Paintings in Lori Schreiner's River Gallery focus on Syrian children
By Maggie Cassidy Special to the Reformer
"In August there was a picture that was all over the internet, of Omran Daqneesh," Schreiner recalled in a recent interview. "It was a photo by Mahmoud Raslan photograph from the Aleppo Media Center. I saw it on TV, and I was very moved by it, especially given the climate we were in at that point. The boy looked very much like my little brother when I was growing up, so it struck me that any of us could be in that position. I had a strong feeling that we needed to understand what was going on the world, and he was my touchstone."
After Schreiner saw Omran on television, she found a photo, and in the months that followed, she painted several portraits of him based on the photo.
"I kept that picture of Amran with me for five or six months and painted portraits of different aspects of him that came to me as I looked at the picture," she said. "What I've found in doing this kind of work is that it's very spiritual and kind of meditative. You're looking at the picture and kind of channeling a response to it."
She also researched the situation in Aleppo, discovering photos of other children in other refugee camps and watching a video called "Goodbye Aleppo."
"It shows how people were living in this bombed-out city — their humanity and also the white helmets who would come in to try to help," she said. "Volunteers would wear white helmets — they would go and dig out survivors and bring them to the aid stations."
As she painted, Schreiner kept a journal, and a poem based on her journal accompanies the paintings in the exhibit at the River Gallery on Main Street in Brattleboro.
An excerpt from the poem:
If I paint you
over and over
we have failed you...
This series of portraits is not Schreiner's first experience painting traumatized children.
"I did a book on children of the Holocaust, called "Painting Czeslawa Kwoka, Honoring Children of the Holocaust," she said. "That was a collaboration with the poems of Theresa Sunato Edwards — I did the paintings and she did the poems."
Schreiner has found that these paintings strike a powerful chord with her own family's experience, as members of her family were also refugees from Nazi Germany.
"My great-grandfather on my mother's was a painter in churches, and he was also a politician in the Kaiser's party against the Nazis," she commented. "His children — my grandfather and his siblings — would go out at night in the '30s with chains and have brawls with the Nazis. They broke up meetings, but that became very dangerous because Hitler became stronger, and he was going after his political opponents.
"So that family came over piece by piece when my mother was about four," she went on. "The family that was left behind, including my mother's maternal grandmother, were bombed by the Allies. They lived near a railroad and it was strategic, so they were bombed by the Allies and died.
"So that reality has been in my family," she concluded. "They were political refugees — they fled and came to America, and it was difficult."
She found that painting the portraits of Syrian children was challenging as they resonated with her family's history.
"I found myself crying while I was painting," she recalled. "This was about a year of work, but this was something I needed to complete, and I kept on until I did."
After the exhibit ends at the beginning of July, Schreiner will be showing some paintings as part of a group show accompanying the work of Carol Boyes in the next River Gallery exhibit, entitled Refugees — Bearing Witness. Furthermore, Schreiner is considering publishing some of her recent work.
"The idea that's coming to me is to do a book combining paintings and poetry and narrative about my own family heritage and also other responses to the work," she said. "It brought up a lot about my own family and the struggles they had, and I'm sure a lot of other people also have that somewhere in their family line — family members who were dislocated."
Maggie Cassidy, a frequent contributor to the Reformer, can be contacted at email@example.com.
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