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Artist’s visit to Auschwitz inspires exhibit, ‘No One is Home: Bar Codes, Suburbia and the Holocaust,’ at Jewish Community of Amherst

  • Simone Alter-Muri talks about her art work at her home in Florence.<br/><br/>CAROL LOLLIS
  • “There’s a real value to using art as a vehicle for healing,” Alter-Muri says.<br/><br/><br/>CAROL LOLLIS
  • Bar codes are “another form of labeling, like the tattoos,” Alter-Muri says. <br/><br/>CAROL LOLLIS
  • Simone Alter-Muri talks about her art work at her home in Florence.<br/><br/>CAROL LOLLIS
  • Simone Alter-Muri talks about her art work at her home in Florence.<br/><br/>CAROL LOLLIS
  • Art work by Simone Alter-Muri  at her home in Florence.<br/><br/>CAROL LOLLIS

A few years ago, when she traveled to Auschwitz, the infamous Nazi concentration camp in Poland, Simone Alter-Muri thought the experience might well change her life. She had a vested interest in seeing this grim symbol of genocide, particularly since relatives of hers had been killed there. And as an educator who teaches college courses on the art of the Holocaust, she figured she might learn something new to share with her students.

But Alter-Muri, an artist and art therapist, says her journey to Auschwitz had another, unexpected effect: “It changed my own art.”

Since her trip, Alter-Muri, a longtime landscape painter, has been compiling images shaped by her experience, from sketches of wildflowers and thistles that blossom by the former death camp to stark views of straight-as-arrow trees that mirror the bars of a prison.

And in a show that opens next week at the Jewish Community of Amherst, Alter-Muri has added another image that’s become ubiquitous in stores and other settings: bar codes. “No One is Home: Bar Codes, Suburbia and the Holocaust” explores connections between these labeling devices and the inhumanity of the Holocaust, as well as the isolation of suburban living and the growth of modern surveillance methods.

For the exhibit, Alter-Muri has also collaborated with her mother, Harriet Gracierstein, an artist and former art teacher who lives in New Haven, Conn. Several of Gracierstein’s paintings are part of the show, which otherwise consists of Alter-Muri’s paintings, woodblock art and other materials.

In a recent interview in her Florence home, Alter-Muri said her trip to Auschwitz, financed through a research grant, was an emotional journey during which she reflected on the death at the camp of relatives from both her grandmothers’ families. She also thought of her Uncle Seymour, an American soldier in World War II for whom she is named and who died in a German prisoner of war camp after he was singled out for harsh treatment for being Jewish.

While at Auschwitz, she was also struck by the profusion of straight lines — old guard towers and barracks, fences, strings of barbed wire — as well as the contrast with the beautiful wildflowers on many of the grounds. “Apparently the soil is very rich from all the bones [of the dead],” she said. “They make good fertilizer.”

When she was back in the United States, Alter-Muri said, she found herself recreating many of these images in more abstract form. She also learned at that time of the connections between the IBM corporation and the Third Reich: The former had German subsidiaries that helped develop the company’s punch cards and other tabulating material for use in a German national census, and the Nazis used that census information to identify Jews and other “undesirables.”

“I started thinking of the connections between that and the use of tattooed numbers to identify prisoners at Auschwitz and the other camps,” she said. “I was struck by how impersonal it all was.”

And from there, Alter-Muri began thinking of bar codes — more specifically, the way these small bits of scannable data, in black lines of varying widths and an accompanying number, have seemingly appeared on products everywhere, without much discussion of their implications, she says.

“It’s another form of labeling, like the tattoos. ... Is this [bar codes] something that could eventually be used on people themselves?”

And Alter-Muri says she also saw a connection between bar codes and the black lines on certain types of tallis, or Jewish prayer cloths, “although the prisoners in Auschwitz had no prayer cloths when they went to pray or mourn.”

Auschwitz legacy

Artistically, Alter-Muri, who directs programs in art therapy and art education at Springfield College, has tackled the themes in her exhibit in various ways. She started by buying the copyright of one particular bar code and reproducing it in different sizes. The largest are digital reprints that she made on canvases ranging from 9 to 12 feet across.

She’s also built collections of small wooden cubes, placing nine inside a frame, and affixing a different image, including that same bar code, on each side of each cube. The cubes can be rotated to present multiple combined images, such as Alter-Muri’s sketches of Auschwitz trees and thistles, the bar code, the bars of a prison, a photo of her Uncle Seymour, and others.

She superimposed the bar code over some of her paintings of wildflowers, giving a viewer an impression of looking at the flowers through prison bars — a powerful reference to Auschwitz’s legacy.

To her own artwork she’s added her mother’s paintings of suburban homes in pleasant surroundings, all of them shown in isolation, with no people visible or seemingly ever around. As Alter-Muri sees it, these oil paintings raise questions about whether the residents of the houses see the natural landscape around them — a reference to her own experience of seeing homes and nature surrounding the former camp at Auschwitz.

“The Holocaust took place in part because people were indifferent to it or chose to remain unaware,” she said. “What I’m trying to do is look at the way we take a lot of things for granted and the danger that can bring ... what can young people in particular do to become aware of this and make sure genocide doesn’t happen again?”

Aside from some of the more ominous images and reflections she took away from Auschwitz, Alter-Muri also discovered, during a look at the camp’s archives, a tremendous collection of artwork made by inmates, including portraits. As a teacher and lecturer who leads classes on Holocaust art and art made in times of war and political upheaval, she says this was a very uplifting discovery.

“It speaks to resilience and how people try to find meaning in times of terrible pain and suffering,” she said. “And I think the portraits were a way for people to try to hold onto their identity and humanity. Even if you were starving, if someone could draw your portrait, you could say ‘I know I’m human.’ ”

Alter-Muri, who also works as a therapist, using art as a way of counseling people dealing with grief and loss, says a key value of art is ultimately about creating greater understanding and awareness of a subject — something she hopes her exhibit will do — and prompting an emotional response. “There’s a real value to using art as a vehicle for healing,” she said.

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.

“No One is Home: Barcodes, Suburbia and the Holocaust” opens Aug. 1 and runs through Oct. 25 at the Jewish Community of Amherst, 742 Main St. Gallery hours are Tuesdays through Thursdays from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. and Fridays and Sundays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Closed Mondays and Saturdays, and Sundays during August. The exhibit is free. For information, visit www.j-c-a.org or call 256-0160. Simone Alter-Muir’s website is www.simonealter-muri.com.

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