I grew up in a house made of books: children’s books, classics, detective stories, forbidden publications that escaped communist censorship being passed down by generations of writers. Books lined the walls of our house, a parish established by my minister grandparents who had moved to my small hometown near the Czech-German border after the Second World War.
Books filled the bags my mother brought home from her job at the library. They shaped the quiet moments I spent with my father, an archivist who at times would bring home a rare treat, an old book as big as his desk, that I was not allowed to touch, only admire the yellowed pages and elaborate images that formed the first letters of every chapter.
On the weekends, I would spend long dreamlike hours at work with my parents, run in the hallways and between the tall stacks of the library and the archive, both buildings becoming my playground. The infinite wealth of stories they held offered a safe refuge from the confusing world around, from school that represented the communist establishment which was so at odds with home, with my intellectual anti-communist parents and my grandparents who dedicated their lives to Church, an increasing oddity in the secular domain of the regime.
The never-ending tales on the pages intertwined with the stories I heard about my family; humorous anecdotes exchanged at dinner about the absurdities of communism or eerie accounts of time gone that were only hushed and whispered when the women in the family gathered on Sunday afternoons. Over yarn and needles I listened to the life story of my great-grandmother who became a political prisoner in the early days of communism. Always an excellent cook, perhaps she had learned in the ration days of the war to make something out of nothing, she improved the conditions of her incarceration by offering the jail her cooking skills.
I heard stories of my grandfather who had been taken to a labor camp for his involvement with the Church. I listened to accounts of my grandmother who left alone with two young children took over the ministry, fighting hard to keep a Church presence under a regime that persecuted its members. Decades later when, unbeknown to all of us, the gray days of communism were coming to an end, my mother, too, became the breadwinner when my father, suffering from depression, was taken away to a mental institution. To supplement her librarian income, she would sell the handknits she crafted in the evenings.
Just as my grandfather’s landscape paintings that brightened our days with their vivid greens and yellows, the lives of my parents and grandparents inspired me with the every-day creativity of those who time and time again had to reinvent themselves in order to survive.
The Haitian-American writer Edwidge Danticat believes that every immigrant is an artist, that “the experience of touching down in a totally foreign place is like having a blank canvas.” In the August 2013 issue of the Atlantic, Danticat suggests that “You begin with nothing, but stroke by stroke you build a life. This process requires everything great art requires—risk-tasking, hope, a great deal of imagination, all the qualities that are the building blocks of art. You must be able to dream something nearly impossible and toil to bring it into existence.”
Like many others who have moved across the world to create the work of art that is a life well lived, I have adjusted to my new home, and like the women in my family, I have crafted a livelihood out of eggs and flour, at times yarn and fiber.
And when words were not enough to give me the answers I needed, where is home and who am I, I reached for the camera, dove into visual language where boundaries are blurred, worlds co-exist and time is but an idea, where in the landscapes taken over here you can hear the echo of the stories whispered over there, where the glossy cobblestones of the streets in my hometown reflect the dreams I spun in my new home, dreams I write down in silver.
above: Cynthia J. Ahlstrin, 38 Special – A Bullet Bra, Repurposed book pages, repurposed binder’s board, 6.5” x 38” x 11”
My most cohesive origin stories can be found within my artist’s books – in both the traditional book forms as well as in the altered books. My stories include lessons handed down from past generations, tales of memory, of love, of abuse, and of hope. They express views of childhood and the process of growing up and viewpoints based on life experience and maturity.
When I started making artist’s books, I found it very easy to begin by telling the stories of my forward-thinking, teetotaling English grandmother and the influence she lovingly placed on my young life. It started by growing up in a seemingly “proper” middle class home in Connecticut, the roof of which barely kept the lid on the three generations of independent individuals contained within. The youngest of the family, I found myself in need of an anchor. Fortunately, my grandmother scooped me up into her life and became my staunchest ally. Born into this world prior to 1900, she was from a distant generation that endured the many hardships of World Wars, deadly flu epidemics, and the Great Depression. But she also enjoyed women gaining the right to vote, the beginnings of women’s healthcare, and the ability of some women to start their own careers. She was always industrious with her thoughts and with her time.
