Archive for the Art and Culture Category

Dreaming in Russian

Posted in ALOUD, Art and Culture, Family History, Literature, Los Angeles with tags , , , , on March 12, 2014 by Louise Steinman

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[drawing: Vlada Ralko]

News from Ukraine trickles into my weekend haven in Ojai Valley. I peel an orange fresh from the tree, exulting in the scent. A woman in Maidan grates beets for borscht for weary protesters, her fingers stained blood red. The crisis keeps Russia in the headlines and the nerves on alert.

It’s both the crisis in Ukraine and my anticipation of Russian-American journalist Masha Gessen coming to ALOUD (tonight!) that explains my gravitation over the past month to memoirs about Russia, both Soviet and post-Soviet. Gary Shteyngart’s Little Failure, Colin McCann’s Dancer; Anya Von Bremzen’s Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking; Emmanuel Carrere’s startling My Life as a Russian Novel ; Geoff Dyer’s ZONA, an inventive meditation on Tarkovsky’s film “Stalker.”

It’s Gessen’s brilliant new book on Pussy Riot [Words Will Break Cement: The Passion of Pussy Riot] that brings her to L.A. tonight; but I also reread her beautiful memoir, Ester and Ruzya: How My Grandmothers Survived Hitler’s War and Stalin’s Peace. Gessen stresses the ways people under those regimes, in order to live, were forced to make moral compromises—in ways most of us have not had to face. “Each of my grandmothers was burdened with a conscience, which meant that both of them at crucial points in their lives tried to find a way to make an honest peace with the system. They had vastly different ways of doing it…”

Reading so many books about Russia may explain why, in a recent dream, in a vast warehouse in a small town, every door I opened (and there were many) lead to the Russian River. And after all, though my father forgot his childhood Russian (he was six when he emigrated from Ukraine, during the Russian Civil War) he told me he still sometimes dreamed in Russian.

Today’s NYTimes features a video of Ukrainian troops in the Crimean city of Sevastopol (famous in my childhood from Pete Seeger’s version) facing off with Putin’s soldiers. The Russians have rifles at the ready, and their captain yells, “Come no further!” but the canny Ukrainians are holding aloft both their own blue and yellow flag as well as a red flag bearing (what the voiceover calls) “Russian symbolics “(apparently hammer and sickle is still in vogue)… “because they know the Russians won’t fire on their own banner.”

This stand-off brought back the memory from 1962, sitting in the den of our house in Culver City with my father, worriedly watching the Cuban missile crisis unfold on TV. I stomp off and return to the table with envelope and stamps and begin writing: “Dear Mr. Khruschchev, I don’t want to die.” I’m not sure what the U.S. Post office did with it; but I dropped it in the mailbox with an eleven year old’s sense of personal urgency.
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In the meantime, during the current stand-off, I console myself with a recent delight– the divine DAKHKA BRAKHA, whose voices and songs fill my ears and heart. They call themselves a “Ukrainian ethno-chaos” band. Eastern Europe meets the full force of global sound. A free and fair trade.

Ukrainian Egg Cup Woman

Posted in Art and Culture, Crooked Mirror, Human Rights with tags , , , , , , , on January 1, 2014 by Louise Steinman

Ukrainian egg cup woman
It’s good to have a talisman (or taliswoman, i suppose) when you’re in a dark place, suffering emotional turmoil, or just needing a visage of joy to counter balance suffering, angst. So here’s to the Ukrainian Egg Cup woman, another (inanimate) character who appears in The Crooked Mirror. Cheryl found her in on a dusty shelf in an antique store in the old city of L’vov (L’viv).

“The cup balanced on the woman’s sturdy head was cheerful too; orange and yellow dots, each looped by a delicate broken line. The Eggcup Woman was probably from the 1940s. Russian constructivist in style but authentically Ukrainian, the woman in the shop had informed Cheryl.

I imagine the artisans in that factory in some Ukrainian city, painting stripes on the red harem pants of a cheerful eggcup at the same time agents of the NKVD arrived unannounced in their black police vans (the infamous ‘chernyj voron’, or ‘black crows’) to arrest scores of Ukrainians on nonexistent charges.

Upon entering any bleak hotel room for the rest of our trip, our first act was to set up an Eggcup Woman. She was our Ukrainian Quan Yin, our Constructivist Buddha, our polka-dot Humpty Dumpty, our talisman of good cheer.”

