From Trauma to Art

Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies’ program “Voice to Vision” in its 9th installation

Olivia Novotny

Olivia Novotny

Inside a studio, a paintbrush sits anxiously atop a palette of paints. A man picks it up, only to set it back down. He takes a deep breath and tries it again, making a red streak on the canvas in front of him. Then another. He lets go, continuing to make streaks, larger each time. He switches colors, gaining confidence, and begins painting imagery that reflects his life experiences—a house, an eye, some flames. This man is Freddy Frisancho, a Peru-native who grew up in the slums.

“Art asks the questions that people can’t,” David Feinberg, art professor at the University of Minnesota, said.

Feinberg has been working for the University for 43 years. In 2002, he started a project called Voice to Vision—a collaborative research project put on by a team of professors, community members, and students that captures the experiences of genocide survivors of different parts of the world. Both the Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies and the Department of Art at the University are heavily involved in Voice to Vision.

Survivors from Rwanda, Tibet, Sudan, Bosnia, Armenia, Cambodia, Laos, and Holocaust survivors from Poland, Romania, France, Greece have participated in Voice to Vision. More recently, Voice to Vision has brought on activists from Colombia, Peru, Argentina, and Mexico.

Voice to Vision captures traumatic experiences in a new, unconventional way: through art. Survivors are asked to express themselves creatively—whether it be painting, drawing, or creating collages. Artistic stories flow naturally from there.

The Voice to Vision team guides survivors through the compositional process of creating art. Through this, survivors gain the comfort needed to share experiences with the team, and in turn, those who eventually view the art.

“It is almost like a Rorschach test. We only ask them questions for more detail,” Feinberg said. “If we have a problem with the composition of the piece, we need something deeper in their story to help us find a visual.”

After its completion, the art goes on display in galleries across the U.S. including ones at the University’s William Mitchell College of Law, the Florida Holocaust Museum, Clarke University, the Waterloo Museum of Art, the United States Embassy in Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of the Congo, and more.

As of 2015, Voice to Vision is in its ninth installation.

 

A slow start

At just 3 years old, Feinberg had dreams of writing a book about a police boat and a pirate ship. Much later, he realized the dream encapsulated the concept of good and evil.

At 11, Feinberg lived in Brooklyn and met many children of Holocaust survivors. He remembers the children mocking their parents’ accents, making fun of them for not being American. But Feinberg viewed their parents as true heroes, and thought the children’s behavior was disrespectful.

Olivia Novotny

Olivia Novotny

Years later in 2002, Feinberg worked with World War II imagery to create art. Feinberg then wanted to work with Holocaust survivors, so he reached out to the University’s Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies. He went straight for the center’s director—Steve Feinstein.

“Most people say ‘Okay, you should write out a plan and we’ll review it and get back to you.’ But [Feinstein], on the phone, said ‘Let’s do it.’ Right away. Immediately.

But Feinberg couldn’t take on what would later become Voice to Vision alone. He and Feinstein wanted people whose stories hadn’t yet been told.

Feinberg got word that two Holocaust survivors worked out at the same gym he did, and asked both men to take part in his project. The two men were not interested; one said he was never going to tell anyone his story. Six months later, Feinberg approached them again with no luck. After a full year, he inquired one last time. Another “no” and Feinberg would drop the project. But this time, the two were interested.

“It was a complete fluke. I was ready to give it up because I had other projects to work on,” Feinberg said.

Murray Brandys and Joe Grosnecht were the first two survivors featured in the newly formed Voice to Vision. It turns out two days prior to Feinberg asking for their participation the final time, Brandys had spoken to his nephew about his time in the concentration camp. His nephew insisted he tell somebody else about his story, too, so Brandys decided to give Feinberg’s project a whirl.

The first installation took a year and a half to complete, but was worth every minute, according to Feinberg. The project expanded not only to Holocaust survivors, but also to survivors of any genocide. Through the Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies, Feinberg gathered interested parties from all over the world; photographers, videographers, artists, and students came out of the woodwork to join the Voice to Vision mission.

Olivia Novotny

Olivia Novotny

Fast forward to 2010—current Associate Director of Voice to Vision, Beth Andrews, took a painting class from Feinberg at the University. One day in class, Feinberg showed a documentary that featured Voice to Vision.

“I thought, ‘I had got to be involved in this,’” Andrews said. “I really felt called to it.”

Andrews had prior experience working with marginalized people. After graduating from the University’s law school in 1981, Andrews gave legal assistance to military personnel, worked as a spiritual mentor to homeless people, and taught a forgiveness workshop to imprisoned women.

Andrews took up painting while on a silent retreat. When she heard about Feinberg’s project, she felt that everything in her life came together.

“[Voice to Vision] is a rewarding experience because I can use all my skills,” Andrews said. “It’s a life’s work in a lot of ways. And I love it because we have so much fun. It may sound odd, but we have a lot of fun when we talk to people about their experiences. It’s a real privilege.”

 

How pieces come to life

Voice to Vision leaders Feinberg and Andrews have a theory they call “artistic DNA.” According to the theory, everyone possesses their own unique artistic DNA based on their life experiences. What a survivor creates—that’s their artistic DNA. The Voice to Vision team puts these pieces of artistic DNA together, creating a finished piece of art.

