There aren’t a lot of museum exhibit openings where you’ll hear talk about shaving cream changing sperm DNA, the effects of reading to a fetus and the opioid epidemic’s impact on grandparents, but when American Visionary Art Museum founder and director Rebecca Alban Hoffberger takes on the topic of parenting, no subject is off-limits.
“Parenting: An Art Without a Manual” opened Saturday and runs through Sept. 1, 2019. The exhibit, curated by Hoffberger and Anna Gulyavskaya, goes well beyond biology in “what could be the greatest subject to focus everyone on,” Hoffberger said.
“I wanted this exhibition of ‘parenting’ as a verb and not a biological noun,” she added.
From a father’s photos of his daughter born with disabilities to a family tree of mental illness, from a giant painting that incorporates a mother’s suicide note to a comically large necktie, the exhibit captures all the colors and flavors of the parent-child experience.
Museumgoers are initially greeted by a series of visionary artist Alex Grey’s paintings coupled with information about the “Zero to Five” approach to early childhood. Then, walking up the grand stairs, visitors are greeted by “Big Daddy,” a 9-foot necktie made of men’s neckties and suits quilted together by artist Wendy Brackman and her Catskill Crafters women’s sewing group. The display is adorned by the women’s six-word musings about their fathers — “Dad had lipstick on his collar,” “He wanted sons. Got me instead” and “Dressed well to cover his flaws.” The exhibit also features the group’s “96 quilt vignettes using men’s ties as kaleidoscopic story sculptures,” as Brackman put it. “I think this is straddling two worlds of art and craft,” she said. “Fine art and folk art, and that gives me a lot of pleasure.”
Born and raised in Brooklyn, New York, Wendy Brackman is the daughter of Russian Jewish musicians. While they initially didn’t want to practice Judaism due to the persecution they experienced in their native country, the family ended up becoming active in the Reform Garfield Temple. Her father even wrote a folk-rock service that was performed with a seven-piece band, a professional choir and temple members. Wendy, who began studying music at age 9, sang two solos that night.
Her well-known uncle, painter Robert Brackman, who also immigrated from Russia, used to sneak out of his house on Friday nights to go to shul, as he was married to a woman who didn’t want him practicing.
Wendy, whose foray into fine art started with sculpture, has two such creations in the exhibit, one of which is called “Angry Mother Puppet,” with her mother hanging from puppet strings.
“My mother was a great advocate of mine, but she always pulled the strings on me,” Brackman told a group touring the exhibit during a media preview last week. “So I put the strings on her.”
Down the hall from “Big Daddy,” and near a sign that reads, “Parenthood: the scariest ’hood you’ll ever go through,” is Baltimore artist Chris Wilson’s newest work, a giant painting called “Momma’s Boys.” The work details the incredible obstacles Wilson has overcome — his mother’s sexual assault by a Washington, D.C., cop, her addiction and subsequent suicide, his 16 years in prison and his plan for turning his life around.
After his mother’s assault, during which a police officer hit her on the head and caused permanent brain damage, the officer spent a year and a half in prison. When he got out, he began stalking and harassing the family.
“These people, these grown men, came after me when I was a child and I ended up taking a person’s life,” Wilson said. He was sentenced to life in prison at age 17.
“I spent 16 and a half years in prison, and during this time my mom just spiraled downhill,” he said. “While I was away, I came up with a plan to turn my life around through education, through mentorship.”
He got his GED and bachelor’s degree, and taught himself how to read, write and speak five different languages. The words “The Master Plan,” which he wrote out in prison, adorn his painting and are also the title of an upcoming book. The painting features angels and demons fighting over his mother and depicts the droves of young black men he saw coming in and out of prison.
“I wanted to tell a story … think about our parents. Who’s going to take care of our moms if we decide to pull a gun and take a person’s life?” he asked. “So I made this piece as a way to tell my story but also maybe influence other young men and women to think about their parents when they make decisions when we’re out in the streets.”
Now, Wilson is seeing his plans through by creating opportunities in impoverished communities.
“I’ve been out of prison for six years and so far I’ve helped, as of last Sunday, 272 men and women in Baltimore City get jobs,” he said proudly.
Another powerful personal story in the exhibit is represented by Betty Grodnitzky, known to many as Bracha-Shira, whose work is exhibited in a collage that tells the story of losing a child but gaining animal companions. A singer and artist who has dabbled in video work, the Pikesville resident lost her husband, Stan, to a heart attack in 1989, and her daughter, Kandye, seven years later to suicide. Her art became therapy following their deaths.
Most recently, she has self-published two books of photography of the animals that inhabit her modest-sized backyard. The foxes, birds and a deer she affectionately named Bambele (a Yiddish variation on Bambi) are all pictured in the collage. The deer has been visiting her since 2014. In the center of the collage are photos of Grodnitzky and Kandye, with a birthday card Kandye gave her mother years before she died.
“It’s very unusual, this phase in my life,” Grodnitzky said. “People say to me I saved all these animals. They saved me.”
Grodnitzky believes the animals are gifts from God, and conversation frequently turns to Bambele and her fawns. “I know my mind tells me she’s a deer, but my heart calls her a friend,” she said. “People may think I’m off the wall a little bit, but I know, these animals, they’ve been brought to me.
“And the birds! The birds!” Grodnitzky exclaimed. “Guess who I have here now? I have a parrot!”
She’ll be signing her books on Oct. 21 at the Pikesville Barnes & Noble.
AVAM’s latest exhibit also captures parenting a child with disabilities in Leon Borensztein’s photographs of his daughter Sharon, born in 1984. Chronicling Sharon’s whole journey, from the time of her mother’s pregnancy to the present day, the photos depict the ups and downs of fatherhood with a daughter with disabilities.
“I was photographing the dark moments but also when she was happy,” Borensztein said. “I documented her growth and her extremely slow progress.”
A documentary photographer, Borensztein grew up in Poland after World War II. He discovered his love of photography when a man brought photos of his girlfriend to the Jewish cultural club in Warsaw where Borensztein was a member.
“I bought some old German camera and built a darkroom in the closet,” he said.
In 1968, Borensztein and his family moved to Israel following harassment in Poland.
“It was almost on the verge of pogroms. It was the last, I think, anti-Semitic wave,” he said. “They were kicking us out of work and the universities. … My parents made the decision ‘enough is enough.’ It was the only opinion for us.”
Borensztein loved Israel, where he studied geography and art. But at the time, there was nowhere to study photography, so he headed to the San Francisco Art Institute. Having Sharon kept him in California, and he now lives in Oakland.
He said his photos, which can be found in his book “Sharon,” don’t only tell his story.
“It’s generally about parenting, so it’s not necessarily about disability.”
Though not all of the exhibit artists are Jewish, Hoffberger said, the exhibit has many intersections with Jewish ideas.
“I love that Jewish value of really cherishing family,” she said. “And you have to remember, because of the pressure politically through the centuries of pogroms and Diaspora, you do have this sense that family can indeed be a unit, that it is your tribe wherever you go.”
Hoffberger hopes the exhibit brings up discussions of l’dor vador, and what people value from their parents and grandparents.
She also touted the legacy of Jewish social justice programs and advocacy for children and families, including CHANA, the Baltimore Jewish community’s agency that responds to abuse, Jewish Family Services and the Hebrew Free Loan Association.
“I think institutionally we’ve had the long, real honoring of family and stepping in,” Hoffberger said. “That’s to be very, very proud of.”