My mom gives me a plastic bag of odds and ends nearly every time I see her. Newspaper clippings, coupons, her copy of the DuPage Conservationist, random items she finds from my past. Sometimes there are old cards that I drew, or pictures from art contests at the local grocery store. So strong are my memories of choosing colors and shapes on these drawings that I am transported, remembering every stroke and thought during the composition of these creations.
Art is this special thing humans do to express one’s soul. My friend’s mother was born at Manzanar, one of 10 American internment camps established in 1942 out of fear of people of Japanese heritage. At Manzanar, one of the 110,000 interned was Kiyotsugo Tsuchiyas, my friend’s grandfather, the former head of the Chicago Harding Museum. While interned, he created the Visual Education Museum at the camp, a place for people who had been removed from their businesses, their livelihood, their farms, their gardens, their lives, to have a voice again and express themselves.
Last summer we hosted a Garage Gallery site in our garage. It featured the demanding 8-foot shark, painted by my brother, Keith Lukowski; pieces of art by my father-in-law, Bob Wagner, with a looping video of him discussing his process, and a quietly powerful local folk artist, Nancy Pilarczyk, who creates statues and figurines that each have a mortal vulnerability and humility.
Things have changed in a year. This summer Keith and I said goodbye to our big brother Neal, whose bold echoes are sometimes expressed through us. A month later, actually this past week, we said goodbye to Bob, Ned’s dad, who also had his own playbook — irreverent but with undeniable goodwill.
We met with Rabbi Kenneth Reeves last Tuesday to share stories for the eulogy — which means good words — for Robert Wagner. Sitting in his visually explosive living room, with a wide view to the north of the Chicago skyline, Lake Michigan to the east, and everywhere else, to the south and west, on every square inch of wall space, from floor to ceiling, across every vertical surface throughout the entire unit is Bob’s gallery of soul-filled story after story.
After an hour and a half of hearing about his love for his children, his work at Manteno State Hospital, sharing rooms in his home with people who were managing mental illnesses, subsequently creating possibly one of the first community residential programs for unrelated adults with mental illness in our state (and having the wounds of court battles to prove it) and after dusting off a few old family tests, Rabbi Reeves asked about his art.
Not one of us had mentioned his art because it was his final chapter. It all was created after 60, reflecting a life so challenged, so determined, so soulful that, once it found an outlet, it came pouring out. Piece by piece, in sculpture, in paint, on driveways, in the building storage, in books, in clippings, in aphorisms, on canvas, in any form that he could muster.
When the Rabbi was leaving, standing in the hall, his eye caught a glimpse of one canvas, heavily layered with deep, undulating paint. In the corner is affixed a mezuzah (a small container with a scroll usually affixed to a doorpost of a home), and inverted “Auschwitz” and “Birkenau”), plus additional Hebrew characters on the painting. The Rabbi remarked on the painting’s discord and how everything was upside-down. As we looked closer, we discovered the painting had been strung in both directions, to be placed on a wall in either direction, a conceptual piece which mysteriously, in that moment, moved all of us.
Art, one of our most precious human gifts, is celebrated in Forest Park this weekend throughout the alleys in Garage Galleries. Walking from garage to garage, full of possibility, rather than fear, it is truly an event that we all should be proud to have in our own backyard.