Artist Miriam Mörsel Nathan lives with memories from before she was born.
She walks over to a piece hanging in her art-and light-filled living room in the Kemp Mill neighborhood of Silver Spring. “This was taken from a photo of my mother. I worked with a master printer and we enlarged the image very big as you see and use a process called gum arabic transfer with a Xerox machine. So the ink doesn’t adhere in some places and sticks to the parts of the photo that are dark.”
She pauses and looks at the manipulated image of her mother, who lived in Prague and was sent to Theresienstadt before the artist was born.
“[The process] degrades the image and you no longer see her clearly. It’s a very old photograph, but for me it connects to memory — and absence,” Nathan, 72, explains about the pixelated image that fades into the paper.
The memories — and trauma — of her parents, Holocaust survivors, live in her and shape her work.
Her father fled Czechoslovakia in 1939. His circuitous journey took him to the Dominican Republic, where he was part of a small Jewish enclave of chicken farmers.
Her mother survived Theresienstadt, and seven years after their separation,
Nathan’s parents, who had married in 1937, reunited in the Dominican Republic, where she was born.
As a young child, the family moved to Richmond. There, Nathan was surrounded by a tight-knit group of Holocaust survivors and their children.
Unlike many survivors, she says, “My parents did talk about their experiences. My father’s story was much more of an adventure. I remember he talked about how they tried to plant bananas and they gave him a horse for transportation. He was from Prague and never rode a horse.”
At 14, she went with her mother to see the concentration camp. “My work reflects a history I inherited, a memory of experiences and loss I absorbed but did not have, and though I live my life in the present, this memory of a time I did not know wraps itself around me indelibly,” Nathan has written.
And it is indelible in her mixed-media pieces. She only works on paper, saying that paper is both fragile — it can tear, burn, wrinkle — but it survives. The medium becomes a metaphor for her work.
There is the body of work she titles “Memory of a time I did not know,” that draws on the wellspring of her own memories and of those fragments of loss she gleaned from her mother’s stories and from a box of collected and salvaged photographs from prewar Prague — her mother presciently left a letterbox of pictures with a non-Jewish friend before she was deported. The friend eventually sent them to Nathan’s mother.
Now they are among Nathan’s dearest possessions. A history of lives lost collected in a box. And the pieces she creates from these faded photographs are often obscured, covered by netting, lace, half hidden in a box or overlaid by other images, grids or abstract designs.
There’s another side to Nathan’s work: abstraction. Those pieces can feature firm or quivering black pen and ink lines, washes of watercolors or oils, complex grid-like designs in shades of black and gray or in bright tropical colors overlaying prints, and partially obscured poems and texts.
These have a less direct lineage to her identity as a second-generation survivor of the trauma of the Holocaust. She sees these works as representative of “the landscape of fragmentation.”
Some of her pieces sell, particularly the abstract ones; others, the most personal meditations on memory, family, loss and post-trauma, are available for exhibition, but not purchase. Her next local show takes place April 5-May 3 at Howard Community College.
Do these works resonate beyond her own family history and the larger Jewish community? Nathan says, “I can’t say that the work reflects anything that is current specifically because I am working from what I call a documentary perspective. … My urgency around bringing [my family] story forward has to do with it being a cautionary tale. … What happened goes far beyond just my immediate family. These are things that are happening today.”