So here’s to good cheer for the beginning of 2014! Here’s a toast to all those fighting for their democratic (and human rights) all over the world, in freezing squares in Kiev, in Minsk, in Cairo, and more. Here’s to brave Pussy Riot who stood up to Putin, to Reverend Billy who fights the Corporate Medusa… the Ukrainian Egg Cup Woman wishes you all a Happy (and more liberated) New Year!
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On the Road with “The Crooked Mirror”

Posted in Art and Culture, Crooked Mirror, Family History, Literature, Poland, reconciliation with tags , , , , , , , , , , on December 8, 2013 by Louise Steinman

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After so many years of sitting alone in a room writing, reflecting… it’s fascinating to be out in the world with The Crooked Mirror. Who are its readers? Who was drawn to hear me talk about the book in Queens,NY, in San Francisco, in Los Angeles, Manhattan, Portland and Seattle? Some were old friends, appearing from various chapters of my life. Some were family– cousins with links to the story. Others saw an ad or heard a plug on the radio. Some came because they are intrigued, some because they were skeptical of the very premise: Polish-Jewish reconciliation.

At the Queens Jewish Library last month, there were many Jewish survivors of the camps in the crowded community room. One man rolled up his sleeve to show me the Auschwitz number tattooed on his arm, without comment. During my talk, these elders nodded their heads vigorously when I mentioned how, when Cheryl’s father came home after the war from the Soviet Union to his town of Kolomyja, where his neighbors shot at him. But they also listened attentively to stories of kindness, rescue, and the hard-won path towards reconciliation.

At USC, I gave a talk to students in the Masters in Professional Writing program. Two writing students– both working on memoirs about their African-American families– approached me afterwards, to say they’d taken inspiration from my tale. One of them owned to the dead-ends she’d encountered in the search for the history of her own family, from the time of slavery. “What do I do about all the gaps, the ragged edges?” she asked me sadly. Use them! I advised. Those holes in a family narrative are part of the story that has been obscured by time, emigration, and trauma.

At the NYU bookstore, I met Jack Malinowski, from Philadelphia, retired from 35 years with the American Friends Service Committee. Jack is the grandson of Poles– miners who emigrated from the Suwalki area of Poland in the late 1800’s. He grew up in a largely Polish Catholic community, near Shenandoah, Pa. “My parents were active in Polish American cultural activities,” he told me, “mostly on a Roman Catholic level. The synagogue in our town was near our house, but we mainly co-existed rather than mixed.” His father played a strong role helping DP’s after the war, and joined numerous Polish American voters leaving the Democratic party after Yalta (feeling betrayed by Roosevelt). In The Crooked Mirror, he said, “I found a rare and meaningful encounter.”

Tova Ofman is the daughter of Berek Ofman, a survivor from my family’s town of Radomsko, who is featured in the book. She flew in from Cleveland, bringing her two daughters so that they could hear a story that their grandfather had never told them. “I think he found it easier to tell his story to someone outside the family,” one of the lovely granddaughters thoughtfully observed.

I was delighted that my friend Sheku Mansaray could be in the audience at the New York Public Library. Sheku suffered through the atrocities of the civil war in Sierra Leone, losing both his parents and his arms to rebel soldiers. He sat beside storyteller Laura Simms, who wrote afterwards: “Sheku, like my son Ishmael, was a victim of a long civil war in Sierra Leone. Unlike Ishmael he did not become a soldier, but rather was scarred forever by a child soldier. A boy that he knew as a child from the next village. It was an amazing evening listening to tales of reconciliation after war, seated beside Sheku who is making some reconciliation within himself after the war.”

In many cities, people came up to me afterwards to tell me their family stories, to talk about their own searches to reconnect with history and lineage. In Portland, my friend Aron told me he was now going to search out the story of his grandmother Anne, who was one of the children on the Kindertransport. In San Francisco, I met Elizabeth Rynecki, who maintains a “virtual museum” and is producing a documentary film about her great-grandfather Moshe Rynecki, a renowned Warsaw painter (and a very fine one at that), who died in Majdanek. Moshe Rynecki’s son, George, Elizabeth’s grandfather, recovered over 100 of his father’s paintings, secreted away during the war. Elizabeth wrote this thoughtful response to The Crooked Mirror and posted it on her blog. I share it here.

Thanks to everyone who’s helped launch The Crooked Mirror out into the world. I also promise– in response to feedback– to post more pictures and a map in due time…

painting at top:
“Perla” by Moshe Rynecki, 1929.

