Oak Bay artist considers her work to be good therapy
To deal with the loss of female relatives killed in the Holocaust, Hinda Avery makes the atrocity creative.
The retired Oak Bay resident paints the women in her life as Nazi resistance fighters, eerily grinning caricatures in bright colours surrounded by Nazi soldiers.
Her paintings, currently on display in the Martin Batchelor Gallery, are massive and feature the ‘Rosen Women’ smiling through situations of horror and pain.
Avery sees herself as an advocate for social justice, but doesn’t think she can speak publicly well and isn’t the type to campaign. Instead she finds solace through ‘art therapy.’
“That’s therapy, to be out there opposing injustice, to be painting politically.”
The inspiration for the paintings stemmed from two old photographs and a family tragedy.
Avery grew up in Vancouver and says her family was always haunted by the Holocaust, after her grandmother and aunt were killed in concentration camps. Her mother, who left Poland for Canada before the beginning of the Second World War, rarely talked about it.
“She would never say murdered, or brutally murdered, or gassed, I think that was too painful for her to even imagine,” Avery says. “So she would say the family perished in the war.”
Avery, 71, spent her whole working life as a teacher, but it wasn’t until she retired that she found a way to express her grief.
She visited former concentration camps in 2005, but found no record of her aunt and grandmothers’ deaths. She saw a lot of memorials commemorating people who had died, but nothing for her family. So she made a cloth banner with the faces of her grandmother, aunt, late mother and herself.
“My only way of connecting with them would be visually, by making a visual project.”
She started drawing the four women in serious poses, then switched to painting and became captivated by the female resistance fighters who stood up to the Nazis. Her artwork began to change.
Avery copies all the faces from two old family photographs dug up by a relative in Toronto. Her initial work was very faithful to her family’s likenesses, out of respect, but she says she also felt limited.
“I felt I needed to be respectful and serious,” she says, but being respectful didn’t let her distort the images. By distancing herself from the reality of the Holocaust, she could be more creative and “do whatever I wanted with them.”
She slowly added more female relatives and friends – people who weren’t victims of the Holocaust – and took out her grandmother and aunt. These faces are the ones featured in her newest work, which is not as serious, but darkly humorous. The paintings still show the Rosen Women smiling as they’re rounded up by the Nazis, but also in other settings such as Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside.
In several of the pieces, they also carry guns.
In a binder are open-ended questions Avery likes to ask herself about who the Rosen Women really represent.
She doesn’t like having to advertise the paintings, and has never made any money off of them. She also realizes the paintings can be disturbing.
“Nobody would hang this in their living room,” she says, laughing.
However, local filmmaker Billy Wong has already made one film about her art, and another is in the works. They tell the story of Avery’s work, but also feature the Rosen Women – moving and animated – almost like cartoons.
The response to her work has been diverse. One woman was so moved she cried, but gallery owner Martin Batchelor said the negative response has come from people who feel the Holocaust has been “overdone.”
While the theme is familiar, he was struck by how she approached it.
“It’s a different take on the Holocaust, not just historical remembrance,” he says.
Avery flips the binder to a print of the Rosen Women being interrogated and captured.
“Although their arms are up, they’re still kind of dancing, in this one, and being rounded up. But they’re not worried, they’re not scared. They’re not victims.”
The Rosen Women paintings can be viewed at the Martin Batchelor Gallery, 712 Cormorant St., Monday to Saturday 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Call 250-385-7919 for more information.