One of the places she chose to teach life’s lessons was in the warmth of her kitchen where cooking was one of her grand talents. To her, food equated to love and happiness. My story starts here by investigating the age old tradition of cooks measuring out dry ingredients by their hand. Amounts were gauged and valued by how they looked and felt in the palm of the cook. Recipes were rarely written in full (if at all), adding to the mystery of cooking and to the guarding of “treasured” family recipes and secrets. To this day there are still a few recipes that even I guard, only to be passed on to those “within the family”. I collaged sugar, salt and flour sacks with recipe cards to detail the potential of sweet things to come. On the front side of my accordion book are the illustrations of the lessons of love, patience, meditation, healing remedies and self awareness – all of the life lessons passed on to me in-between the mechanics of making a great meal. Those keys to self-happiness are illuminated with colors as saturated as the memories and feelings they invoke inside of me.
Another story I tell involves the lessons learned about sewing. A professional seamstress, my grandmother had some very concrete ideas about how things were to be done. She created clothing for her regular clients and made costumes for actors on Hartford and New York City stages. My use of color speaks to the memories of our trips to the fabric store searching amongst bolts and bolts of beautiful fabrics to find the right cloth to make a creation sing. My story tells of the lessons of patience while laying and pinning pattern pieces so accurately that the leftover scrap cloth was miniscule. “Waste not, want not” was a common refrain. My grandmother worked her magic at the sewing machine in a beelike dance, moving back and forth from machine to table and back again. Her lessons of thrift, craftsmanship, energy and individual expression have swirled into memories of admiration for her mastery of the many parts of a woman’s life.
The last story of lessons learned while growing up materialized in a humorous piece titled Isn’t It Fitting? The happy recipient of lovely handmade bras, it was hard for me to wear commercially produced foundation ones, but once I decided that this was “what all the girls wear”, there was no turning back.
So my story here delves into the spreading of wings in an attempt to try something new, move away from an old tradition and perhaps take the first steps towards growing up. It is also a story about the ability to fail, admit a mistake and still be loved.
My story reveals that all the instructions and diagrams in the world were not going to correct the fit of ill made garments. Measurements and cups sizes were designed for the “average woman’s breast size”…and who has those? The beautiful bras I was searching for ended up being the ones made out of paper and ink. The craziness of the looping measuring tapes equates to my young self throwing up my hands in frustration and realizing that no matter how much we yank and we pull, those damn bras were just never meant to fit. And that some lessons you learn cannot be improved upon until we are ready to mature.
My approach to creating altered books originally began as a way to solve a creative challenge. I was given a stack of National Geographic magazines. Who doesn’t have difficulty parting with these? My task was to look through all of them, find a story that resonated with me and then make a piece in response to it. My found story was one that included luscious images of shoes throughout the history of humankind and what information could be gathered from them about the person who wore them. I was inspired to make my book based on the premise that every shoe really does have a story to tell about us. My shoe story investigates the use of color and the recycling of discarded objects. Through the placement of specific words and images, my book also tells a story to the viewer asking her to consider the impact of excesses of human choices and the use of genetically modified seeds on our environment.
As my experience in making altered books has grown, my approach to my story telling has changed as well. My newer work began to tell stories of a different part of my life, a crossing over from the lessons of childhood to those from a more mature perspective and garnered from some unfortunate personal experiences.
I need a great deal of paper for each piece. I began sourcing book pages from discarded books and romance novels I found at the library or in the book box at the transfer station. I chose my materials randomly based on the weight, color and feel of the paper. During the process of cutting the pages from the book block, I naturally began to read passages from various pages of the found books. This is where I began to notice the large amount of violence perpetrated against one or more of the female characters within each novel. Often times, the violence was not even remotely connected to the main plot – basically it was just gratuitous. My thoughts on this unnerving occurrence demanded that the individual stories needed to be identified, those of verbal and physical abuse, prostitution, murder, rape and in some cases mutilation. My own personal experience with certain types of abuse causes me to empathize with all the female victims.
My stories have manifested themselves in the form of 1950’s women’s foundation wear and boudoir apparel. Style-wise they are beautiful as well as cage-like and constricting. This era of fashion is from a time when women in our society were dressed immaculately within the confines of society’s concept of perfection. Each piece invites the viewer to read selected sentences or word phrases which are meant to illuminate this troubling pattern of violence. My hope is that the beauty of the structures creates an interesting juxtaposition to the violence expressed in the printed words and causes the viewer to consider the stories that women continue to experience in our current society.
