Artist’s Work Invites Your Questions

Steve Charles — I was in Wabash College’s Fine Arts Center writing about the upcoming art exhibition — “The Art of the Question: The Paintings of Samuel Bak” — when two women who were not supposed to be there walked into the room.
One of the women is a friend of mine, and as she gazed around the gallery at the paintings she exclaimed, “How beautiful!”
I looked at her, wondering whether to tell her the painter was a Holocaust survivor.
“Oh, such deep colors,” she said. “And the shapes and figures seem to flow across the canvas.”
The woman she’d walked in with was also taken with the art. She was examining one in which the human subject seemed to have been swept away, leaving behind only a disembodied suit.
“It’s as if the painter is removing himself from the scene, the way an artist steps away from a painting as he works,” she said.
I just had to tell them the story.
“The artist was born in Poland just before the Holocaust,” I said. “When he was nine years old, his father was sent to a labor camp and he and his mother were hidden for a time in a Benedictine monastery before being sent to that same camp.”
Now I had their attention.
“On the day that 250 children were murdered in that camp by the Nazis, Samuel’s father smuggled him out in a bag of sawdust. Samuel and his mother escaped. His father was shot along with all the other laborers 10 days before the camp was liberated by the Allies. Samuel and his mother were the only members of their family to survive.”
The women’s mouths were open, but they were silent. Then they politely thanked me for telling them the story. My friend whispered something to me, and they left.
It wasn’t until they’d walked out the door that I realized I had just done to them the very thing I despise others doing to me when I look at art for the first time. I had heard their initial reactions to the work, dismissed their remarks as naive, and given them the education they needed to see the paintings as I did.
These were a Holocaust survivor’s artistic response to despicable acts, to the pivotal human tragedy of the 20th century, I thought. How could these women see beauty here?
Then I recalled that I had come to the gallery before the show opened, in part, to look at the paintings by myself; to come to my own conclusions. Wabash Dean Gary Phillips, who has published books about Bak’s work, told me that he wanted to hear what people saw for themselves in these works — without a teacher, a scholar, or a danged writer looking over their shoulders. Before they knew the artist’s story and what the paintings are “supposed” to be about.
Bak himself has said, “I am an artist who mostly asks questions and rarely offers answers.”
He and Gary want to know what questions these works evoke in us.
I’d gone to the gallery that day to ask my own questions. But I couldn’t. I’d interviewed Gary, who had studied Bak for years. So I knew what I was supposed to see. And I certainly couldn’t look beyond the sorrow of Samuel Bak’s story to find anything beautiful.
But those two women had.
That’s when I remembered what my friend had whispered to me as she left the gallery that afternoon. This woman, who had lived through the dictatorship of Idi Amin while growing up in Uganda, told me, “Each of those millions of people had their own talents, just as this man has. Millions of talents were lost. What would our world be like if they had lived?”
As I was walked home down the tracks that pass behind the Fine Arts Center, I realized that these women had done as Gary had hoped. Thanks to them, I’m finally coming up with my own questions.
So in this column in which I’m supposed to tell you all the reasons you ought to see “The Art of the Question: The Paintings of Samuel Bak,” I’ll say nothing more. In fact, try to forget what I’ve told you here. Just please come. Tell us what you see, not what you think you’re supposed to see. Our thoughts must be more than the echoes of someone else’s thinking.
Take advantage of this chance on Monday to meet one of the most important painters of the 20th and 21st centuries. Tell him the questions his paintings raise for you. From what I’ve read of the man and seen of his work, he’d love to hear them.
"The Art of the Question: The Paintings of Samuel Bak," opens today, March 2, in the Eric Dean Gallery of the Fine Arts Center at Wabash.  An opening reception and conversations with Samuel Bak will begin today at 5 p.m. and end at 7 p.m.