“We look for visual dead spots where the piece isn’t working, and we find a solution for it that brings the work up to a level we couldn’t have predicted,” Feinberg said.

Olivia Novotny

Olivia Novotny

The team aims to unlock the personal expression—the meaning—hidden within artistic DNA. People are more interested in personal experience than historical information. It’s the “personal stuff” that is relatable and engaging.

“[Our artwork] is personal first, then its historical,” Feinberg said. “You want people to be moved emotionally so that they become an extension of the story,”

Feinberg’s ultimate goal is to create and spread art that has what he calls “presence.” According to the team, presence is what’s achieved when art gives emotional responses to viewers.

“Most kids fall asleep [when reading history books] and ask, ‘Why do we read this?’” Feinberg said. “I think you have to engage people emotionally.”

College history professors use this same tactic, according to Feinberg. The emotional connection is primary, he said, with the historical information being secondary. “Once the audience [has an] emotional response, they’ll go to the Internet and learn more themselves.”

The viewer has to be willing to make the connection, though. One must stand in front of artwork with an open mind and open heart in order to make a connection, according to Andrews.

People are more interested in personal experience than historical information. It’s the “personal stuff” that is relatable and engaging.

 

Finding a home at Boynton

Experiencing art on tough subjects such as genocide isn’t always easy. Although Voice to Vision hopes that anyone and everyone can be inspired by their art, some are turned off by it.

“We get that all the time,” Feinberg said. “They say, ‘It’s for other people, not me.’ People think [our art] is too negative for them. But when they find out [more] about it, it’s not negative. It’s like, super positive. We are trying to change the world, one person at a time.”

Dr. Gary Christenson is one who isn’t turned off by the heavy art in Voice to Vision. Christenson, the Chief Medical Officer of Boynton Health Services and President of the Society for the Arts in Healthcare, had heard of Voice to Vision before, but never experienced it in person until a direct invitation from Feinberg. Christenson has since added his own imagery to Voice to Vision pieces.

“Participation introduced me to the specifics of the artistic approach and social interactions, as well as the benefits of the approach that only interactions with others and the artwork could do,” he said. “It revealed how the artwork can serve as a process to discuss uncomfortable topics and empathize with other participants.”

Now, Christenson is looking into using Voice to Vision’s work in stress management at Boynton. Although it’s only in its beginning stages, Christenson thinks that Voice to Vision has great potential there.

“The creative process, acceptance by others, sense of achievement, distraction from the usual worries of life, practice of empathy, and social engagement are all positive benefits of participation,” said Christenson. “Viewing the art demonstrates the benefits of art participation and also can build empathy as stories are revealed. The work also suggests hope and resilience in the face of great adversity.”

 

Olivia Novotny

Olivia Novotny

The ninth project

Voice to Vision 9 began last spring (2014) and is by far the most collaborative installation to date.

Unlike other installations where activists created their own independent pieces—Voices to Vision 9 is very collaborative. Beginning in March of 2014, eight activists worked with the Voice to Vision team to create a piece called “Seven Activists and a Brother.” Together, the team created one three-dimensional, symbolic piece that represents all of their experiences combined.

This same project continued into March of 2015, where most participants returned—plus three new ones—to create three collaborative paintings for the series.

The new activists painted on canvases, while the returning activists drew imagery and symbols in response to prompts. When finished, the activists compared and added to each other’s pieces. Although nervous at first, the new participating activists quickly felt comfortable in their new artistic environment.

“We create an atmosphere where people feel comfortable and want to communicate with us. We never ask them questions that a historian would ask them,” Feinberg said. “We ask them to help solve visual problems in the art piece, and in return we get a deeper version of their life story as an answer.”

 

Sharing stories provides a therapy of sorts for the survivors, an outlet for reflecting on their life and experiences.

Art as therapy

Sharing stories provides a therapy of sorts for the survivors, an outlet for reflecting on their life and experiences.

“Any time you bring a story to light, it is changed,” Andrews said. “It is spoken; it is shared; it is not hidden in darkness anymore. Other people can share your sorrow and help lessen it. I believe that the sharing of it makes a huge difference for survivors.”

“You have to be forced into creativity,” Feinberg said. “That is when the deeper imagery comes out.”

And the deeper imagery keeps coming out. Freddy Frisancho, a Peru-native, grew up in the slums and now works to help others out of the same dire situations he was once in. His time at Voice to Vision was, like most participating survivors, his first time holding a paintbrush. Frisancho’s Voice to Vision painting represents his life, he said. “[You can see it] in these dark colors. Luckily there is some white, some hope.”

In the center of Frisancho’s piece is a small painting of a house, and next it, a tree. “In this world, I always have my house in mind,” he said. “And the tree—the roots hold the secrets of the ancestors.”

Olivia Novotny

Olivia Novotny

Another Peruvian, Luis-Ramos Garcia, contributes drawings to Voice to Vision.

“Survivors tend to keep their memories to themselves,” he said. “Voice to Vision provides elements to recall entire episodes of their lives. It is good both for survivors and the general public to participate in the rewriting of history in order to learn from their own mistakes.”