Holocaust Survivor Portraits, Remembrance Display

Recently, I was approached by a co-worker to ask if I would help out with a display featuring Holocaust survivor portraits for an event called Unity Day. She had heard through the grapevine about my art hobby, and thought it might be good to team up for some portraits and biographies at the table she was planning. I am pretty much always looking for a reason to draw (and paint nowadays), so I naturally I jumped on board for this. My co-worker initially asked about commissioning me for this project, but I decided it would make more sense to consider it more of a donation of time when it comes to something like this. Not to mention the fact that I’ve really never done a paid commission. Anyhow, basically the game plan was for me to do a couple of portraits, while she would put together the booth and write-ups/biographies.

I had a ton of help in terms of brainstorming ideas. There are quite a lot of Holocaust survivors with impressive accomplishments and contributions to art, science, and other fields. Fortunately, I know a couple of people who know quite a lot about these survivors, particularly those survivors who published books (one co-worker in particular majored in literature). We came up with four names, and my initial thought was to pick a couple of them. I first planned on doing pencil portraits, since I’m still far more precise and accurate in that medium compared to paint. But, as I’ve discussed often lately, I am borderline obsessed with painting nowadays…I really wanted to try to do one of them in oil. The next chance I got, I decided to paint one of them. It went pretty well, so I said “why not another.” I stopped myself at two, and did two more in pencil. I didn’t intent to, but ended up with portraits for all four ideas.

Holocaust Remembrance booth at Unity Day.

Fast forward to a few weeks ago, it was time for Unity Day. I had never attended this specific event, so I didn’t entirely know what to expect. But it was really a fun experience. Basically, there were different cultural, historical, and interest group booths set up, with interesting displays and artifacts. One was centered around African American step-dancing, another featuring armed forces veterans, Hispanic foods in different regions, Middle Eastern clothing types, etc. It was very impressive! There were even performances by several groups, including great dancing by an Arabic group, hip hop crew, and a solo step-dance demonstration.

Our Holocaust remembrance display was definitely one of the simpler, more understated booths, but we got some good foot traffic. I wasn’t at the display the entire time, but I did find that there was some interest in the artwork and I got to answer lots of questions. Although I think people did like the pencil drawings, to my surprise (and excitement), it seems the oil paintings were the most popular. I have always loved the look of oil paintings – part of the reason I wanted to learn to paint in the first place. Even though I do not have confidence in my ability to capture a likeness with oils yet, I was glad these at least had an interesting look from an artwork standpoint.

Portrait of Hannah Arendt. Oil on Paper, 9 in X 12 in. German-American philosopher and Holocaust survivor. (b. 1906, d. 1975). Details about Arendt: Here.

I started this project almost immediately, my first day off after discussing it. My thoughts on the path forward started with pencil only (to capture the best likenesses), but eventually I convinced myself to paint one and draw two. Naturally, I wanted to start with paint because that seems like all that’s on my mind lately. I painted Hannah Arendt first, which I think turned out well. Although it doesn’t look exactly like her, in isolation as a painting of a person, I think it’s pretty solid. At this stage in my learning process, I was still not getting a very wide array of color hues. That’s still something I’m working on, but I think I’ve gotten a bit better. I felt encouraged after completing the Hannah Arendt portrait, so I decided I’d do a second painting while I had everything set up.

Portrait of Primo Levi. Oil on Paper, 9 in X 12 in. Italian chemist, writer, and Holocaust survivor. (b. 1919, d. 1987). Details about Levi: Here.

With the second painting, I continued the theme I started with Arendt by trying to paint the younger version of Primo Levi, rather than the more famous images of him older with a beard. One aspect I didn’t plan for was that I couldn’t find any more of the textured paper I bought that was designed for oil paint. This paper is very thick and mimics the feel of canvass…but since I couldn’t find another, I just went with my usual Strathmore drawing paper. It’s not as thick, but still pretty substantial and held the paints pretty well. It doesn’t have the same rough texture though, so the paint seems to look different using similar approaches. But overall, I liked the end result as much as the first. Again, not a perfect likeness of Primo Levi, but still a painting that I like.

Portrait of Elie Wiesel. Pencil on Paper, 9 in X 12 in. Romanian-American writer, professor, and Holocaust survivor. (b. 1928, d. 2016). Details about Wiesel: Here

For the next two, portraits of Elie Wiesel and Viktor Frankl, I was very tempted to keep going with the oil paints. After all, I was feeling inspired and the supplies were all set up. But I decided it would be good to stick with some aspects of the original plan and work with pencils for at least half of them. I am really not a good, objective judge of my artwork. So at this stage in the game, I honestly couldn’t tell if the paintings were strong enough to display. But I have some confidence that I could make some good likenesses using pencil, so I figured I make sure the person running/organizing this Holocaust remembrance display had a choice about what to include.

Portrait of Viktor Frankl. Pencil on Paper, 9 in X 12 in. Austrian psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor. (b. 1905, d. 1997). Details about Frankl: Here.

Again, I’m a bit surprised at how good I felt about all of these portraits. The Frankl and Wiesel portraits looked solid too, and I ended up with a collection of four pieces that I was actually proud to share. As I discussed at the beginning, the event went really well and I enjoyed talking with people about the artwork, display, and the subjects themselves. I had several noteworthy conversations, leading up to and during the event, that I think could lead to other things. Some people expressed interest in portraits, but I also talked with a very talented watercolor artists who gave me some great information about setting up at art fairs. Setting up a booth at an art fair (or other event) is not something I’d ever given much thought to, but getting to talk with someone who has experience with it was absolutely fascinating. It’s got my wheels turning for sure – could be something to plan for when spring comes around.

I didn’t capture any progressions except for the first painting of Hannah Arendt. Once I got into the flow of things, it just fell out of my mind to record or take photos. But with the one progression video, I think it shows I’m starting to get slightly better on these videos. The camera angle isn’t perfect, as I kept getting my head in the way. But at least it’s reasonably clear and not completely off center. If you view the latest videos on the Amdall Gallery YouTube channel, you can see that gradual improvement in action – in the latest, I’ve even managed to keep my head out of the shot.

So, that’s all for this very interesting project. I’m thankful I was considered for participation and for all the information and contributions from everyone involved. This is obviously a heavy topic, but it’s important to keep such aspects of history in our awareness. And valuable to look at people who survived such atrocities and appreciate their contributions to the world.

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