My Life, My Canvas

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June 1, 2012
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Joan Roth

Painting My Life: A Memoir of Love, Art, and Transformation by Phyllis Serota (Sono Nis Press, 2012, $28.95, 230 pp.)

Did Phyllis Serota paint her life to change the way we see the world? Or do we understand the world better because Serota has painted her life and the enormous changes that she encountered along the way?  Her book is a treasure trove of the artist’s ideals. It is illustrated with family album black-and-white photographs re-imagined in autobiographical, colorful, expressionistic oils and acrylics painted mostly on canvas.

“To understand one life you have to swallow a world,” she explains in her charmingly nuanced, written-and-painted opus, Painting My Life: A Memoir of Love, Art, and Transformation. Riveting and deftly crafted, the memoir leaves lasting impressions. For example, she shares a portrait of her father’s abuse in the painting, “Striking out at me in our kitchen, my mother’s ineffectuality at restraining him,” circa 1982. The piece, which explains her desire to transcend and transform certain situations, shows Serota as a strong and courageous girl who might have grown up bitter; instead, at least in retrospect, she chose the admirable path of forgiveness. She savors her Aunt Rosie’s greatest gift to her, to love unconditionally.

Serota pays homage to the era of awakening and changing consciousness for women, and her personal Jewish heritage has a revered place in her soulful history. And yet, out of necessity, she has dissolved ancient taboos and left her past behind. Getting close to her family’s dynamics, its weaknesses and strengths, I also learned much about myself.

“It’s important to get specific about your life,” she writes. Serota paints the same way. “The more specific you are, the more universal your vision becomes.” Like a prophet, the Chicago-born painter signals the coming of age of a new feminist reality — that of a modern Jewish woman’s life in harmony and balance with the choices she makes.

Even when she becomes an artist, she remains rebellious. She paints her own experiences: her mother playing poker at Aunt Jenny’s while smoking a cigarette; the artist dreaming of work in the family fish market where she felt at home; lying on the floor after her father beat her; her favorite aunt, Molly, dancing alone; her paternal grandfather, Philip, inspired by a photograph her father had placed on his dresser.

Why we remember certain things is a recurring question illuminated in the paintings. Etched into her memory is the Sunday night family dinner in the Chicago kitchen where so much ritual life took place, including revelations of the secret “shame” of having a violent father — “after the shame that had been done to us, the Jewish people.” Oscar-winner Paul Haggis, who explores remembering in his films, notes that “one remembers because there is something gnawing at him/her, something inside.”

Serota’s chiaroscuro is palpably evident in her family series, including the painting of her partner, Annie. And an oil-on-canvas, “Winter Solstice,” envisioned after her mother’s death, depicts her mother waiting in darkness before lighting the Hanukkah candles. Serota remarks, “So much of this series has to do with two qualities, the monumentality of the people and my obsession with light.” I am particularly moved by these images because, as a photographer, I have often focused my work on the power of the candle-lighting ceremony.

In addition to the emotionally charged blue-gray brush strokes that create a fascinating interplay of light and moods, fish feature prominently in Serota’s art. She comments, “So much of our family history is connected with that symbol.” Interestingly, she paints the fish the same color blue, only lighter, as the blue she often paints a sweater her mother is wearing.

Also visit shma.com to view a sampling of Serota’s work.

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Joan Roth is a photographer best known for her international work documenting Jewish women — work that has been included in several exhibitions and art collections. Her work can be viewed at her website, joanroth.com.

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