By Emily J Weitz
When Ellen Frank first completed “Jerusalem: A Painting Towards Peace”, she didn’t realize that it would be the first in a series of paintings devoted to shining the light on beauty in areas of suffering. Instead, Jerusalem was a piece that stood alone, a painting for which she would throw a party, a work of art that wove together Islamic patterns and stars of David. When Ellen sent out the invites to said party, though, she wrote in the subject “Jerusalem: A Painting Towards Peace: The First Painting”. It was then she realized that, while the city of Jerusalem had struck her personally when she was there in the flesh, other cities begged representation as well. The gold-illuminated works that followed are tributes to Baghdad, Sarajevo, New York, Monrovia, Beijing, Lhasa, Hiroshima, and Kabul. Together, they make up the exhibit “Cities of Peace”, and they will be displayed in all their striking splendor at Guild Hall from October 23 through January 16.
What Frank calls a “painting” is really a monumental multi-layered work of art that employs the use of precious metals, paint, stained linen and more. In them, she incorporates aspects of culture from architecture (the red tile-roofed city in Sarajevo: Here) to language (“This is My City” written in more than 30 different languages in New York: This Is My City), religion (sacred mudras in Lhasa: 10 Directions) to astronomy (the actual night sky on Liberian Independence Day in Monrovia: In Constellation), poetry (a 17th-century poem illuminating dancing figures in Kabul: I Love Her) to photography (the once-secret aerial photograph of Hiroshima taken by the US military months before the atomic bomb in Hiroshima: Winter Bloom). And each of these examples is just a tiny slice of the bigger picture of each work.
The purpose of these ambitious works is to use art to increase understanding of other cultures, because ultimately, “understanding is a prerequisite to peace,” says Frank. In her travels, Frank ended up studying with Tibetan wise men.
“I became angry with them at first,” she recalls. “I always thought there was an ‘enemy.’ A good and a bad. I couldn’t understand how someone who was wise wouldn’t find that same thing. I wept about this.”
But as she began to internalize these teachings, Frank realized the need “to transform the enemy into a figure for whom we need compassion and understanding… it became my goal to transform anguish into beauty.”
So how could one woman get such a grasp on this spectrum of cities, each of which has experienced suffering in its own unique way? “Research,” she says simply. Frank, with the support and assistance of the non-profit Illumination Atelier she founded in East Hampton, brought in teams of interns from all over the world. They devoted themselves to each city, up to eight people at a time working on each piece. They read everything they could, spoke to experts and those who had lived there, and pulled together an interpretation of the identity of the city.
For example, Monrovia, the capital of Liberia, is the only capital city in the world that has no electricity or running water. To get to know it, she spent time with the curator of African Art at the Brooklyn Museum, who had done his Peace Corps in Monrovia and had a tremendous collection of artifacts from there. She also spoke with Patricia Jabbeh Wesley, a poet from Monrovia whose mother had died there in 2000. Frank viewed photographs of the parades and stunning clothes worn by the women of Monrovia during the presidential Inauguration of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. In this way, she pieced together an identity.
The way she selected the cities she did seems almost incidental. Some of the cities were places whose suffering personally (if remotely) impacted her, like watching from afar the tragedy of Tienanman Square in Beijing. Others were suggested to her, sometimes vehemently. One of Frank’s most valuable resources in her work on Baghdad and Kabul, Harvard scholar Jeff Spurr, asked her to “please do Sarajevo.” In recalling his request, Frank’s voice ignites.
“It was the single largest book burning in modern history. More than 2 million books were intentionally burned. This wasn’t just genocide, but also culture-icide – the death and destruction of cultures… [It] effectively wiped out the entire recorded history of Bosnia and Herzegovinia.”
Frank’s response? To create a work that memorializes pages of lost manuscripts with imagined texts and images, and memorializes the city itself with representations of spires, minarets, and mosques.
Even if the reasoning behind which cities were chosen could be debated, the reasoning behind Frank’s selection of texts, images, and resources is exact. For example, the focal point of “Baghdad” is the earliest known map of the city. This map shows that Baghdad was designed as a circular city with four gates. This architectural decision was “an experiment in governance very much like democracy,” says Frank. Inside the circle, Frank dropped a muqarnas (the inside of an Islamic dome) in palladium leaf. Memorializing this history of Baghdad, a history that honors democracy and freedom, is a way of highlighting the things we have in common instead of the things that separate us.
“These paintings and the Illumination Atelier are my life’s work,” says Frank. “The Cities of Peace Project is part of a big dream uniting art and social justice.” As Jean-Marie Guehenno, former Under-Secretary General for Peacekeeping Operations at the United Nations, said ,“This is why Cities of Peace is so important. Because art is the ultimate peace weapon. Art comes before diplomacy.”
The opening reception for Ellen Frank’s “Cities of Peace”, free and open to all, will be this Saturday, October 23 at Guild Hall from 6 to 8 pm. The show will be on view through January. Go to www.efiaf.org for more information on Ellen’s non-profit and the Illumination Atelier. Go to www.guildhall.org for more information on Guild Hall.