Andree Singer Thompson

Taking It Lightly: This Artist Has Learned to Create Spaces in the Midst of Absurdity; (detail), A Journal of Art Criticims, Volume 5, Number 2, 1998
Andrée Singer Thompson

When first asked to "free associate" with the word "light" in order to write something about it, there were two different directions that came to mind: The first and more obvious, is the profound magic and importance of light as a visual artist. It enables us to "see" and by definition, visual artists have a love relationship with lightful seeing. I am also aware that as a child I used visual magic and"delights" as an escape , source of a long history with survival issues.

Having come from Cleveland of Hungarian, Jewish and Catholic(converted-to-Jewish in order to marry) descent, it was inevitable that I should have a lifelong art battle with "schmaltz," known more acceptably as Romantic. So while Light can be seen in many ways, for me it is primarily a romantic commodity, embued with spiritual, poetic and mysterious layers of meaning. Now as I enter the twilight of my life, this kind of poetic meaning seems
important. For me, the essence of the spiritual and mysterious excitement that keeps us addicted to art making and artseeing, that keeps us searching for that elusive truth, has its core inLight.

The second direction free associating took me to was that of psychological "lightness", and a sense of the absurd, which I learned from my then-husband, now close friend and father of my children, ERThompson. I learned that humor, another form of Lightness, is also a valuable
survival mechanism.

When the term "dysfunctional" first appeared, we all felt our own families were the most
"dysfunctional" of all. And so did I. Hungarians revel in drama. My family provided me with important "educational" experiences: alcoholism, divorce, all sorts of abuse, schizophrenia, several suicides,(a popular Hungarian custom) and being second generation Holocaust survivors. All accompanied by wonderful Hungarian music and dancing (my mother was a pianist), and lots of Palinka, a 90 proof brandy. Homemade. Instead of therapy and confrontation, this was and often still is, the use of addiction and denial as survival mechanisms. Unaware of how common this all was, I considered us "freaks" of the neighborhood. When I later taught children in the Other America, inner city urban children who live in war zones, some of whom are refugees from war-torn countries, with stories far more traumatic than mine, I didn’t feel quite so "special".

Nevertheless, out of this background came memorable stories with which I have entertained many a therapist over the years. One of my favorites is the time my mother shot her boyfriend in the balls. From jail, she was allowed one phone call which she made to her
mother, my grandmother, who promptly dropped dead. My sister and I arrived shortly after to find my dead grandmother with her living bird flying above her head. It goes on from there, but the point is that I can now tell these stories almost glibly, with a sense of the absurd. Of course, I have the distance of time and lots of therapy. But there was a time, before ERT, that news from home, or the telling and remembering left me deeply depressed, humiliated and
feeling helpless. My face and walk reflected the pain and angst(another popular Hungarian custom) of all the tragic dysfunctionalities I inherited and of which I felt I was victim.

In many ways, I was naive in spite of those life experiences. When Roger and I married, it took me several months, even years, to detect the twinkle in his eye when he read the morning paper aloud and there was my mother’s name in some ridiculous story about
Cleveland that he had just invented. When I got a letter from my mother telling how her fat alcoholic tree-surgeon boyfriend tried to run her down with their car as she ran away from him and other such tragic episodes, I was saddened once again by the tragedy of her lost talents and self-destructive addictions. Then Roger read the same letter, began smiling, and finally laughing out loud. I was furious; then curious. He apologized for being insensitive, yet he couldn’t help but visualize the absurdity of two fat drunks, one being chased by the other, neither having the sobriety to drive or run in a straight line, etc. He would create a FarSide/Pizarro Fellini-esque type scenario that made me appreciate the absurdity of it, without degrading the really sad truth.

While discussing this article with a friend, he related his own story of sitting around the bedside of his dying mother with all his siblings. At one point, a brother leaned forward to hear what his mother was whispering. When he sat up, he reported " She said she always loved me the best!"

It is an irony of life that as I work on this essay we are recovering from yet another young family suicide. I am watching how much we all need light spaces in the midst of the confusing sorrowful tragedy; how we are embarrassed for laughing at some small quip or absurdity, and yet how desperately we all need something to help balance the weight of pain and loss. The Meanings we have given our lives are never so challenged as in the Face of Death.

Probably because of early experiences, including death, much of my life’s artwork has been an
expression of an interest in the nature of Survival, why and how healthy survival occurs, individually and communally. I have come to believe that a major challenge in the survival process is to expose, confront and befriend our greatest fears. Once conscious and visible, we have the opportunity to give them our most creative and knowledgeable attention,
foundations of health and hope. (I believe one of my functions as an artist is to give form, clarity and voice to that confusion of unformed, unconscious material.)

Each of us must find our own tools with which to do Survival battle, to Dance with our Demons along this journey. Artmaking and "seeing", with its multi layers of Light and Lightness, coupled with Absurdity and Humor--have been my survival techniques. For me, the miracle of our lives is that we can and do not only survive, but are able to survive with love and hope.

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