My current work is a response to the Maine woods. It’s work that describes an experience of “being” in a more direct way than any art I have made in years. The parts of Maine that deeply move me visually and spiritually – the unique beauty, the stillness, the magic, the microscopic as well as vast views of varied landscapes – inspire and encourage me to be present.
After having been a painter for many years depicting figures (people, objects, landscapes and fantasy worlds in a broad range of styles and techniques), I took a stitching workshop at Haystack in 2015. Deer Isle is to me the most exquisite spot in Maine.
At Haystack, through stitching, I began to depict what for years on Deer Isle has blown me away – the mosses and lichen. Working with threads, floss and fiber did something to circumvent my “what I paint” brain and freed me to work with my imagination to describe what I was seeing in the forest in a way I could never have imagined. I experimented with various techniques and ideas, expanding on these first lichen pieces and then the following summer I took a second fiber workshop at Haystack that focused on sculpture. I had always felt intimidated by the concept of making anything 3D (I was a painter after all, right!?)
For the past year and a half I have been making large and small 3D sculptures of lichen-covered rocks, minerals and gems, and am now exploring further into the realm of sculpture.
A new start. Although of course not brand new. All my years of painting inform my stitching. I couldn’t do one without the other. My grandparents, my mother (age three) and her younger brother (my uncle) made a new start in America after fleeing Nazi Germany in 1935. My maternal Grandfather (Hans Levi) was Jewish and my grandmother Bridget Marqvart was not (although she later converted). My grandfather was studying to become a doctor and being inexplicably turned down for residences. My grandmother had two older brothers and one was in the Nazi party, quite high up, Goring’s right hand man, to be precise. He advised my grandparents to leave Germany immediately. They tried to convince my grandfather’s mother to join them and go to America but she refused, choosing instead to remain, in a small town close to Stuttgart called Muensignen, where she lived and where my grandfather had grown up. She eventually went into hiding in Muensingen where a young girl from the town brought her provisions. In return, with heartfelt gratitude, my great grandmother bestowed upon this girl items of her clothing, jewelry, cutlery and other valuable objects.
Eventually my great grandmother was discovered and then, like thousands of others, was killed at the concentration camp Theresienstadt. Meanwhile my grandparents and their two young children safely made it across the seas and eventually settled in Lindenhurst, Long Island where my grandfather developed a thriving practice as a GP doctor, and where my grandmother (despite having had her dreams dashed about going to art school in Germany) became a successful commercial artist. Fast forward seventy years to 2005. My mother received a letter from a woman in Germany saying:
“I have been looking for you for many years. I was the little girl (now elderly lady) who brought your grandmother provisions while she was in isolation. We are having a museum exhibition in the town of Laupheim which commemorates the victims of the Holocaust and we are displaying some of the items your great grandmother gave to me. We hope you can attend the reception.”
My mother and brother were thrilled, went to the reception and had an incredibly rich, moving and welcoming experience in the town that had turned our family away.
Two years later my mother, daughter (then seven years old) and I went back to Muensignen. We visited our new friends, the old house where my grandfather had grown up, the graveyard where my great grandmother had a stone, the museum at Laupheim, as well as art museums in Munich. It was beyond memorable and meaningful and felt like a timely gift to be with my mother and young daughter visiting our family history. Two weeks after we returned to the states my mother was diagnosed with a brain tumor and died two months later. We all marveled at the timing of our trip. Some of her ashes are buried in a plot in the small and charming cemetery in Muensignen and the young girl (now elderly lady) is to this day the one who tends my mother’s grave. Several years before attending graduate school at The Art Institute of Chicago, I began painting psychological self- portraits. This was the focus of my work for many years and saw me through my graduate studies, pregnancy, post pregnancy and more.
The work I made during 2013-2015 (before beginning my lichens and mosses) is entitled “The Apartment.” It is the work that most directly connects to my family and where we come from. Symbolic and metaphorical, the work represents my grappling with the loss of the apartment I called home for fifty years. I grew up in this apartment in New York City’s Upper West Side and remained connected to it throughout my adulthood, the early years of my daughter’s visits there, through my mother’s death and then through my elderly father’s life until he died in 2013.
