Words to Light the Dark Places
Winter's dark days often remind us of dark times in our lives. Samuel
Bak, a visual artist and author, and Michael Mack, a poet, have
each lived through years of unimaginable darkness. Each has crafted
his experiences into transcendent art that reaches out with unblinking
Bak, a internationally respected painter and the author of a memoir,
Painted in Words, was seven when his hometown of Vilna, Poland,
came under German occupation. As a Jewish child, he saw his world
changed forever. He and his mother survived the war physically.
He survived spiritually by drawing, drawing constantly what he saw
around him, and ultimately by creating paintings that bear witness
to the unspeakable nightmare of the Holocaust.
Bearing witness is the foundation of Mack's art, too, although his
darkness was more private. He was five when he found his mother
crying uncontrollably, scissors in her hand, her hair cut off, asking,
"Has my face changed? Am I the Blessed Virgin? " It was
the beginning of her battle with schizophrenia that would engulf
"One first and foremost creates for oneself," says Bak.
He is sitting in a yellow room, sunlight streaming in through long
slanted windows of his suburban home. He is gracious, and thoughtful.
"Art communicates on many different levels. You make a choice.
To me to reach out to others may be more important than it is to
Mack's art, also, grew beyond his need to explore his life, to reach
out to others. In a Cambridge coffee shop, his bike parked outside,
he speaks quickly. Between sips of herb tea, his long, expressive
hands underscoring his words, he tells how poetry gave him a way
to make sense out of his experiences.
"It became a therapeutic process, though I didn't set out for
it to be," says Mack. The culmination is his 90-minute performance
piece, Hearing Voices (Speaking in Tongues).
"It's a tremendously healing thing--the art of witness. It
connects me to the world and makes me feel like a human being. It
reconnects me to an important part of my life and the people in
it. But it's not only about witnessing my life; it's about other
people's lives, too. I find a lot of people have never mentioned
their brother, their father, their child to anyone else."
Bak concurs. "I feel it is important for me to speak of my
experiences, maybe to attract attention to what happened, maybe
to explore what happened, and maybe to integrate my fears and apprehensions
and almost my disbelief that I am still around."
When a major exhibit of his work was held in Landsberg am Lech,
a center of Nazi activity during the 1930s and site of the prison
where Hitler wrote Mein Kampf Bak "suddenly realized this was
much bigger than myself. It had somehow grown beyond what I am."
This is the same feeling Mack gets when audiences respond to something
like his description of a Christmas when his father, strapped by
hospital bills, drew a tree on a large piece of paper and hung it
in the kitchen. In his poem, "Holidays in Baltimore, "
he writes, "We gripped markers, stood barefoot/beneath the
tree's gracious branches,/ drew whatever we wanted--// balls, a
pony, bicycle, telescope, airplane, dolls,/ Mama. Whatever we wanted.
"It's variations on a theme," says Mack. "It mirrors
their own experiences, invites them into a dialogue they can carry
with them into their lives and talk about with other people."
Bak's childhood world, by contrast, can be understood by very few.
But the horror of it can be felt by anyone who looks at his paintings
of damaged books and teddy bears, dishes and pears, the uprooted
trees that speak of an uprooted world.
When Bak says his subject chose him, Mack would understand. Bak
writes in his memoir, that he was, "responding to something
that was pushing out from the inside, something visceral.
"And this is how it happens. I am in front of my easel. The
radio plays music, the speaker announces a change in the weather,
and a part of my mind is busy with all sorts of mysterious creative
systems. I feel like an obedient servant who is doing what the painting
Samuel Bak's paintings can be seen at the Pucker Gallery in Boston.
Michael Mack will present Hearing Voices (Speaking in Tongues) at
the Boston Center for the Arts during the first three weeks of May,
National Mental Health Month. Read more about Michael Mack at: www.michaelmacklive.com
Ellen Steinbaum can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
You can see past City Type columns at www.ellensteinbaum.com.