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Sunday, June 19, 2016

WORDS, WORDS, WORDS 6/19/16

Drawings of Parents, charcoal/paper, 30"x22", 1981

GERHARD J. GRAUPE 1911-1993


A few months before my father died, I completed a painting titled SO HARD TO SAY GOODBYE - twenty-three years later, he still haunts my work. In the last two years of his life, he too had a hard time saying goodbye. Like a battered boxer knocked down and counted out, he kept holding on. People commented on his “quality of life” after a stroke narrowed his world, depriving him of the ability to speak or to swallow, thereby preventing him from ever eating or drinking again, and leaving him so weakened that he could  barely move. Yet, I selfishly cherished those last two years. Losing the power to “voice” his needs and desires, I became fascinated with the words that he wrote on a notepad in a spidery, shaky handwriting, scribbling all over the page, as if the ruled lines that he had always lived by, were finally flung away, strange characters landing aimlessly on the page. 

My father was an intelligent, unassuming and gentle person who was not effusive with his affection, though he loved his family deeply. In today’s world of shifting alliances his overweening devotion to my mother would be viewed as unusual. Fleeing from Nazi Germany soon after he graduated from Berlin’s Technische Hochschule at a time when other young people were beginning their careers, he escaped to Brazil and from there emigrated to America. He was barely able to “save” his future wife and her parents but tragically unable to get visas for his own mother and father who were killed in the concentration camps. He discovered at an early age that the world was chaotic so he became a “careful” man supporting his family as lead architect, designing “unglamorous,” yet much needed middle-income housing in NYC such as Co-Op City in the Bronx, Seward Park on The Lower East Side  and Penn Station South in Chelsea. 

 Shortly after retiring, my father became ill and needed by-pass surgery. During the operation he suffered a small stroke, all visible signs of which disappeared in the subsequent rehabilitation. It took another three years of TIA’s (transitory ischemic attacks) with my father finding himself on the ground wondering how he got there, before he sustained the massive stroke that landed him in the hospital for 5 months, (including a futile effort at rehabilitation.) During that time he would sit in the wheelchair and painstakingly attempt to communicate. Words were scribbled over sheets of paper, appearing in corners, running down the sides, sometimes repeating over and over the same half-completed thought, expressing the anarchy and jumble of his mind. Yet after deciphering the bizarre script, I realized that the words clearly articulated his tenuous situation in the hospital where he could not even call out or ring for assistance. He railed against the staff: THEY CHANGED MY POSITION;...FEEDING NOT CONSTANT...WHO WERE THE MURDERERS LAST NIGHT? ...THE NOSE IS CLOGGED BECAUSE OF THE BARBARIC PUNISHMENT...THERE WAS A KNOT IN THE LINE.. WHO MAKES ME SLEEPY ALL DAY? and the final denouement THE HOSPITAL IS STEALING MY LIFE. Punctuated throughout were cries of HELP! HELP! HELP! My father was also able to convey a profound awareness of his existential crisis writing: MYSELF, CRY-SELF…I CAN’T TALK - I CAN’T SMILE...AM I BEING PUNISHED?…I’M STUCK…TOO DARK...DON’T CUT ME OFF… 

The most poignant of written utterances occurred when my father was having difficulty completing a simple task in Occupational Therapy. Utterly frustrated, he scratched out on crumpled, stained paper - I USED TO BE O.K. ...I AM A RETIRED ARCHITECT. Witnessing this encounter, I felt an ineffable heartbreak,which reinforced my decision to do everything I could to facilitate his ability to express the anguish, despair, and still flickering hope of recovery. When I asked if he wanted to continue living,  he responded without equivocation - YES; that he wanted to inhale the daily scents, sounds and beauty of  the world with all its inexplicable enigma and spectacle.  Of course, that made sense to me,  since I remembered how much he enjoyed sitting on the back porch in the Bronx chuckling quietly to himself. while listening to the feisty bluejays squawking and fighting, while singing their agitated songs.
In My Father's Words, 82"x49", pastels/cutout canvas, 1991

We finally took my father home from the hospital accompanied by drugs with exotic names such as lanoxin, procardia, dilantin, clonidine and lopressor, feeding tube instructions, a wheelchair and a lift to help raise and lower him out of bed. We were frightened by the responsibility of keeping him alive, though my mother shouldered most of the burden. The anxiety level was palpable; the task over-whelming; but a routine was soon established. Slowly his spirits improved and I often caught him smiling. Every day he was given the NY Times to read, a ritual established when he first immigrated to his adopted country reading the paper cover-to-cover. When I visited, I usually found him tremulously grasping the paper, appearing to read every word even if the newspaper was upside down. In the evenings he lay in his rented hospital bed, arm outstretched, holding my mother’s hand while she rested in her bed, as they watched television. I felt that he clung to life, even in the most dire of circumstances, just to get one more glimpse of her. 

The intense need to write words gradually diminished due to his being home in familiar surroundings, and later because he was depleted by additional strokes. Eventually the paper and pencils disappeared from his bedside. It was time to say goodbye when his body with its relentless breakdowns retreated into unconsciousness. My father’s face looked the same, but his gaze no longer followed me around the room.

 I collected my father’s notations and took them home, isolating phrases and poring over the indecipherable marks. In the studio his attempts at communication were taking on a fresh presence, generating a new series of paintings. My artwork, which had always dealt with the figure, often depicting people seen as outsiders on the edge of mainstream society, now began to incorporate language. One canvas showed my father lying on his death bed with his unspoken words “tattooed” over a vitiated frame, giving voice to the pain, enigma and poetry of his dying. I subsequently imprinted those silent cries on seemingly unrelated images often dealing with political and social issues. Eventually this series came to be titled WORD PORTRAITS, the sources originating from my father’s inability to speak were now existing on their own transmuting sorrow into visual existence. 

Andromeda, 70"x69", pastels/cutout canvas, 1991

Finality, 33"x 122", pastels/cutout canvas, 1993

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5 comments:

  1. Your words and images are very moving.

    ReplyDelete
  2. beautifully written, i really enjoy your writing-liz

    ReplyDelete
  3. I am pleased that you read it and appreciate your words.

    ReplyDelete