THE ARTS 6.25.10
THE ARTS 6.25.10

Echoes and Fragments: Ceramic shards reflect a family split apart by Holocaust

For artist Rene’e Powell, writing her graduate thesis in Jewish studies wasn’t enough. She also wanted to create an exhibit to accompany it, inspired by her family history.

The result is “Echoes and Fragments,” 14 pieces of beautiful and haunting ceramics on display at the Graduate Theological Union.

In 1939 when her father, Gerald, was 12 years old, he and his brother were placed on one of the last Kindertransports out of Germany to London. It was modern art that secured their passage — an aunt and uncle, both artists in Berlin, got money for the escape by selling an original painting by Max Pechstein, a German Expressionist painter reviled by the Nazis for his modern art.

Artist Rene’e Powell in front of two pieces from “Echoes and Fragments.” photos/stacey palevsky

But Gerald’s parents, not yet feeling the urgency to leave, stayed behind and said goodbye to their sons. They told them they’d see them soon.

That never happened. The parents were last seen alive in the Lodz Ghetto in Poland.

“He never knew what happened to his parents, and that lack of closure tormented him psychologically,” said Powell, 51, who lives in Hercules. “My father’s story, his testimony, really shaped my Jewish identity.”

“Echoes and Fragments” opened June 18 at the Doug Adams Gallery on GTU’s Berkeley campus.

“The art tells a compelling story and also has incredible aesthetic value,” said Carin Jacobs, director of the center that oversees the gallery in the Badè Museum.

Powell’s exhibit is a visual narrative of the Holocaust. As viewers walk through the gallery, the images become progressively more grim, broken and cracked, as if to symbolize the gradual — and then sudden — decay of Jewish life in Germany.

“Juden Rein,” made of tempered glass and clay, was inspired by Powell’s grandfather’s experience in Germany.

A ceramic mold of a ghetto is followed by images representing Kristallnacht, book burning, deportation and a broken Torah scroll.

The exhibit is an extension of Powell’s master’s thesis, a strictly academic exploration of degenerate art (a Nazi term used to describe modern art). That lengthy paper contains no personal history.

“But here in the visual work, my hope was that I could express myself in the clay and say, these are the shards of my personal history,” Powell said.

The longtime member of Temple Beth Hillel in Richmond began her graduate work at the GTU Center for Jewish Studies seven years ago. A mother of two children, she took one class at a time until she completed her coursework. She graduated in May.

Powell, who grew up in New Jersey and studied art as an undergraduate at U.C. Berkeley, loved the idea of combining her passion for pottery with her family’s history during the Holocaust.

She made most of her ceramics from paper clay, a porous material made from paper pulp, then fired the pieces in a raku kiln — a process that reliably results in cracked, fractured pottery.

“The Menorah Stands” symbolizes Jewish endurance and renewal.

Some potters avoid this look, but Powell sought out the effect. “The clay blisters, warps and cracks,” she said. When those weren’t enough, “I took a hammer to some of the pieces. I really wanted to give the effect that we were breaking apart as a Jewish community.”

Some of the works are more personal than others. For instance, in a reference to Kristallnacht, Powell wrote “Juden Rein” (“Jews out”) on pieces of broken tempered glass to give the effect that “the sky was raining glass on the Jews.”

“Juden rein” was the phrase once spray-painted on her maternal grandfather’s office window in Germany. She also made a precise mold of the menorah he took before fleeing the country.

Powell’s father died a month before the exhibit opened. In the days following his death, she began working on her final, and largest, piece: railroad tracks.

“I know it sounds strange, but it was a healing way for me to deal with his passing,” Powell said.

She sculpted and fired each tie and rail and welded the pieces together. She added birds with Nazi symbols onto the rails and tiny hands and feet on the ties — because when the train cars were too full, or there were dead on board, the Nazis would simply throw the bodies out.

“The highest compliment anyone could give would be that the pieces are deeply disturbing,” she said.

“This is a hard topic and people don’t want to talk about this,” she added. “We have so much despair in our current world and so it’s difficult to engage with. A lot would like to forget and turn the page. One doesn’t have to define one’s Judaism by this history … but to forget is to risk obliterating a vital piece of our history.”

“Echoes and Fragments” is on display through Aug. 27 at the Doug Adams Gallery in the Badè Museum, 1798 Scenic Ave., Berkeley.

On July 22, Rene’e Powell will participate in a panel discussion with Naomi Seidman, director of the Graduate Theological Union’s Center for Jewish Studies, and Rabbi Elliot Kukla of the Bay Area Jewish Healing Center. The free event begins at 6 p.m. at the Doug Adams Gallery, 1798 Scenic Ave., Berkeley. Information: (510) 849-8285.

Stacey Palevsky

Stacey Palevsky is a former J. staff writer.