|"Reflections and Repercussions" -- the memoirs of Si Lewen||
The foregoing may seem complete (“end of the story”), but it was not. Much was yet to happen when I decided to end this memoir sometime in 1989. By this time even the title had gone through many permutations: From Exile to Selfportrait to Misfit to Echoes, Reflections and Repercussions to, finally, its present title. But it is the events after 1989 that mattered and seemed to demand a voice.
That voice, one late evening (December 1999) was Rennie’s - moaning, retching – evidently in sever pain. I called “Emergency”, followed the ambulance to Kingston Hospital and found Rennie halfconscious, a tube in her nostrils, and attached to wires leading to a monitor. Trying to make sense of the various electronic waves pulsing along, I became alarmed when one appeared to turn ever weaker. The nurse I summoned took one look and sounded some “blue” alarm. A team of specialist appeared and after considerable effort stabilized Rennie who, evidently, her heart failing, had come close to death.
After midnight, transferred to a regular hospital room, and Rennie seemingly better, I returned home in a daze. Early the next morning I was back at the hospital, but found the room, Rennie had occupied, empty. Expecting the worst I rushed to the Nurses Station. “Your wife was taken to ICU (Intensive Care Unit) during the night” and taking my arm to steady me, brought me to where she was lying, seemingly in a coma, attached to a breathing machine. “Oh, my darling, my sweetheart” I cried out as now two nurses tried to steady and comfort me. Rennie could no longer breathe on her own – her esophagus punctured, stomach contents pushing into her lung cavity and pressing on her heart.
Day after day, all day, I watched, especially that monitor, and once again I saw, horrified, that collapsing warning sign and called for help, another “blue” alarm, the special team, again slowly bringing Rennie back from the almost dead. After that last episode, I came prepared – with a razor blade in my wallet- should Rennie die, I would lock myself into the nearest toilet and cut my wrists. I could not and would not live without Rennie, my beloved Rennie.
However, after one week on the breathing machine, another two weeks in ICU, declared sufficient stabilized to return to a regular hospital room, and after surgery to repair the tear in her esophagus, Rennie was finally released from the hospital two months after she entered it. “You are a tough old broad”, one of the nursed told her. Tough indeed, discarding the walker to help her walk, but I would wake nights to see Rennie walking about, not knowing where, as though in a trance. “I don’t know what’s happening with me” she kept repeating.
“Alzheimer”, was the medical diagnosis, “probably brought on by lack of sufficient oxygen when she was on the breathing machine”. “Alzheimer?” I couldn’t believe or accept it, and realizing that from now on it was up to me alone to do all shopping, cooking, cleaning, house and garden chores and particularly caring for Rennie. There would be no more time or energy for much else, even my art.
After several years I realized that I could no longer manage and take care of all that I had taken on. At around that time (perhaps 2005 or ’06) plans were announced of a Retirement Center to be built in New Paltz. “We have come to a momentous decision” I Emailed friends and relatives “we intend to sell our house and relocate to Woodland Pond” (the Retirement Center). A “momentous” but unavoidable decision indeed, and I proceeded to put our house up for sale.
Trying to determine what of our many belongings, accumulated over a lifetime, to take (into what was bound to be much smaller quarters) or discard, I suddenly remembered the literally thousands of paintings, accumulating and overflowing my basement studio. Warehousing, would of course be the obvious solution, but impossible, considering the astronomical cost this would entail because, specifically, the required insurance for “fine art”.
There could only be one inevitable solution – I had to get rid of “that stuff”, yes, have it all hauled away to the nearest dump. I could see no other way out. Actually, the more I thought about it, the more I came to accept it as the rather natural ultimate solution to what I had come to consider my art – not a product but process – evolving, changing, recycling, finally even into the stuff garbage is made of. “Never!” Rennie, my daughters and grandsons had protested when, some years before, I had informed them of what to do upon my death, none of them realizing the enormous cost of warehousing.