Being Heard

Posted in ALOUD, Art and Culture, Crooked Mirror, Los Angeles, Poland, reconciliation, The Souvenir: A Daughter Discovers Her Father's War with tags , , , , , , , , on November 9, 2013 by Louise Steinman

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It’s been an emotional and gratifying week, giving my first book talk on The Crooked Mirror, being interviewed by the wonderful Jack Miles at ALOUD (video, podcast to be posted soon) and receiving two deeply thoughtful and beautifully written reviews– one by poet Piotr Florzck in the Los Angeles Review of Books (and thank God for LARB and the possibility of the existence, these days, of a long review) and the other by Rabbi Haim Beliak– a mover and shaker in the cause of Jewish renewal in Poland– in the Jewish Journal

So here are links to both reviews. Here’s giving thanks to those who’ve already attended a reading or a talk… I’ve been buoyed by the response, the sense of a community eager to hear and talk about this work. There is so much need for reconciliation in so many parts of this planet, so many parts of our lives. I remember when “The Souvenir” came out in 2001, after 9/11, and when a young film development person told my agent, “No one wants to hear stories about reconciliation — we’re at war.” Well, I didn’t believe it then, and I don’t believe it now.

photo: Misterium: Poem of the Place, Lublin, TeatrNN

Art and Labor in the Pacific NW

Posted in Art and Culture, history, Human Rights with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on September 2, 2013 by Louise Steinman

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My friend Buster Simpson is an artist/activist who thinks globally and acts locally. His eye-opening career retrospective at the Frye Museum in Seattle opens with a grainy super-8 film of Buster from a few decades earlier. He’s a naked young David with a slingshot, symbolically launching his anti-acid rain purge stones at the Goliaths in the World Trade Towers. Buster is a art and environmental provocateur, a surveyor of lost places, a man who occupied the upper branches of a 100 year-old cherry tree to save it from Seattle condo developers then made a ladder out of the remains of the cherry tree so that he could climb into the next tree and try to save it from developers. Buster was my neighbor in funky downtown Seattle in the early 1980’s; we called him the mayor of Belltown. His intrepid dumpster diving kept our artists’ tenement well-supplied with day-old pastries from the Pike Place Market.

On this trip in August, as we waved goodbye to Buster, heading south from Seattle for Portland, he admonished us not to miss “the Wobbly murals in Centralia.” So we veered off the highway into that modest Lewis County town, its only claim to fame, as far as I knew, as the birthplace of avant-garde choreographer Merce Cunningham.

What I didn’t know was that Centralia was the site of an anti-labor massacre, where an innocent man was lynched, castrated and hung from the bridge on the Chehalis River. The man’s name was Wesley Everest. He was a veteran and a member of the I.W.W. (International Workers of the World). He was pulled out of jail, handed over to his persecutors and murdered in the dark of night. The next morning, when Centralia schoolchildren crossed the bridge to go to school, his mutilated body still dangled over the river.

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A sleepy teenager in front of a liquor store drew a blank when we asked the location of the Wesley Everest mural but the fireman polishing his hook and ladder gestured toward City Park. There, on the façade of the old Elks Lodge (now an antique mall), is the magnificent 1997 mural by artist Mike Alewitz: “The Resurrection of Wesley Everest.” The mural commemorates the disastrous events of Nov 11, 1919, when members of the town’s business elite enlisted the American Legion, then a new veterans group, to attack the hall of the I.W.W. and lynch its secretary. In Alewitz’ visual narrative, the spirit of Wesley Everest rises out of his pauper’s grave, half-clothed in his veteran’s uniform, half in his logger’s overalls, both hands clenched and arms raised upwards to the sky.

From a well-informed man who worked inside the building, we learned that City Park was the very place where the crowd assembled before the raid on the labor hall. Our informant told us how the Armistice Day Tragedy had been “Centralia’s secret” for over eighty years.

“Anyone who wanted to talk about it would be rudely interrupted, shouted down or ignored. If you wrote a paper about it in school, it meant an immediate ‘F.’” People remembered whose family was with the business interests, whose were aligned with labor. Wesley Everest’s murderers were never brought to trial. But the young I.W.W.loggers who defended their own lives at the union hall (four American Legionnaires were killed) were framed and sent to prison for eleven plus years (one of them served 18 years) by a “special prosecutor” appointed to the task, a local attorney named C.D. Cunningham. “No relation to Merce..?” I asked half in jest. The reply startled me: “he was his father.”

Further study in the Los Angeles Public Library stacks (The Centralia Conspiracy,by Ralph Chapin, 1919) and the viewing today, on Labor Day, of a superb film documentary (“Lewis County Hope and Struggle: A Community Remembers the Wobbly War) by Olympia, WA-based filmmaker Anne Fischel tells labor’s side of the story. Fischel’s film corroborates the conspiracy on the part of the lumber interests to commit murder and violence to drive organized labor out of their domain. The lumber barons had no intention of limiting their profits on virgin timber by providing health care for their workers, by limiting their dangerous long work days, by ameliorating their miserable working conditions in the soggy NW lumber camps.

