Janelle Gelfand, Cincinnati Business Courier, 2018
Anna Socha VanMatre creates powerful, unforgettable art. She works with synthetic paper, graphite layering and three- dimensional techniques, such as cut or torn canvases.
Her latest masterpiece also has the tears that fell while she worked.
VanMatre’s “To Those Who Warn…” traces the journey of terror experienced by the victims of Nazi atrocities. The installation, three panels totaling more than 70 feet in length, will be exhibited May 25-June 20 at the International Youth Meeting Centre in Oświęcim/Auschwitz, Poland. More than 1 million people, mostly Jewish and Polish, were murdered at the infamous death camp during World War II.
“It’s just extremely personal for me,” said the artist in her Clifton studio. “I felt I knew a lot about the Holocaust. I was growing up in post-war Poland in a family where my mother and father both barely survived. I heard stories my whole life, but when I started this project, I was going deeper and deeper.”
She has dedicated the exhibit to Jan Karski, the diplomat and courier for the Polish resistance who tried to warn the West about the massacre of innocents. She knew him at the end of his life, after she had immigrated to the United States.
In her art, she traces a nightmarish journey of fire and smoke using computer-enhanced photographs of fire, sketching smoke around them with graphite and pastels. They are the flames of hell, the hell that the Jewish inmates of Auschwitz endured every day. They are the glow and ashes of the crematorium fires.
“It’s different from what I ever did, but still using my nature-based inspiration,” explained the Polish- born artist. “In this case, it’s a huge fire, with all the smoke and clouds from the fire. Of course, the meaning is just overwhelming. We know what this fire was for and what the smoke came from.”
For three months, she worked 10 hours per day, lying on the floor of her studio because the panels were so large. As she worked, tears of remembrance flowed. Her family on her grandmother’s side was living in Eastern Poland and was taken to a Siberian labor camp for six years. Somehow, her mother survived. Others did not.
Her father fought in the Polish underground army. Badly wounded by the Nazis, he was taken to a prison hospital, where he suffered surgeries without anesthesia. Pretending he was German, he survived and the underground army helped him escape.
As she worked and conducted Holocaust research, her family’s stories bubbled up in her memory. “It was a nightmare. I couldn’t sleep. The nights were the worst,” she said.
The first panel evokes the horror and confusion that inmates felt upon entering Auschwitz. But the center panel offers hope. There is a sliver of blue sky.
“The only moment when they can feel free is when they look at the sky, which occasionally is not covered by smoke from the crematories,” she said.
VanMatre’s nature-inspired canvases of clouds, water, volcanos and natural disasters have been exhibited all over the world. In 2013, her 14-panel “Metamorphoses-Fire and Water” was permanently installed in Krakow’s Karol Szymanowski Philharmonic Hall in honor of composer Krzysztof Penderecki’s 80th birthday.
Soon, she will pack up her art for its installation in the center’s House of Silence. Her husband, Rick VanMatre, professor emeritus of Jazz Studies at the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music, has composed two pieces for jazz trio in memory of Karski and the victims of Auschwitz, to be played at the opening.
Anna VanMatre said she hopes that viewers will feel what she tried to communicate.
“I wasn’t trying to be literal, but tried to use images to (inspire) feelings, to create atmosphere, and to bring the memories of what happened there – just to be sure that we never forget what happened,” she said. “Once we forget, it might happen again.”