A3146. Mindy Weisel has this innocuous number seared in her memory. Her father had it tattooed on his forearm. The “A” stands for Auschwitz, the notorious Nazi concentration camp that he survived so many decades ago before coming to America to build a new life — and to forget.
Weisel, the first child born in Germany’s Bergen-Belsen, after World War II when it became a camp for those displaced Jews who survived the Holocaust, though couldn’t forget — even the memories she did not know or live through. The child of Holocaust survivors, Weisel grew up with the legacy of loss and displacement, even among the bounty and affluence of post-World War II America.
She learned early on never to complain and says she grew up with the feeling she had to “be everything” to fill the void of her parents’ suffering and losses.
Weisel, the cousin of Elie Wiesel, one of the most important literary voices of the 20th century who addresses the Holocaust in his works through memoir and fiction, sought her own artistic path to express what she could not find words to say.
She is an artist who uses the action-painting techniques where she considers the canvas as a stage on which to layer her movement-drenched brush strokes in a way that the process becomes as important as the painted outcome. Through Dec. 28, 24 of Weisel’s works are on display in an intimate gallery at the Kreeger Museum in Northwest Washington, D.C.
The show, Neutral, features three distinctive areas of Weisel’s body of work: her early works on canvas and paper that draw on her parents’ histories as Holocaust survivors and on Weisel’s own uncomfortable ability to come to terms with suffering she had never known; “Survival of Beauty,” a series of paper collages based on the artist’s experiences visiting Berlin on her 60th birthday; and, finally, her most recent artistic journey, “After Tohoku,” drawing on Weisel’s search for beauty amid tragedy and chaos in the aftermath of the 2011 Japan tsunami.
The works speak to one another across decades and in their physical outlook carry the viewer from darkness through to vivid and unapologetic color and light. It’s a journey Weisel has taken decades to navigate. A 40-year Washington-area resident, who raised her family in the Montgomery County suburbs, just two years ago, she and her husband, lawyer Sheldon Weisel, immigrated to Jerusalem. There Weisel is beginning to explore the enduring light of this holy city and its changing evanescent qualities, but she has not yet developed a body of work drawn from her Israeli experiences. Her works have been mounted in galleries across the region as well as in New York, Chicago, Yale University and Berlin. Selected pieces are held in the permanent collections of the Israel Museum, Yad Vashem, the Baltimore Museum of Art and the Smithsonian Institution.
Looking back to the late 1970s and early 1980s, when Weisel was exploring her family’s hard history, she says: “When I was creating the work in ’78 and ’79 at that time there wasn’t a Holocaust Museum yet, there wasn’t Schindler’s List and there weren’t so many books on the topic. I didn’t know if it would be okay to do this [painting].” She wrote to her cousin Eli and asked him point blank if it was okay for her as a child of survivors to explore that subject since she herself had not experienced it. He replied, she said, by saying, “How can you not?”
So Weisel’s journey began with many long telephone conversations with her father, a Californian, that led her to paint layers and layers of words and her father’s number, A3146, over and over again on canvases. She would then cover the numbers, and sometimes other words or phrases she had penned, with heavy, dark brush strokes until they became obscured under layers and layers of paint.
She then did a series she called “Blue on Blue,” using the brilliant cobalt blue color of her mother’s favorite dress and recalling the warm and sweet stories her mother shared about life in the old country before the war.
“The Prayer Shawl,” an oil on paper from 1979, gives just a hint of a tallit in the bottom corner, but the prayer shawl is overcome by black and white chalk lines that slash across the paper. “Memories,” also from 1979, is an oil on canvas that suggests a square window-like vantage point with heavy bars balancing on either side. In “The Saved,” Weisel takes an iconic item of flight or departure, the suitcase, and paints it, covering the leather with A3146, her father’s number, and Hebrew words and letters peek through the black and blue paint, including “Sh’ma,” indicative of the foundational Jewish declaration of faith in a singular God.
In “Survival of Beauty,” the selected works were created following a visit to Berlin. She created them in Israel and describes them as emblematic of her journey to Berlin, noting the visit was a “journey from the traumatic reliving of my parents’ experience toward a healing and celebration of life. These works are less heavily layered and a greater variety of color emerges — rusts, blues, pinks, grape and cobalt in a constant dance of line and void as streaks and squiggles mutate on the page.
Finally, the vivid works in “After Tohoku” reflect a newfound love Weisel discovered for Japanese handmade papers. She traveled to the northern Japanese district of Tohoku following the devastating tsunami to participate in art therapy programs with the tsunami survivors, many of whom lost everything. “These works are very much about the survival. We were there in Japan and everyone was waiting for the sakura — the cherry blossoms — and when they finally bloomed [the year after the tsunami], then everyone realized they could go on.”
These works feature vividly colored Japanese papers layered in swaths reflecting a riot of color: fuchsia and magenta, dandelion and emerald, gold and silver in repeating patterns featuring delicate flowers and sturdy mountains and other iconic Japanese imagery.
These days Weisel says she is still acclimating to the air, the pace and the people of Jerusalem. It is, she insists, the only place she truly feels at home. She’s enjoying her three children and her growing number of grandchildren; one was just born earlier this month. Her work today is no longer haunted by the heavy darkness of her parents’ Holocaust experience. It’s not that she has put it behind her. She will always be a daughter of survivors. But she has found a way to live a creative and productive life both in spite of and because of her background.
Last year her book of essays collected from others like her, daughters of Holocaust survivors, was released by Dream of Things press. Daughters of Absence: Transforming a Legacy of Loss, is one more exploration of women, in this case a dozen, including District filmmaker Aviva Kempner, who has struggled to find a voice and a creative outlet amid challenging circumstances. The second generation survivors, those children of the Holocaust, will always live with ghosts, with a past and present that merge and mingle in a constant dance — in Weisel’s case that dance is of color breaking through the darkness.
Not Neutral will be on display through Dec. 28 at the Kreeger Museum in the District. The museum is open Tuesday through Thursday with advance reservations at either 10:30 a.m. or 1:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 10 a.m.-4 p.m., no reservations necessary. Tickets, $10, $7 students/seniors, are available by calling 202-338-3552 or visit www.kreegermuseum.org.
Daughters of Absence is available at www.dreamofthings.com.