In a scene in her film, at the mural’s dedication in Centralia, in 1997, Fischel pans the assembled crowd. Lewis County was then in the grip of a terrible economic recession. These are working men and women, their faces creased and worn; the worry shows. Several of these witnesses are descendants of those I.W.W. loggers who went to prison for ten + years for their beliefs that there should be a more just society.

Alewitz reminds them all how the I.W.W. threatened business interests at the time because they dared to ask, “in whose interest should society be run?” It’s a question that Buster Simpson asks in his work, and on this Labor Day, with the spirit of Wesley Everest watching, it is a question we must all continue to ask.

Wesley Everest
[photo by Joe Mabel, used under a Creative Commons license]

Summer Verdict

Posted in Art and Culture, Human Rights with tags , , , , , , on August 3, 2013 by Louise Steinman

Priam begs Achilles for the body of Hector 


Priam begs Achilles for the body of Hector 



The day of the devastating verdict in the Trayvon Martin trial, I was reading a very old story about a father pleading for the body of his dead son. In the novel Ransom, author David Malouf re-enters the Iliad, telling an “untold tale” from the margins of that epic, his tale of Priam, King of Troy, whose son Hector was slain by Greek prince Achilles.

One morning, King Priam awakens with a vision: he will discard his royal finery and crown, garb himself in a plain white robe, seat himself on a simple wooden cart drawn by two mules and—solely in the company of a simple wagon driver– set off across the flatlands of Troy below the castle to the camp of his enemy, Prince Achilles.

Each day for the eleven consecutive days, Achilles– for his own reasons of maddened grief— binds Hector’s corpse to his chariot with a leather strap, drags what’s left of him behind his galloping horses. Hector’s lifeless skull bangs against rocks, his torso is pitted with gravel and splattered with mud. And each day, for eleven days, the parents of Hector—Priam and Hecuba–watch with horror from the ramparts of their city as their son’s body is gruesomely dishonored.

The king’s startling idea is a simple one: he will do something “new.” He will not beg for the body of his son as a king, but simply as a father. He will not take a retinue or any weapons, he will appeal directly to his enemy (son of a mortal and a goddess, who has chosen to live as mortal) as a fellow human being. “I believe that the thing that is needed to cut this knot we are all tied in,” he tells his skeptical wife, “is something that has never before been done or thought of. Something impossible. Something new.”

You cannot help marveling at the utter dignity of this white-bearded sovereign who asks his enemy, “man to man, as a father” for the body of his son. He implores Achilles to let him bring Hector home. He asks to be able to honor his son’s memory. That, it struck me, is part of what we were yearning for in the infuriating Florida trial. We yearned to see Trayvon Martin’s parents allowed to honor the memory of their slain son. They sat there in that courtroom, witnesses to the dishonoring of their son’s memory. They sat straight-backed and grieving deeply, hoping for justice to be done.

We wanted something new to happen.

[above– detail of sculpture from Tyre, 
2nd century AD, 
marble. Photo by Steven Damron, Creative Commons license]

From an Island, #4 (Homage to Rauschenberg’s ‘Pelican’)

Posted in Art and Culture, CAPTIVA, Dance, Life and What about It, So&So&So&So, Theater with tags , , , , , on January 29, 2013 by Louise Steinman

"Homage to Pelican"
No sense trying to sleep during full moon madness, the night after our “Homage to Pelican,” for me a joyful return to the zone of performer’s mind, the thrill of improvisation. And especially meaningful to be performing with Susan Banyas, with whom I danced and made theatrical mischief for many years as the expandable duo So&So&So&So.

To plucks and clunks of John Cage, Carrell escorts Lucinda up onto the chairs (Rauschenberg’s “Ancient Incident”) where she sings in soaring soprano:

OSPREY
OSPREY
ROAM FREE

IBIS!
IBIS!

MALIA HELD
A PELICAN

(etc)

Susan and I glide around on Bob’s black rollerskates (the very ones, yes, that he used in his 1958 “Pelican”, now with fraying shoelaces) adorned with our palm frond parachutes, gently propelling Lavinia and Kate off-balance (they are our Cunningham-Carolyn Brown muses), blue bicycles spiral on the grass in the distant lawn. I’m told an osprey flew over (cue osprey!)the performance during the final moment, wriggling mullet in his talons, illuminated by the sun.

And then there was the egret who wanted some ice:

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