Art brings family to life

Exhibit: A Columbia gallery displays paintings that an artist derived from photographs that survived the Holocaust.

Howard Live

September 23, 2004|By Sandy Alexander | Sandy Alexander,SUN STAFF

Most of Trudy Babchak's family was lost in the Holocaust before she was born, but the Baltimore artist has found them through her paintings.

A series of Babchak's portraits based on family photographs that survived her parents' experiences in Nazi concentration camps, combined with several other portraits and an installation, are on display at the Columbia Association Art Center. The exhibit, Before and After - Wroclaska Family, runs through Oct. 3.

Babchak started out painting literal Holocaust images, which gave way to more personal portraits depicting family members who did not survive.

"I tried to bring them to life," she said of her subjects.

She paints in an expressionistic style that uses bold, colorful strokes in place of highly realistic details. "I try to gather their spirit, rather than their faces," she said.

Babchak said her mother, Mandzia Wroclawski, and her father, Gabriel Wolkowitz, were from Lodz, Poland. Both survived concentration camps and reunited when they returned home and found nobody else they knew.

They married and moved to Germany, where Babchak was born. They moved to the United States when Babchak was 3, settling in Washington, and later, in nearby Langley Park.

Babchak, who earned her bachelor's degree in fine art from the University of Maryland, College Park, became interested in the Holocaust about the same time she started painting more seriously a few years ago.

Before that, she spent nearly 30 years as a commercial artist, making charts and other graphics for the defense industry and eventually becoming an editor of defense-related books.

In the late 1990s, she was laid off and took the opportunity to spend two years studying at the Maryland Institute College of Art. There, she began to search for meaningful topics for her work.

She said she is drawn to themes of loneliness and being an outsider. It is something she has experienced, she said, and something she believes her mother must have felt as a 16-year-old in a concentration camp, even though her mother did not talk about it.

"I try to think what she went through," Babchak said. "I started doing research to find out what she never told me."

At one point, Babchak saw photographs on the Internet made from plates that were found when a building in the Lodz area was razed. One of the pictures was her mother's family portrait, which Babchak had.

Door as a canvas

That picture was the basis for one series in which each family member - including her mother and uncle as children - was painted separately on an 80-inch-high, hollow-core, wooden door that served as a canvas.

Other paintings in the exhibit, including ones of her parents as adults and a self-portrait, focus on faces.

At one end of the gallery are two paintings of more abstract figures flanking a large painting of sorrowful people seated below wispy bodies ascending to heaven.

The last painting was inspired by the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, but fit in with this exhibit, Babchak said.

Telling herself the story

Babchak, who gives her age as mid-50s, works part time as an office facilitator for the art center and paints in her home, which is part of an artists' cooperative in the Washington Hill neighborhood of Baltimore.

Some of her paintings are sold through the Paper Rock Scissors gallery in Baltimore, including many of dancing figures, inspired by a photograph she saw of Jewish children hiding from the Nazis.

Others may not be fully aware of the Holocaust themes in her work, Babchak said, but, "I just want people to take from it what they take from it."

She said she might someday pursue a show at a Jewish museum, but for now, "It's more telling myself the story."

"What is strongest about the work is you don't have to know the story behind it," said Rebecca Bafford, director of the art center. "The emotions come through and [the work] tells its own story.

"I have always admired Trudy's work, and it continues to get stronger and stronger. I was taken aback by the strength of the images and I look forward to having our audience experience that."

Before and After - Wroclaska Family is in the Columbia Association Art Center's main gallery in the Long Reach Village Center, 6100 Foreland Garth, Columbia. The art center is also showing paintings and sculptures by Christina McCleary. Information: 410-730-0075.

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