January 5, 2003
Words to Light the Dark Places

Winter's dark days often remind us of dark times in our lives. Samuel Bak, a visual artist and author, and Michael Mack, a poet, have each lived through years of unimaginable darkness. Each has crafted his experiences into transcendent art that reaches out with unblinking honesty.

Bak, a internationally respected painter and the author of a memoir, Painted in Words, was seven when his hometown of Vilna, Poland, came under German occupation. As a Jewish child, he saw his world changed forever. He and his mother survived the war physically. He survived spiritually by drawing, drawing constantly what he saw around him, and ultimately by creating paintings that bear witness to the unspeakable nightmare of the Holocaust.

Bearing witness is the foundation of Mack's art, too, although his darkness was more private. He was five when he found his mother crying uncontrollably, scissors in her hand, her hair cut off, asking, "Has my face changed? Am I the Blessed Virgin? " It was the beginning of her battle with schizophrenia that would engulf the family.

"One first and foremost creates for oneself," says Bak. He is sitting in a yellow room, sunlight streaming in through long slanted windows of his suburban home. He is gracious, and thoughtful. "Art communicates on many different levels. You make a choice. To me to reach out to others may be more important than it is to other artists."

Mack's art, also, grew beyond his need to explore his life, to reach out to others. In a Cambridge coffee shop, his bike parked outside, he speaks quickly. Between sips of herb tea, his long, expressive hands underscoring his words, he tells how poetry gave him a way to make sense out of his experiences.

"It became a therapeutic process, though I didn't set out for it to be," says Mack. The culmination is his 90-minute performance piece, Hearing Voices (Speaking in Tongues).

"It's a tremendously healing thing--the art of witness. It connects me to the world and makes me feel like a human being. It reconnects me to an important part of my life and the people in it. But it's not only about witnessing my life; it's about other people's lives, too. I find a lot of people have never mentioned their brother, their father, their child to anyone else."

Bak concurs. "I feel it is important for me to speak of my experiences, maybe to attract attention to what happened, maybe to explore what happened, and maybe to integrate my fears and apprehensions and almost my disbelief that I am still around."

When a major exhibit of his work was held in Landsberg am Lech, a center of Nazi activity during the 1930s and site of the prison where Hitler wrote Mein Kampf Bak "suddenly realized this was much bigger than myself. It had somehow grown beyond what I am."

This is the same feeling Mack gets when audiences respond to something like his description of a Christmas when his father, strapped by hospital bills, drew a tree on a large piece of paper and hung it in the kitchen. In his poem, "Holidays in Baltimore, " he writes, "We gripped markers, stood barefoot/beneath the tree's gracious branches,/ drew whatever we wanted--// balls, a pony, bicycle, telescope, airplane, dolls,/ Mama. Whatever we wanted.

"It's variations on a theme," says Mack. "It mirrors their own experiences, invites them into a dialogue they can carry with them into their lives and talk about with other people."

Bak's childhood world, by contrast, can be understood by very few. But the horror of it can be felt by anyone who looks at his paintings of damaged books and teddy bears, dishes and pears, the uprooted trees that speak of an uprooted world.

When Bak says his subject chose him, Mack would understand. Bak writes in his memoir, that he was, "responding to something that was pushing out from the inside, something visceral.

"And this is how it happens. I am in front of my easel. The radio plays music, the speaker announces a change in the weather, and a part of my mind is busy with all sorts of mysterious creative systems. I feel like an obedient servant who is doing what the painting demands."

Samuel Bak's paintings can be seen at the Pucker Gallery in Boston. Michael Mack will present Hearing Voices (Speaking in Tongues) at the Boston Center for the Arts during the first three weeks of May, National Mental Health Month. Read more about Michael Mack at: www.michaelmacklive.com

Ellen Steinbaum can be reached at citytype@globe.com. You can see past City Type columns at www.ellensteinbaum.com

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She Helped Me Slide the Mattress Back
By Michael Mack

Off the bus from school
I found our front door open.
My mother paced inside
arms crossed, with something she had

to show me. I followed her crooking finger,
her billowy flowered skirt
upstairs to my bedroom door.
Go ahead, she said, open it.

Mattress, clothes, everything
on the floor, chair tipped over,
drawers dumped out, checkers, pennies,
books and model planes

swept off the shelves.
I looked from that lopsided heap, everything I owned,
to my mother, her flushed and jittery face,
brilliant crimson lips

and I knew what to do, gently
drop my lunch bag,
circle my arms around her waist,
press my cheek to her belly.

thank you Mama thank you

All afternoon I folded shirts,
stacked toys, books. My mother downstairs
sang hymns in the kitchen
cooking a surprise for my father

and this I can't describe, can only say it--how happy I felt, how loved.

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©2004 Ellen Steinbaum

My photo on the home page is by Peter Urban.
The cover of my book, Afterwords, was designed by Kate Misail.
The painting on the cover of the book, which is also pictured on this page, is by Eric Sealine.

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