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Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Murals, Medicine and the Holocaust

When I was young we had a print of Picasso's Guernica on our dining room wall. The print was approximately 2 1/2 feet by 5 feet. At six years of age I would eat my Frosted Flakes cereal and study anguish. Have you ever stared at Guernica? I vividly remember being beaten by my father and seeing the painting on the wall. While the welts rose on my legs and the switch danced through the air I saw a kind of compassion in the piece. It was a sense of shared suffering. As I grew older and learned of the history of the painting I became very interested in Nazi Germany's atrocities including the Holocaust. I read The Diary of Anne Frank and any other books about the Holocaust I could find. As is often the case, my reading was affecting my art.

In eighth grade I turned in a pen and ink drawing to my instructor. It depicted bald emaciated men, women, and children in loose gowns in front of a swastika. My art teacher told me I needed to do more image research. My figures looked far more like cancer patients in hospital gowns than concentration camp inmates. Life is like a circle: thoughts go round and round. Here I sit, 25 years later, thinking about Guernica, patients' rights, and the Holocaust.

Not long ago I had the pleasure of seeing Atul Gawande speak about his new book, The Checklist Manifesto. He praised the lifesaving abilities of the checklist. He pointed to the success of using this simple device in aviation and engineering. He went onto cite cases of lives saved by a short surgical checklist. A checklist can make you pause, communicate better, and remove panic from a stressful situation.

My late husband Fred and I once talked a great deal about lists. In 1993 we were married. On one of our newlywed dates we saw Schindler's List. Fred was a huge Steven Spielberg fan, and this film was a critically acclaimed masterpiece. We discussed the movie endlessly. We loved the visual motif of a list that carried through the whole film. The same list that depersonalized the Jewish people and made it easy for the soldiers to treat them as non-human was used by Schindler to save their lives. Therein lies the power of lists. Lists can take away the panic from tragedy and the humanity from the powerless. Lists can do amazing things, but we must remember why we use them.

In Late May I wrote a list with Fred. It looked like a grocery list:

1. Get rid of the car. Get the title. Sell car.
2. Regina needs to get a driver's license
3. Pal Bearers:
David- Yes
Jeff- no
Chris- Yes
Greg- Yes
Alex- Yes
Jon- Yes
4. Plot in Grantsville
20, 21, 22, 23 or 24 available?
5. Go see a movie every year on my birthday

That is it. That is the list that Fred and I made the day after he had decided to go into hospice. Five things that we needed to do while dying. The list was calm and achievable. The reasons for the list were beyond comprehension. So Fred lay in his bed. His parents sat at his side and I listed the goals for the funeral and our life. It was a "to-do" list or a "check" list. It reminded me of so many grocery lists that had come before it. It was stability in a world of chaos.

And so my thoughts bleed on the canvas of my life as I think of Guernica and lists. 73 cents is my personal Guernica. The art that came before it was pretty and fun. This is my hue and cry. Pablo Picasso painted Guernica in 1937 as an accusation and warning. He decided to take a stand. He decided art was more than pretty pictures. Tomorrow I will once again speak before members of Congress and share our tale. I will speak of kidney cancer, the uninsured, and patients' rights. I hope to open eyes.

Murals, medicine and the Holocaust; these turn in circles in my mind. In closing I want to know if you have heard of a muralist named Dina Babbitt. She was 21 years old and imprisoned in Auschwitz concentration camp. One day the prisoner in charge of the children's barracks asked her to paint a picture. She painted Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs from memory, so children could see some happiness before they died. She was caught painting the scene and could have been executed. Josef Mengele saw the quality of her work and instead forced her to paint for him.

This is the power of art: art can save lives and change lives. But we must remember why it is we paint. I think of those children in Auschwitz staring at a painting of Snow White, and I wonder if they found compassion in that painting as I found in the painting Guernica?


  1. I got to stand for hours in front of the real thing. Incredible. It's massive. so powerful. Impossible to avoid or ignore. Just like you. Not that I'd ever want to.
    Love, Courtney

  2. Love Guernica, but alas I have never seen it in person...

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