"The camera is an instrument that teaches people how to see without a camera." - Dorothea Lange

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

a new gig

I’m flattered to have been one of 12 Kansas City area artists invited to participate in 2015-2016 Midwest Artists Lab, a project funded by the Covenant Foundation and sponsored here in Kansas City by the Jewish Community Center.

The Lab engages Jewish artists from five US cities (the others are Milwaukee, Minneapolis, Madison and Chicago) in the exploration of Jewish sources relating to an overarching theme. The theme this year is “Echos: Voices of Wisdom.” Along with my colleagues (all working in different mediums) we will create pieces that are reflections on the theme as well as the shared learning experience.

The Kansas City group will meet twice a month beginning the first of October and will explore ancient and modern, traditional, oppositional and radical Jewish sources relating to the theme. Facilitated by Jewish educators, scholars and other artists, we’ll have interactive investigations of texts and multimedia sources, as well as hands-on exercises exploring art, Jewish art, the artist’s relationship to his/her/others’ works and the role of culture in community transformation.

The kick-off for the Lab begins during a weekend retreat in Milwaukee, where we’ll have the opportunity to meet all the participating artists and begin our journey into this project. Selected work made by my fellow artists and me will be exhibited in a show during May, the final month of the Lab. We're each also paid a stipend for our participation.

I haven’t been to Milwaukee in many years. Eddie and I lived there in 1979-1980, so it will be fun to revisit my old haunts. I’m really looking forward to working side by side with the other KC artists - including Robyn Nichols, Nicole Emanuel and Allan Winkler – and getting to know fellow artists from the other cities, too. Should be a really interesting few months!

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

roman vishniac

On this eve of Yom Kippur, the most holy of the Jewish holidays, I'd like to share work by Roman Vishniac. His work has always been a major inspiration to me. I was happy to learn there is a show opening at the Houston Museum of Fine Arts entitled "Rediscovering Roman Vishniac." More people will learn about his work now.

Here is a blurb from the museum's website:

More than any other photographer, Roman Vishniac profoundly influenced contemporary impressions of Jewish life in Eastern Europe. Vishniac created the most widely recognized and reproduced photographic record of that world on the eve of its annihilation, yet very little of his work was published or printed during his lifetime (1897–1990).
Roman Vishniac Rediscovered provides an introduction to Vishniac's radically diverse body of work—much of it only recently discovered. Known primarily for his poignant images of Eastern Europe, Vishniac was in fact a remarkably versatile and innovative photographer. This exhibition repositions his iconic photographs of Eastern Europe within a broader tradition of social documentary photography. Vishniac's career spans more than five decades, ranging from early engagements with European Modernism to highly inventive color photomicroscopy.
As an amateur photographer in Berlin in the early 1920s, the Russian-born Vishniac took to the streets, offering intelligent and wry visual commentary while experimenting with new approaches to framing and composition. He documented the Nazi rise to power and photographed impoverished Jewish communities in Eastern Europe.
After fleeing to New York in 1941, he opened a portrait studio, recorded American Jewish communal and immigrant life, and established himself as a pioneer in photomicroscopy (taking photographs with a microscope). In 1947, Vishniac returned to Europe to document Jewish displaced-persons camps, the ruins of Berlin, and efforts of Holocaust survivors to rebuild their lives. Vishniac's work in color photomicroscopy was his primary focus for the remainder of his life.

Thursday, September 17, 2015

my last night at smk

The Jewish New Year occurred while I was in Uganda. On my final night at St. Mary Kevin, my Jewish friends and family were in America celebrating this important holiday, Rosh Hashanah. My grand kids were eating apples and honey, symbols of hope for a sweet year to come. While I'm not a strictly "observant" Jew, I did miss being at home for this special holiday.

I didn't feel well that last day, having finally succumbed to the scratchy sore throat and headache that had been festering for a couple days. I stayed in my room all day until just before dinner. After a delightful bowl of soup with Melissa, I made my way through the inky blackness of the Uganda night toward the dorms to see if I could round up a few kids for some goodbye hugs. It was almost bedtime by then. My flight didn't leave until after midnight, so I had some time.

