even remember why you were going, maybe you just went.

Many times I’ve thanked you in my mind, but today I want to thank you out loud, the way I tried to when I met a few of you last month, in a place far away, a place that we both did and didn’t know too much about, called Weimar, Germany, at a gathering for the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Buchenwald, the concentration camp located just 8 km outside of town. You were there for the anniversary because you had been part of Patton’s Third Army entering the gate marked JEDEM DAS SEINE, To Each His Due. I was there, with my father, because he was one of the prisoners on the inside of that gate, a sixteen-year-old boy with a shaved head and wide dark eyes.

I know what he looked like because I’ve seen that face on the prisoner file card he managed to find in the days just after liberation. I know he was sick and emaciated and ravenous and hopeful, and I still find it hard to believe he had the presence of mind (or something?) to go into the camp office and find that card. But I know that he did it, and I know he was hopeful because I’ve asked him how he got through each and every day of his imprisonment, and he answered, “It was so horrible that I had to believe it could only get better.” And the day you arrived, it finally and permanently got better. You arrived with your uniforms so unlike the uniforms of the SS, with your guns not trained on him and his fellow prisoners but aimed at the guards, with your strange American voices and your army rations (which some prisoners ate so quickly they were killed by the food itself). With your empathy and your own young wide-eyed faces. You arrived the way the rumors in the previous days had promised you would, and the SS fled into the forest (the Beech Forest, those American words sounding so different than the German word, Buchenwald). You arrived and the gate was opened and it would never be closed again.

Thank you.

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Enough Already — Or, How I realized that Thanksgiving and Passover are the same holiday

Sometimes I forget that there is really only one story and that we are all either telling it or listening to it, the story that has loss or near-disaster somewhere in the beginning or middle, maybe it brings us to tears or to our knees, maybe we are overcome by a deluge of water or sorrow, maybe we are swarmed by locusts or cells gone wild, maybe fear of the dark threatens to ravage every chance of happiness, maybe there is a fire burning out of control in the secret chambers of our hearts. Maybe we can’t quite remember why we have been trying so hard to be good, or why we are pushing these boulders up the steepest hill again and again, maybe we just can’t remember who we are. Forgetting is so easy. And yet, and yet. If we are what we eat then I’m hoping this meal, this moment, this sharing of hearts and minds and bodies and breath will bring us back to ourselves at last. We will look into each other’s eyes and know that even in the coldest part of winter, under layers of dead leaves and scarred soil, a new returning to life is already beginning; what seems lost is merely dormant before the next awakening. And what we have learned together is that we are enough, we are exactly enough and more, we are already full of everything we need, and there is so much more to go around, there is more and more and more.

~ Elizabeth Rosner, Nov 2005

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Prizes for the Forgotten

From incandescence to fluorescence to LEDs, brightness once again rules our world. The Nobel Prize for Physics has recently been awarded to Isamu Akasaki, Hiroshi Amano and Shuji Nakamura, the three scientists who invented blue light-emitting diodes, continuing an arc traced from Thomas Edison’s earliest lightbulbs more than a century ago.

Alfred Nobel created his prize to recognize and reward the innovators and discoverers whose vision truly “benefits mankind.” Of course, even the brightest of ideas sometimes flicker and burn out. And much more often, among scientists as well as writers, there are countless names and ideas lost forever to history.

While researching my new novel Electric City, I re-discovered one such genius, a man whose brilliance of mind defied his physical deformity, and whose pragmatic approach to invention thoroughly changed the way we use electricity. Charles Proteus Steinmetz, dwarf and hunchback, mathematical engineer, protégé of Edison, was once featured in The New York Times with the headline “Modern Jove Hurls Lightning at Will.” A pioneer in the understanding of alternating current and a founder of the original research laboratory at General Electric, Steinmetz once held iconic status around the globe. Now, unlike Nikolai Tesla, whose popular resurrection has been widely acknowledged, Steinmetz remains a dimmer figure, still awaiting his return to center stage.

Now that prize announcements are no longer capturing our attention, let us remember to focus our gaze on the ones overlooked, past and present. Sometimes the only way to make sense of such erasures is to shine the beacon of historical fiction onto the faces of those we have forgotten to remember. Their dazzling wise eyes can gleam again.

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