By Ruth Thomas
“It’s the past sitting on my shoulder.” That’s Beth Shalom artist Helen Schamroth’s description of her new exhibition Tracing, now showing at Melbourne’s Jewish Museum.
Two years ago, Helen and partner Michael Smythe visited Poland and the Ukraine for the unveiling of a memorial dedicated to the Jews killed in Zloczow in 1941, including her mother’s mother and mother’s first husband. Her mother was Martha Ash who was also a well-known artist.
It was Helen’s first trip to Eastern Europe, since leaving as a baby in 1946. They travelled to Cracow, where she was born, Warsaw and Lvov where the family had lived. Last year she returned to Polandagain when a piece of her art was exhibited in the 13th Triennial of Tapestry inLodz, giving her the opportunity for more research.
By then she was also deeply involved in creating new pieces for Tracing, using the mixed media crafting skills she has used in her art over more than 25 years, such as stitching, singeing silk with a candle and, more recently, moulding polyester sheets, this time adding manipulated photographic images to the mix.
Tracing references pre-war Poland. Art historian Leonard Bell writes that it is “memory work” – a form of enquiry like detective work which involves looking backwards and searching for clues, representing a past from the scattered bits and pieces of evidence. It builds on her earlier work which has focused on her family and lives lost in the Holocaust, such as Honouring the Memory in 2000, and Eighteen for Life, Ten to Remember in 2002. In her latest work, she wanted to discover something about her parents’ lives, before the horrors of war.
Her mother’s mother was a milliner, her paternal grandfather had a shoe factory. In Poland today nothing tangible remains of their past lives, so Helen sought out clues for her imagination to work from including a visit to a shoe workshop in Warsaw, visits to museums, books with pre-war images. She says everywhere she went she thought she could hear the sound of Chopin playing in the background.
Two years of intensive creative work followed before Tracing opened first at NorthArt in Auckland and now in Melbourne for six weeks.
The exhibition centres round seven key ideas, based on musical themes starting with Prelude, and ending with Coda, ideas referencing Chopin’s music and depicting the cultural life of the family. The starting point, Prelude, is Poland in 1938, stitched in hundreds of tiny buttons with red beads defining the places where her mother, father and Helen herself were born and lived. From the ceiling hangs a silk cloud with singed edges entitled Darkening Cloud.
Two wall installations cut from moulded polyester sheets stitched with fine red wire feature shapes that are fragments of shoes and hats. These are titled Bloodlines from the milliner and Bloodlines from the shoemaker. This is further developed in four photo image pieces originating from photos taken in Poland. Seeking evidence Zloczow and Seeking evidence Lvov are digitally manipulated photographic images combined with crocheted pieces – real and scanned – suggesting a milliner’s fine work in the foreground. Tools of the trade represents the tools a shoemaker would use.
Colourful images on silk organza, finely stitched silk threads and glass beads have such titles as Polka, Mazurka and Oberek and Krakowiak and follow through the dance theme. A group of small pieces entitled Coda complete the exhibition. One, made of silk, burnt at the edges between layers of moulded polyester with red thread has “Cancelled” stamped and punched down one side, and produces an image of a useless passport, a document to nowhere. It was originally part of an international multi-travelling exhibition called Your documents please. All works, except some pre-sold in New Zealand, are for sale with price tags ranging from $600-$5000.