Lightness and being

A painter finds solace in memory and Seattle's oceanic gray.


Nordic Heritage Museum 3014 N.W. 67th, 789-5707, $4 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Tues.-Sat.; noon-4 p.m. Sun. ends Tues., July 16

ON THE DAY that I am to meet Maria Frank Abrams—Holocaust survivor, painter, and longtime Seattle resident—gray clouds blanket the skies from downtown to Ballard. It's near dark at 3:30 p.m.; almost no light shines through. But as I enter the Nordic Heritage Museum, a soft glow in the form of a very petite, smiling woman greets me, and before I know it, we're inside the museum, standing in front of four very evocative and stirring collagelike panels that Abrams created as memorial art for members of her family who were murdered by the Nazis.

She immediately asks in her softly broken Hungarian accent if I grew up in this area, and I tell her that I did.

"So you grew up with this light," she says, very pleased. "Well, it's a marvelous light, and it has been a great inspiration to me. Everything looks different here. I guess it must have something to do with being so close to the ocean. It's very special."

It's clear that Abrams knows plenty about light. Hung opposite her memorial panels are brilliantly colorful landscapes and geometric, angular nature abstractions. Although vastly different in both style and subject, all of Abrams' work casts a brightness and clarity that is both beautiful and chilling. Considering her life story, this dichotomy is inescapable.

When she was a teenager, Abrams and most of her family were taken from their homes and sent to Auschwitz. Although the war was nearing its end when they arrived, V-day didn't come soon enough; Abrams and one of her cousins were the only ones among 35 family members to survive the camps.

Not too long after the camps were liberated, Abrams secured a university scholarship through the Hillel Foundation. In 1948, she came to Seattle to study art and began the process of remembrance and expression that would eventually lead her to this current exhibit.

"You know, when I came here to the University of Washington, I did try to use my terrible, terrible background [as material] but it didn't work. It just didn't. It's too awful, it's too horrendous, it's too big," she says, explaining how her vision evolved. "But pretty soon, in just a few months, I was responding to the landscape and this light. It was very consoling, like a healing process. In my work, I began creating things that were harmonious and peaceful. That was my desire—for life to be like that. That's what I was painting and not the horror. It's too hard to paint that, or do anything with that."

That is, until recently. Abrams was able to circumvent the horror of the war, using instead of her awful memories, reproduced photographs of the happiness and life that colored her family's prewar history. Integrated into haunting, dully hued backgrounds are cutout images of individual family members. Perhaps most stirring is the panel depicting the life of her favorite aunt. In this case, the background consists of painstakingly duplicated script from a postcard that this aunt sent just months before her life was taken.

"Our lives came to a quick end," says the artist. "They were just cut from one end to the next: from a marvelous life to a great tragedy."

In addition to the four relatives depicted in the current exhibit, Abrams has more photographic evidence of the family she lost. Although she is in her late 70s and just survived a heart attack last month, Abrams plans to memorialize five more of her relatives in this manner, with the ultimate goal of finding a permanent place to exhibit the collected panels.

In a bright and musical voice that belies the ugliness she has seen, Abrams concludes, "You go on living, and you remember and you remember and you remember—as you should, always."

And then, gazing at gunmetal gray light glowing from the pictures of her smiling baby cousin Gaby, she adds sadly, "My memory did not keep everything the way I wish it would have."

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