A skeptic, a “God fearing Atheist” (as I would, occasionally, acknowledge) is not supposed to believe in anything as unbelievable as “miracles”. Yet, how was I to account for the many “strange coincidences” and the times I survived against all odds. And so it appeared as yet another “strange coincidence” or “miracle” when in the midst of trying to decide when and where to move my “stuff” to the nearest garbage dump, Nina and Richard came visiting together with their friends Ted and Sue Wachtel. I had met the Wachtels before who, over the years, had acquired several of my paintings. Nina and Richard were not only good friends with the Wachtels but also on the board of a Foundation belonging to IIRP (International Institute of Restorative Practices) of which Ted Wachtel was the President.
After a lengthy inspection of the contents of my studio, paintings piled to the rafters, Ted offered that one of IIRP’s Foundations would take over my work – all of it. A last minute reprieve, a miracle? And so, on a hot August day 2006, two trucks and one enormous moving van arrived, together with a contingent of “movers”, led by Ted, and after two days of backbreaking labor hauled away my life’s work for safekeeping, ultimately to see the light of day, exhibition and distribution. I felt a great, and grateful, sense of relief – yes, it would have been a pity had my life’s work ended up in a garbage dump. Not only was my work saved, but I realized that the mission of IIRP – to “restore”, as I interpreted, “the dignity of, especially, troubled youngsters”, fitted well with what could be interpreted as my artistic endeavors “restoring the human primacy” to contemporary art.
My work saved, we could now proceed – selling our house and moving. However, with Woodland Pond probably still many years before its actual construction, Nina suggested that we move to one of several Retirement Communities near her in Ambler, Pennsylvania. It would also bring us close to the Foundation (in Doylestown) and my stored work.. It seemed as the only possible solution, even though we would miss New Paltz, where we had lived a good and important part of our life, as well as our friends, the mountains and the college.
While Nina proceeded to inspect Retirement Communities in her vicinity, finally deciding on Foulkeways, a Quaker Community in Gwynedd, a few minutes from Ambler, we sold our house and car and with the help of our daughters began packing, discarding and giving away most of what we had accumulated in a long lifetime. More than thirty large trashbags were hauled off to the local garbage dump, but not a single painting. On July 27, 2007, Vivian drove us to our final destination, Foulkeways at Gwynedd, where Rennie and I were to spend whatever remained of our lives.
The smaller of two bedrooms became my new “studio”, one of the two bathrooms provided extra storage for what turned, in the following years, into a virtual deluge of ever more and new works. All the pent up energy and images which I had been unable to realize previously, now seemed to burst forth, no longer stymied by any household chores. New paintings and triptychs followed each other, but especially new serials – the Ghost, Homage to Rodin and the Adam series, as well as adding, in particular, to the Ecce Homo series. Our travel, even socializing days at an end, and disregarding Sundays and holydays, I worked as though there might be no tomorrow. I ignored most of the many activities Foulkeways offered, always having been a very private, even reclusive person and never having felt comfortable in any institution – whether school, some company, the army, or any organization.
The Foundation, having taken charge of my work, began the arduous task of reviving the career I had abandoned more than twenty years before. Most importantly, in 2009, The Si Lewen Museum was established in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. What also helped the restoration of my career may have been The Ritchie Boys, a WWII documentary by the German producer Christian Bauer. The film chronicles the Intelligence, Interrogation and Psychological Warfare activities by mostly former German refugees. Aside from documenting my task of persuading German soldiers to surrender, the film also featured, most prominently, my art about war and Holocaust. Released in 2003, the film continued, unabated, to garner world-wide audiences, awards and unending responses to my art. “Recognition” which I had always dreaded, became unavoidable. Fortunately, it came toward the end of a long life.
“You saved my life” Rennie would, occasionally, remind her husband. “Yes, but you also saved mine” I would respond. In 1938, when we first met, unable to adjust and face life after the Central Park “incident” ,I did indeed scheme to “end it once and for all” (but without appearing a suicide). “Yes, we saved each other” we would agree and rejoice in our many years together. If not “God sent”, it was fate that brought us together and sustained us.
My life’s work - especially with my work in safe hands - seemed to be done. Convinced that in a “cycling and recycling Universe” (remembering my former existence in Prague) I may be bound for yet another visit, I wonder what I may find next time. Rennie and a kinder, gentler world? I hope so.
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