Minneapolis artist David Feinberg is fighting the good fight — the one about defeating evil. But that doesn't mean he's drawing Superman saving the world. He does it through his "Voice to Vision" project, working with survivors of genocide to tell their stories through art.
"I'm not an art therapist, but I am going deeply into memory," he said. "For me to make a form I don't understand, you teach me and I'll work on an image to get it done."
Feinberg recently retired from the University of Minnesota, where he taught art for 50 years. A retrospective of his vast practice is currently on view at the university's Nash Gallery through Dec. 11.
Walking through this exhibition feels like wandering through someone's packed basement, filled to the brim with sculpture, painting, collage and videos.
His career follows three phases, much like a three-act play, winding up with the "Voice to Vision" work he's done for almost 20 years now.
Feinberg started out as an abstract painter, but shifted into more representational work around 1975. He thought abstraction had become too easy, too much like design. Frustrated by the process, he started vigorously editing and painting over the course of six months, until it transformed into something that reflected deeper emotional and personal issues.
He didn't do it on purpose — like all things for Feinberg, it just happened as he went with the flow.
"I believe that all my art — every decision — comes from 'unexpected significance,'" he said. "Which means I don't have a plan in mind, but I just talk and make marks until something shows up."
In his 3-D wall-construction "America" (1998), a black dog, a woman's face and an urban fire escape with brick pillars all come to life. It was inspired by a journey to New York he took with his fiancée to visit his dying father, who also appears in the artwork (titled for a ship that Feinberg visited during a fishing trip with his brother).
"My father was playing cards in the left-hand corner and he is dropping a five of clubs," he said. "That became a symbol of death for me because he died shortly thereafter."
Releasing the stories
"Voice to Vision," which he would start four years later, digs deeper into the personal and political. But even this project came from his life experience.
"I lived in a neighborhood [the Midwood section of Brooklyn] with a lot of Holocaust survivors," he said. "I started to do imagery of World War II and other tragedies such as Buddy Holly and Amelia Earhart," both victims of plane crashes. "Then I realized I wanted to meet people that were alive and do this firsthand."
He rang Stephen Feinstein, who was then the director of Holocaust and Genocide Studies at the U, and explained he was doing art about the Holocaust and wanted to speak with living people.
The project has since expanded to include other genocide survivors, including Vietnamese, Hmong, Iranian Kurds, Armenians, Ethiopians, Tibetans and Rwandans.
David Harris, executive director of Rimon, the Minnesota Jewish Arts Council, worked on a "Voice to Vision" project pairing a Romanian couple who survived the Holocaust with two sisters who went through the Rwandan genocide.
"David puts artists into the center of life, away from the margins," said Harris. "He has made himself such a resource for the community, and created relationships that would never have existed — and he's done it over and over again.
"His work creates a ripple effect."
In 2010, Feinberg reached out to the Armenian community to find descendants of genocide survivors. Beth Warner, the granddaughter of a survivor, stepped forward.
"It was really hard growing up being Armenian," said Warner, who is a cousin of Star Tribune Managing Editor Suki Dardarian. "No one knew about the genocide, or where the country was."
Warner wound up creating a mixed-media work called "Niagara Falls 1912," a blue painting with a splash of yellow swooping through a photocopy of the Statue of Liberty — signifying light in a dark time. In the statue's crown, she inserted the Armenian Genocide memorial, located on a hill overlooking Armenia's capital, Yerevan. Curvy cursive text represents "Louie's," a restaurant that Warner's grandma, Anna Dardarian, ran in Niagara Falls, N.Y.
For Warner, the experience of sharing — made possible by Feinberg, who filmed her during the process of creating the work — led to healing.
"It was validating the importance of the impact on my grandparents and my ancestors on my life," she said. "There is something really powerful about being seen and heard."
David Feinberg: Divide Up Those in Darkness From the Ones Who Walk in Light
Where: Nash Gallery at Regis Center for Art, 405 21st Av. S., Mpls.
When: 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Tue. & Fri., 11-7 p.m. Wed.-Thu., 11-3 Sat. Ends Dec. 11.
Info: 612-625-8096 or cla.umn.edu/art