In addition, even the most sophisticated artist is limited to drawing outlines when working with a needle and thread. No seamstress, however gifted, can capture the myriad subtle human expressions or gradations of color available to a portraitist working with pencil or paint brush.
As a result, the tapestries appear innocent and almost childlike, regardless of the artist's age and disposition — an impression that hits viewers with an extra wallop. How, we wonder, can someone so vulnerable have survived?
Wellesley University professor Marjorie Agosin has written books about folk art created during wartime.
She said that storytelling tapestries can be found worldwide. They include three-dimensional arpilleras that depict family members who were "disappeared" during Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet's regime, memorial quilts created by Sarajevo women, and throws stitched during the Vietnam War on which Hmong artisans embroidered scenes of mass executions in rice paddies.
"A lot of women use something familiar and domestic to communicate a narrative of horror," Agosin says.
"Because women's access to artistic expression has historically been limited, they've felt the most comfortable creating with cloth. They use elements and techniques they are familiar with such as embroidery and stitchery to create something subversive and radically new."
But as painful as the tapestries can be, the reaction they set off in viewers is emotionally complex. As Esther and Mania have one narrow escape after another, it's difficult not to marvel at the courage and intelligence of these two young girls outsmarting the Nazis.
In 1942, for instance, the girls arrived in the village of Grabowka at nightfall. Sleeping in the woods would have made it appear that they were hiding. So Esther persuaded the terrified Mania that they had to ask for help from the sheriff, though the man would have been obligated to report suspected Jews to the Nazis. Instead, he found both girls places to stay.
Another day, two Nazi guards who were attempting to question Esther at the farm where she worked were driven away by a swarm of bees.
After Grabowka was liberated by the Russian infantry in July 1944, the sisters eventually made their way to the U.S and gratefully sank into ordinary life. As the years passed, Krinitz told her daughters stories from her childhood and about family members they would never meet.
But when she turned 50, she began to long for a more concrete expression.
"Once she realized that she could tell her story through sewing, she never stopped," Steinhardt says. "She always had a picture in progress. During the last 10 years of her life, she made 34 pictures. It had become an essential thing for her, to introduce the family that she had come from to the family that she created."
If you go
"The Art of Storytelling: Lies, Enchantment, Humor & Truth" runs through Sept. 1, 2013 at the American Visionary Art Museum, 800 Key Highway. Admission costs $16 for adults; $10 for children 7 and older; $14 for seniors 60 and older. Call 410-244-1900 or go to avam.org.
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