Walking toward the entrance to SMK, blanketed by blackness, I began to hear the throbbing of drums and the uplifted voices of children.

Melissa explained to me later that one of the teachers has recently begun "prayer service" for those children who wish to participate. It takes place just before bedtime, and it involves singing, drumming, outstretched arms, tears streaming down faces, intense joy, intense sadness, a bible reading and thoughtful, heartfelt prayer.

And I do mean heartfelt.

I was so moved. Watching these children reach deep inside themselves, express gratitude to a higher power for the goodness in their lives and ask for strength to move forward was humbling and incredibly powerful. I don't know how long they had been going on already, but I got to watch for a good half hour or so.

When the children finished, they gathered around me and gave me long, tearful hugs.

In my mind's eye, I handed each a slice of apple dipped in honey. Then I wiped away my tears and headed for home. I couldn't have asked for a sweeter, more meaningful ending to my trip.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

uganda: parting shots + pockets

In my farewell "address" to the kids, I talked about pockets. After making sure they knew what a pocket was, we talked about what most people put in them. I asked if anyone had anything in their pocket, and Leo produced a broken part of a plastic toy he'd found on the road. I talked about how important it must be to Leo to have picked it up and put it in his pocket for safekeeping. 

Then I told them that before I had left America to come to Uganda, many people had called and expressed a desire to shrink down small enough to fit in my pocket so that I could bring them with me. They got a kick out of that visual.

I went on to say that now that it was time for me to go, I wished I could shrink each of them down to a size that would fit in my pocket so I could could take them home with me.

I reminded them that, of course, this isn't possible, but then I told them that the most important pocket of all is one that you can't even see. It's invisible, but it is deep and wide and holds so many important things. That pocket, I said, is in our hearts. And lucky for us, sometimes it is so full it feels like it's bursting at the seams!

So that no matter how far away we are from each other, no matter how long it has been since a special CTT friend has visited, even if someone isn't ever going to come back to visit, we all know that we're carrying each other around in this special pocket - and because of that we'll always be right there for each other.

In her good-bye letter to me, Queen wrote that she wished she could fit in my real pocket, but that she knew I'd always be close by since she was in my heart pocket and I was in hers. I'm glad she "got it" and I hope the other children did, too.

Sunday, September 13, 2015

the shoe that grows: a happy day

before new shoes

Today we distributed the cool shoe that grows five sizes. We had enough for kids in Primary 1 through Primary 4. Kids who didn't get shoes received a backpack/bag. Everyone was really happy with their gifts.

It was quite an operation. First, we adjusted the shoes to small, medium and large sizes. A few of the older boys helped with that task as we sat around in Melissa's kitchen. Then, we had all the kids line up by grade so we could give each one a pair of shoes and then adjust them to fit exactly. A couple of the matrons and teachers joined us and helped out a great deal. Even our good friend Peter, who had come for the day to visit, got in on the action.

We figured we'd collect and throw away the plastic ziplock bags the shoes came in, but the kids wanted them. These shoes are very special to them, and they want to keep them as clean and neat as possible. In fact, once we had fit a kid in his/her pair and written his/her name on them, the shoes were promptly removed and safely stored in the ziplock. These are treasures for children who don't get new shoes very often, if at all.

Brian helped us get the shoes ready for handing out

All lined up and waiting patiently for their new shoes

Teacher Mary and Matron Josephine show the children how the shoes work

Big smiles all around!

Saturday, September 12, 2015

i went to a synagogue in uganda!

I won't be home for Rosh Hashanah, but I did just go to a synagogue near Mbale. Rabbi Gershom welcomed me with open arms, even though I had no appointment, just showing (up out of nowhere) in his very remote, hillside settlement on a boda-boda. The settlement he oversees is one of five in the area surrounding Mblae. The Jews in Uganda are called the Abayudaya (Luganda for "People of Judah"). Rabbi Gershom is actually the spiritual leader of all the Abayydaya. He was ordained at the American Jewish University in Los Angeles in 2008 under the auspices of the Conservative movement.

