Rfotofolio is pleased to share the work and words of Keron Psillas. Her work exemplifies the concept that art can make a difference, bringing beauty from a dark and horrific past, sharing it in a way that no matter what our “tribe” we can relate, remember and resolve to bring light where darkness falls.
Keron, please tell us little about yourself.
I was born and raised in Shepherdstown, WV, a college town about an hour northwest of Washington DC in beautiful rolling countryside. I raised my family, had a printing and binding business there for 15 years, and made it my home until I was 44 and moved to Seattle, Washington to become the Director of the Art Wolfe Digital Photography Center.
There I had the best photographic education imaginable. I was tasked with bringing the finest photographic educators to Seattle for week-long intensive workshops. For two years I assisted Sam Abell, Arthur Meyerson, Jay Maisel, Freeman Patterson, Nevada Weir, Greg Gorman, and many other masters of their craft. I soaked in as much as I possibly could. After leaving Seattle I continued to assist Sam and Arthur in workshops at the Pacific Northwest Art School and in various other places, and now lead and co-teach classes and tours with each of them. I will always be indebted to Art Wolfe for the opportunity, as well as, the example of his childlike curiosity, work ethic, and graphic sensibility. Sam’s spare visual aesthetic and poetry along with Arthur’s intuitive understanding of the dynamic color moment continue to be my touchstones for creating good work. As I said, I’ve had the best education imaginable and I am deeply grateful.
How did you get started in photography?
I began making photographs when I was traveling in the winters in 2003-2005. I made images to recall the places I’d been, the places I had been reading about, and finally visiting. Until then, the only thought I had about photography was to document the lives of my son, my niece, and my stepson.
I do not have a formal art background, though I have been a student of art, particularly oil painting, since my early 20’s. I think that most of what I feel, or see, when I photograph, comes from all I took in while (informally) studying painting for those years. I still visit ‘old friends’ in museums when I am passing through various cities. It is deeply meaningful to me. I continue to gather visual inspiration from the worlds of literature, music, dance, sculpture, and painting.
While traveling in Europe in late 2010, I saw a sign for Bergen-Belsen. I was able to visit at that time, though unable to make a photograph that had any meaning other than a record of what I saw. I was confronted by the beauty of a glorious fall day with reds and golds and yellows topped by a piercingly blue sky. Where was the black and white scene that I carried in my mind? Where was the smoke, the uniforms and rags, the scent of death, and the din of shouting and barking dogs over wailing and sorrowful moaning? I left the camp struck dumb, creatively and consciously.
Later, in the town of Celle, I discovered a Stolpersteine, a stumbling block. The Stolpersteines are created by the artist, Gunter Demnig, to remind people of the victims of the Holocaust. Small, square bronze markers are put in front of buildings and homes where victims were taken from and deported to ghettos and extermination camps. Their names, their birthdates, and their dates of death, when known, are recorded on the Stolpersteine. This project showed me that as a non-Jew there could be an appropriate and authentic way for me to express my response to the destruction and horror.
All during the next year, as I was devouring information, memoirs and histories of the victims, I read a book by Hannelore Brenner, titled “The Girls of Room 28”. A few young women, aged 12-14, who survived, told stories about their time in Theresienstadt. They are stories of hunger, loss and suffering, loneliness and fear. But many of their strongest memories are moments of joy and happiness. The joy most often came when they were engaged in a creative act. Painting, drawing, singing, performing, even just attending plays and concerts . . . . sustained them. It might not even be too much to say that these things fed them. Another survivor of Theresiendstadt, Alice Herz-Sommer, the famed pianist, said as much in her biography. So I decided to return to Eastern Europe and undertake a project in earnest. I wanted to find a way to say something authentic about the horror I perceived and the destruction and loss that is evident at every turn. And then I discovered that I could see beauty in even the darkest places. That was shocking to me. I didn’t know what to do with that . . . . but the “Girls in Room 28” showed me the way.
What compelled you to do this?
Because I believe that we don’t understand, as a species, that our propensity to ‘other’ ourselves, to create artificial differences, allows us to perpetrate horrific crimes on one another. You need only turn on the news each day to hear of atrocities and crimes created by hate, ignorance, and mummified dogma. I am not trying to teach anything. I am not qualified. But I do believe it is appropriate for me to question and to seek a greater understanding. My way to do this was to create the images.
What do I hope the viewer takes from the images?
I hope that viewers will engage the conversation that I perceived as I began to create the composites. The single images were fine, and a few were deeply compelling. But it is the conversation, the narrative that is even more compelling to me. It is possible to imagine victim and aggressor in the images simultaneously. Yet it is the journey of the victims of the Holocaust that is important to me. If we don’t understand that their lives, before the War, were the same as ours, we will never understand what was lost. After my visit to the shtetls north of Cracow, or the villages that were shtetls, the impact of the loss was made clearer than ever. Entire communities and an entire way of life was destroyed. By targeting the leaders of communities as well as artists, educators, and church leaders (both Catholic and Jewish), the Nazis aim was to create an entirely subjugated populace. Without the structure or pillars of the community, they knew their job (dominance and extermination) would be easier. But what was created in Theresienstadt, from the understanding of community leaders of what is truly important (youth, culture, education and love), is a lesson for us today. This determination to provide as much of a community as possible, to benefit the young, gave purpose and the strength needed to survive. This sustained a precious few individuals, just as a single light can dispel darkness.
Why does this matter?
Because I want to live in a better world. I think many others do as well. And because in the words of Roman Kent, survivor from Auschwitz: “We, the survivors, do not want our past to be our children’s future.” I will be continuing the project, developing Part II, because this conversation must continue.
Please tell us about your Kickstarter and your work with author Hannelore Brenner-Wonschik.
Hannelore has asked me to collaborate with her and have my work included in her traveling exhibition. It was seen in several locations last year across Europe and now has a permanent home in Brasil.
She will be writing the introduction to the Catalog that will accompany the traveling exhibition. (Which I am overjoyed about!!!)
We envision a mutually supportive network . . . and will create the structure when we meet in Berlin on June 1. This is a dream come true for me as the book, “The Girls of Room 28”, has been my constant source of inspiration and my spiritual and moral guide throughout my work on the project. To think that the women who are still with us will see my work has me moved me so. There are only tears, even as I write this.
My Kickstarter will fund the exhibitions, printing, mats and framing for exhibitions on two continents for now . . . and production of the initial catalog run.
To learn more about the work of Keron please visit her site, Loss and Beauty.
You may order a copy of Keron’s book here, Loss and Beauty Book.
To learn more about The Girls in Room 28 please visit, The Room 28 Project.