Three artists — Basya Schechter, a musician; S. Bear Bergman, a storyteller; and Yona Verwer, a painter — reflect on how and how much they insert their own personal story into their work. While at times their art is indistinguishable from life, at other times a consciously created curtain separates their work and their identity. The narrative certainly informs the art in some measure. —S.B.
My Music, Myself
Ideas are like popcorn. I get a lot of ideas, but not many kernels are worthy. The music I’ve made is born out of spiritual necessity rather than formal training. When I discovered the guitar, I became glued to it; I couldn’t wait to play. I let the tips of my fingers explore the feeling of the steel strings, and in the cradling of rhythm, pattern, and sound, words tumbled out. I don’t think about inserting myself into my music; it’s all me, and it’s all not me.
Sometimes, I cried or shouted as I sang, sublimating my suffering or trauma into songs, such as “When life is shit, your mama’s not to blame, your daddy isn’t guilty cause he came…” or, “It’s in the morning, what should I do, should I leave hungry and full of you, or to the diner, special for two, where I’ll be full of eggs and sick of you.” I also would sing irreverently about Jewish rituals. Shlogn kapores, for instance, I equated to Jesus Christ: “Chicken, chicken on the cross, I have sins, if you have sauce, be my gravy, be my wings, relieve me of my earthly things…” None of these lyrics made it onto records; mostly, they exposed thoughts I needed to let go of. But they may yet find their way into a collage of music I’ll publish.
Creativity is fluid for me: changing as I change, and even changing during what I think are periods of stasis. I would get over stimulated by life in New York City — unsure of my future, scared of my past — and I would run. I’d save money to travel, and then set off for someplace exotic where the music was amazing. I’d hitchhike for weeks or months in Southern Africa, Europe, and Morocco. I’d busk (as a street musician) and talk to everyone, asking them to teach me songs. When a saz musician in Eastern Turkey was hitting on me at a bar, I made him teach me how to play the instrument and then a song, and the “Hey, baby” became the music and lyrics of the song “Uskedar.” These experiences cemented in me a world music sensibility that I still have. I’ll hear an echo of something I heard while in Peru or Bulgaria, identify the feeling it gave me then, and the inspiration it gives me now.
Do I insert myself into my music? I am my music. I’m alternately buzzing and comatose — extremely stimulated or totally empty. That is my creativity.— Basya Schechter
A Tender-Hearted Writer
As a queer and transsexual writer and performer, it has long been my habit to draw heavily on my personal life for inspiration and illustration. Because the experiences of people like me have so long been erased from media culture, it’s an artistic choice that seems both educational and, well, interesting. This has come, of course, with some very delicate balancing about who gets written into the stories and who is left out, what I feel I can speak about and what is better left unsaid. In my head, therefore, I have a complicated set of rules (and their attendant exceptions) about the personal — which accounts for so much of my subject matter — and the private — what I don’t write about.
Here is my guiding principle: Don’t leave anyone feeling exposed. That’s not a difficult principle to uphold for me. On the one hand, discourse about transsexual experiences continues to shade so strongly toward hard, bad, left out, cast out, betrayed, or unwanted. Modern literary fashion strongly rewards the author for delving into the nakedly awful. But, on the other hand, as both a storyteller and a Jew, I am acutely aware of how important the cultural transmission of our stories can be. I’m tender-hearted and optimistic in both my work and my personal life, and therefore I enjoy writing uplifting stories and positive reflections. I rarely even consider writing about my frustrations with a particular person in my work. Far more likely is a description of some intimacy of friendship, or the recounting of an experience or adventure undertaken with someone I love, or have come to love. I really want to show warm places where a specific and real queer or transsexual person is known and seen to be well and happy.
Fortunately, my friends don’t feel any great need for privacy, and my relatives are mostly used to my shenanigans. So, the principle against exposing people in my life is relatively easy to follow — at least, most of the time. But, sometimes, I’m surprised. For example, I wrote into my show Machatunim/Gathering Light a line from my mother when she heard that my husband and I intended to have an entirely vegetarian meal at our wedding: “People are going to expect a real meal.” She later gave me permission to keep it in the show — in no small part because it’s just a really funny line. Though I offered to remove that bit if she felt ridiculed, I wouldn’t agree to remove the discussion of my parents’ long-past bad behavior concerning my gender expression or sexual orientation (though I did contextualize it) from other work. Those chapters give a sense of how far we’ve all come, together. I judge that to be essential to the narrative, and it trumps even my desire to protect my loved ones.
We will see in a decade, I suppose, how my now 4 year old feels about being written about at such length in his relative smallness. Where other children only have to worry about that embarrassing toddler photo in which they’re wearing only a pair of red socks, my son’s early life is in the library — his journey of having long hair, his feelings about air travel, and so on. While I try to tell only the stories that show him in his better moments, he may feel otherwise, and I can’t really predict it. Ultimately, I feel the weight of responsibility to him. And yet, I also feel an equally strong and equally protective obligation to tell my full story to an audience that might not otherwise have imagined that a queer trans man could marry, have children, and riff about all this after a performance with his parents — who are still, after all these years, coming to the show.
— S. Bear Bergman
A Thin Line
When Zachary Levine, a former curator at the Yeshiva University Museum, invited me to create a work for the museum’s exhibit “It’s A Thin Line: The Eruv and Jewish Community in New York and Beyond,” I created art based directly on one of my personal experiences living as a Jew in downtown Manhattan.
Growing up in the Netherlands, I had no Jewish education. In New York, I gradually became more interested, knowledgeable, and observant; I am now part of a Modern Orthodox Jewish community. I remain a feminist, and both of these aspects of my identity are found in my work.
While living on New York’s Lower East Side, I learned that the building of an eruv in this neighborhood had been forbidden.1 Without an eruv, it is impossible for religious Jews to carry anything, such as keys or food, or to push a baby carriage. Because of this prohibition, women with young children and the infirm are housebound for the 25 hours of Shabbat.
My installation “Tightrope” grew out of this sadness — that members of my community miss out on a spiritual and communal connection. The installation features painted panels of Lower East Side synagogue interiors that cannot regularly be seen by those in the community encumbered by the lack of an eruv.
This “protest art” gave voice to the disenfranchised. My favorite panel is the one based on a zodiac mural. It shows the month of Elul, my birth month, at the Stanton Street Synagogue, where I was a member; it is possibly the woman-friendliest Orthodox synagogue in town. — Yona Verwer
1 Although Rabbi Josh Yuter of the Stanton Street Shul in New York supports the building of an eruv, he wrote in a blog: “Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, a pre-eminent [authority on] Jewish law… was particularly strict in prohibiting the construction of any eruv in Manhattan… and it is allegedly out of allegiance to R. Feinstein’s position on eruv [that] has precluded its construction to this day.”