Judaism has been around here for about 100 years. There are about 2,000 Jews in Uganda currently; there were more before Idi Amin, who badly persecuted them. They are mostly farmers, and they are strict about observing the Sabbath and all Jewish holidays, as well as keeping kosher.

A very sweet and very smart young man called Samson gave me a tour of the grounds. I shopped (yes, they have a gift shop!!!!) and saw their four Torah scrolls. There was a palpable excitement around the place for the upcoming High Holidays. I wish I was going to be here for their services.

If you're interested in learning more about the Abayudaya, there is plenty of info available. Just do a Google search.

Eddie, get ready to don a handmade Ugandan yarmulke for Yom Kippur!

Friday, September 11, 2015

another day at the kavule school for the deaf

Sam, the founder and director of the school

I grew up knowing a married couple who were very dear friends of the family, so close that my siblings and I considered them aunt and uncle. Edie and Jimmy were remarkable people. They were lovely, highly educated, warm and endearing, and they were important members of the local and national hearing impaired community. They were, in fact, my childhood introduction to deafness. Edie actually had some ability to hear; she wore hearing aids. Jimmy was totally deaf. He read lips, and he had learned to speak. His voice was odd and kind of scary to me whenever we first met up, but after a few minutes of conversing I could understand him, and the strangeness subsided. Edie and Jimmy had lights in their home that lit up whenever their phone rang. They had a teletype sort of machine that allowed them to communicate with other deaf people across the country. Jimmy was an engineer and a successful architect. In 1959, he designed the house I grew up in – the home my father still lives in today. In spite of the many obstacles he faced, he was quite amazing and something of a hero to me. In 1960 Edie and Jimmy founded a speech and hearing school in my hometown; it still thrives today. They strongly believed that deaf children could/should learn to communicate, just as Jimmy did, and that was the founding philosophy of the Lexington Deaf Oral School (the name was changed many years later). They spent their lives advocating for deaf children.

Being around the students at the Kavule School for the Deaf has brought back memories of Edie and Jimmy.

These kids have overcome a huge pile of obstacles. Not only are most of them from poor families, they have been cast aside socially. According to Sam, the founder of the school, most of the kids lost their hearing during infancy or early childhood due to untreated cases of severe malaria.

Watching them interact with one another is a treat. When signing, with quick flurries of flying fingers and hands, they are so animated and expressive. They smile and laugh a lot, obviously enjoying the opportunity to communicate with others who understand them (most of their parents/siblings do not know how to sign). There is a camaraderie amongst these kids that is truly heartwarming.

They’ve been trying desperately to teach me to sign. I took some small amount of pride in the fact that I know how to sign the alphabet (I learned this from my friend Tobey when we were in sixth grade so we could talk to each other during class behind the teachers’ backs!) I quickly discovered that in Uganda many of the letters are different, so my small talent doesn’t do me much good here. The kids cheer me on, though, happy that I’m giving it my best shot.

I have been around when a mom or dad has arrived via boda-boda with a child (children in some cases – there is one family that has three deaf kids) in tow. The new term started this week. The parents have bundles on their head or several plastic bags under their arms. These contain the required school supplies, such as soap, pencils, toilet paper and a toothbrush.  Once the supplies are recorded in a notebook and the school fees are paid, the parent climbs back on the boda and heads home, and the child is left in the capable hands of the staff.

The teachers here are incredible. Most can sign, though there is an interpreter available at all times to any teacher who needs her. It’s a young, smart, enthusiastic and passionate crew of educators. Watching them work with the kids, showering them with love, attention and respect has brought tears to my eyes on more than one occasion.

A few of the kids have hearing aids. An American company donates them.

I feel really lucky that I’ve been able to experience this. It’s inspiring, to say the least. I just wish Edie and Jimmy were here to take it all in.