Holocaust tapestries at AVAM help explore the nature of narrative

"We Fled Across the Fields, No. 16" by Esther Krinitz is part of AVAM's <a href="http://findlocal.baltimoresun.com/listings/the-art-of-storytelling-lies-enchantment-humor-and-truth-baltimore">"The Art of Storytelling" exhibit</a>, which runs Oct. 6 though Sept. 1, 2013.
"We Fled Across the Fields, No. 16" by Esther Krinitz is part of AVAM's "The Art of Storytelling" exhibit, which runs Oct. 6 though Sept. 1, 2013. (Art by Esther Krinitz, Collection of Bernice Steinhardt and Helene McQuade, Image courtesy Art & Remembrance, AVAM)

Sometimes the only barrier separating a pastoral paradise from hell on earth is a thin line of birch trees.

Before she died in 2001 at age 74, Frederick dressmaker Esther Krinitz created 36 oversized fabric panels that provide persuasive proof that both worlds exist — sometimes within the same frame.

In scraps of fabric and cheerily colored yarns, the panels tell the story of how young Esther and her sister escaped from the Holocaust during the Nazi occupation of Poland during World War II. The panels went on display this weekend at the American Visionary Art Museum as part of a new exhibit, "The Art of Storytelling: Lies, Enchantment, Humor and Truth."

"When people see my mother's work, they are always struck by how incredibly beautiful it is, even as she tells these horrific stories," says Bernice Steinhardt of Chevy Chase, the eldest of Krinitz's two daughters.

"She was so acutely aware of what was going on in the environment around her. Even as she told the stories to me as a child, she didn't just talk about how frightened she and her sister were. She would say, 'There were these blue and yellow flowers that were still growing in the field, and they covered everything.' That's what life was to her — the beauty and the horror."

So, for instance, in the 12th image, which is set in June 1941, a stand of birch trees divides the collage in half.

On the right, two Jewish girls — 14-year-old Esther and her 12-year-old sister, Mania — have brought cows to pasture on a lush spring day. The apple trees are filled with fruit. Below in the grass, pink, fuchsia and yellow flowers bloom. One cow chews a mouthful of grass.

To the left of the birch stand is the Janiszew labor camp. Youths wearing Star of David armbands dig trenches, their bare chests revealing the scarlet trace of recent whippings. In the lower left-hand corner, a Nazi soldier marches a prisoner at gunpoint into the nearby grove.

On the fabric border, Krinitz stitched the caption: "After they were beaten until they could no longer work … they were led into the birch forest and shot."

And that's just one example of the narratives unfolding inside museum walls in "The Art of Storytelling," the institution's 18th yearlong thematic exhibit.

The show incorporates the work of more than 30 self-taught artists. Contributors range from Mars Tokyo's miniature, enchanting "Theatres of the 13th Dimension" to Larry Yust's images of global graffiti. In another gallery, anonymous postcards curated and illustrated by Germantown artist Frank Warren focus on the effects of bullying.

"From jokes to propaganda, storytelling has the power to impact and inspire humankind," says Rebecca Hoffberger, founder and director of the museum. "I see this exhibit as a plea for greater civility in the way we speak to and of one another. Stories can be healing or injurious. It's the end you put onto them to that matters."

Krinitz's work has been shown at AVAM before. Nine panels were included in a 2001 exhibit on the art of war and peace, and all 36 were displayed in a third-floor gallery from 2003 to 2005. But that space was too small to properly showcase such a massive work.

Hoffberger felt that her museum had never been able to do justice to Krinitz's tapestries, which she described as "one of the two most beloved exhibits in our 17-year history." She was aware that the seamstress' work has been shown in such prominent institutions as the Smithsonian Institution, the Birmingham Museum of Art and the Houston Holocaust Museum.

For "The Art of Storytelling," Hoffberger has fleshed out Krinitz's story with preliminary sketches; toys she sewed for her grandchildren; and "Through the Eye of the Needle," a 30-minute documentary filmed by Nina Shapiro Pearl that includes extensive interviews with Krinitz.

Sixty years after Esther and Mania fled into the countryside rather than reporting to the local train station as ordered, you can hear the guilt in Krinitz's voice as she recalls her determination to escape while other family members were readying themselves for deportation.

The family had been told they were going to the ghetto. In fact, they were sent to concentration camps, where they all perished.

"Everybody's crying," Krinitz recalls in the film.

"I said, 'I'm not going.' My father became mute. My mother was trying to calm us all down. I begged my mother, I said, 'You have so many friends. You know so many farmers. Don't you know a goy I could go to?' I was selfish. I only thought of me."

Krinitz's tapestries are compelling partly because fabrics, which are used most often in clothing and home furnishings, come with inescapable associations with warmth, comfort and security. When a blanket depicts genocide in bright primary colors, viewers' sense of betrayal makes the scene doubly horrifying.

In addition, even the most sophisticated artist is limited to drawing outlines when working with a needle and thread. No seamstress, however gifted, can capture the myriad subtle human expressions or gradations of color available to a portraitist working with pencil or paint brush.

As a result, the tapestries appear innocent and almost childlike, regardless of the artist's age and disposition — an impression that hits viewers with an extra wallop. How, we wonder, can someone so vulnerable have survived?

Wellesley University professor Marjorie Agosin has written books about folk art created during wartime.

She said that storytelling tapestries can be found worldwide. They include three-dimensional arpilleras that depict family members who were "disappeared" during Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet's regime, memorial quilts created by Sarajevo women, and throws stitched during the Vietnam War on which Hmong artisans embroidered scenes of mass executions in rice paddies.

"A lot of women use something familiar and domestic to communicate a narrative of horror," Agosin says.

"Because women's access to artistic expression has historically been limited, they've felt the most comfortable creating with cloth. They use elements and techniques they are familiar with such as embroidery and stitchery to create something subversive and radically new."

But as painful as the tapestries can be, the reaction they set off in viewers is emotionally complex. As Esther and Mania have one narrow escape after another, it's difficult not to marvel at the courage and intelligence of these two young girls outsmarting the Nazis.

In 1942, for instance, the girls arrived in the village of Grabowka at nightfall. Sleeping in the woods would have made it appear that they were hiding. So Esther persuaded the terrified Mania that they had to ask for help from the sheriff, though the man would have been obligated to report suspected Jews to the Nazis. Instead, he found both girls places to stay.

Another day, two Nazi guards who were attempting to question Esther at the farm where she worked were driven away by a swarm of bees.

After Grabowka was liberated by the Russian infantry in July 1944, the sisters eventually made their way to the U.S and gratefully sank into ordinary life. As the years passed, Krinitz told her daughters stories from her childhood and about family members they would never meet.

But when she turned 50, she began to long for a more concrete expression.

"Once she realized that she could tell her story through sewing, she never stopped," Steinhardt says. "She always had a picture in progress. During the last 10 years of her life, she made 34 pictures. It had become an essential thing for her, to introduce the family that she had come from to the family that she created."


If you go

"The Art of Storytelling: Lies, Enchantment, Humor & Truth" runs through Sept. 1, 2013 at the American Visionary Art Museum, 800 Key Highway. Admission costs $16 for adults; $10 for children 7 and older; $14 for seniors 60 and older. Call 410-244-1900 or go to avam.org.