I loved the apartment tremendously and was very attached to it and when it came time to clear it out to sell, I took on the job. My sister was living in Los Angeles with young children and it was difficult for her to get to NYC, but truth be told, I wanted to lay my hands on every item there.
As I sorted through things, the baby shoes, the pots and pans and plates and cutlery and silver and vases and tea sets, the broken blenders, the whisks and wooden spoons, the books and LPs, the once white now yellow linen tablecloths that belonged to my grandmother from Germany, the porcelain figurines, the paintings, the sheets and towels, the photo albums, the black socks my father wore when he worked as a lawyer, the old toothbrushes and pill bottles and unused Depends, the sweat pants and red fleece jackets my father wore the last few of his eighty six years, the candles, the hammers and screwdrivers, the saved toys for the grandchildren, the art projects my sister and I made as kids, the “important” papers and old bills, my dad’s framed diplomas and NYC Law BAR certification, my old diaries, my mother’s journals and stories she had written for her writing class at The New School, the saved newspaper clippings and black and white head shot photos of my mother as an actress, the Christmas ornaments and VCR tapes and on and on and on and on.
I took note of the items that resonated with me and either kept them, or took a photo of them. The pieces in the body of work entitled The Apartment are responses to these objects using various mediums. It was a powerful body of work for me to make and it truly helped me to let go.
Maybe it even allowed me the psychic space to make a new start with stitching, with making work that has no blatant psychological content, that is about translating what I see and experience when I go into the woods, that often doesn’t have a plan when I start out. As my teacher from Haystack said “You either make a picture, or you make a field.” After making pictures all my life as a painter, with fiber I am making fields. I am sure I will return to making pictures at some point, but for now I am enjoying being in the fields and forests.
There are many things I love about Maine – the woods, the coasts, the mountains, the wildlife, the small towns, a certain scruffiness in the landscape (that you don’t see in Vermont for example and is a different kind of scruffiness from the kind in NH), the resourcefulness of Mainers and their ability to understand irony (I have found, living in various states in America, that not everyone does!).
I have been here on and off (mostly on) for twenty seven years and yet I sometimes still feel like an outsider. From away. It may be that I am one of those people who always feels a bit out of place no matter where I am. I think the combination of my NYC roots (my father’s side of the family is fifth generation from New York City and my father, grandfather and great grandfather attended the same school I did and my great great grandfather helped start it). My maternal European ancestry, and the Jewish culture that surrounded me growing up have all contributed to a feeling that I am different from most Mainers – at least in Farmington where I live most of the time.
The Sandy River Players (the community theater group in Farmington) put on The Sound of Music a few years back. My daughter played one of the Von Trapp children and I played a nun. A dream come true as I had been (like many) obsessed with the movie for my entire life. Besides the wonderfulness of playing a nun, I also had the amazing opportunity to paint a 14′ x15′ backdrop painting for the show. I made a translation of an Oskar Kokoshcka painting that depicts a mountain, the sun partially hidden by clouds, and heavenly rays of light that stream down onto the dramatic landscape. It fit the spirit of the play – hopeful, spiritual, inspiring and grand. Like the Von Trapps and my own family, Kokoschka fled Nazi Germany and escaped to a safe land. While sitting with my fellow cast members in rehearsal I started to wonder whether there was anyone else sitting there (besides my daughter) who had a familial connection to the Holocaust and thus to the story of the Sound of Music. No one did. I ended up telling my story to the cast who were very appreciative and responsive.
Later that same year I had a show at The Jewish Museum in Portland, another experience that allowed me to connect with my roots but this time within a larger community with shared histories.
Although at times I do feel like an outsider living in Maine, I also find a deep connection to those around me who treasure the beauty and quality of life (the way it should be!) that a place with fewer people, fewer strip malls and less corporate contamination offers. I knew even as a child growing up in New York City that I didn’t want to live in the city.
I remember a summer when I was about eight years old and my family had rented a house on Cape Cod. I would go out into the scrub oak forests and find trees whose trunks had hollowed out and fill them with moss carpets and acorn bowls and construct miniature worlds made of sticks and pine cones and whatever I could find. I was alone there in a way that I was never permitted to be alone as a child in the parks of New York City.
And I remember feeling how I was so NOT alone while there in the woods. That there was a kind of company, a silent, greater company that was with me. I encounter that company daily in the forests and on the coasts of Maine.