SUSAN KLAHR, ARTIST
"I’m part of the story, it’s my story now and it goes on and on and on."
Artist Susan Klahr died New Year’s morning. For the last several years, she had been struggling with cancer, and finally the disease asked her to cross to the other side. She is survived by her husband David and her two sons Sito and Arlo.
Susan has long been an important force within the intellectual and artistic community that makes El Paso/Juárez unique along the U.S./Mexico Border and in the United States. Her art spoke of the world she witnessed before her, especially the people that populated her imagination, people who in Susan's paintings radiate a spiritual presence. A few years ago Lee and I asked Susan, because of her own Jewish immigrant heritage, to paint the cover image for the YA novel Double-Crossing by Eve Tal that Cinco Puntos was publishing. (Last year, during her illness, she painted the cover for its sequel, Cursing Columbus.) During our conversations about the novel, we expressed our admiration for the two paintings I’ve pasted above, Celia and Rose. [Excuse the poor snapshot quality of the images. I took the photographs this morning inside the office with my little Nikon.] One day she showed up with the paintings and asked us to hang them in our office. She wanted people to see them, she didn’t want to roll them up and put them in storage. They’ve been on loan to us ever since.
The paintings are really one piece--Celia is Susan’s grandmother, who died shortly before Susan was born, and Rose is her mother. Rose died when Susan was 14. Susan painted black and white death masks of her grandmother and mother from old snapshots, she then dressed herself in their clothes and was photographed holding the masks in front of her face. Then she painted portraits of herself as her grandmother Celia and her mother Rose. We’ve been lucky here in the offices at Cinco Puntos to see these paintings everyday and to tell admiring visitors about them. Her illness and now her death made these paintings even more poignant and powerful, revealing how our presence continues to live in our families and in the work that we do.
Below, beneath the close-ups of Celia and Rose, are the inscriptions that Susan wrapped in the blue border around each of the paintings. And below those is the story of her grandfather Max and grandmother Celia that Susan wrote for the display of the paintings.
I never saw her.
The one of five sisters.
The one that Max picked.
The mother of Rose.
It's a painting of my mother.
How I never saw her.
She's in my body
and I was in her body.
THE STORY OF MAX MY GRANDFATHER
AND CELIA AND ROSE
Whenever I think about telling a story, I think about Max. Max was my grandfather and he had one of the two bedrooms in our apartment and he had a big steamer trunk in there. When he opened the trunk for me it was like magic. It was like this… Once upon a time there was a strong young man named Max and he lived in Chernobyl, near Kiev, in the Ukraine. He called it Russia and he had brothers and sisters, and the youngest sister, in the photo he always showed me, so many years later, looked out at me across time, across the ocean with eyes so large, so luminous (like my son Arlo’s) and hair so black, I wished I could have known her but Max came by himself with his trunk; he braved the unknown alone. He was young, 17 or 18. He made his way across Europe to England or Scotland, speaking not a word but Yiddish, and got on a freighter or a steamer or something and his cousin Joe met him in Philadelphia and gave him a banana and he started eating it with the skin on and what a joke! You greenhorn! Laughed his cousin and Max loved to tell it over and over. He went all the way back a year or so after and came back to America and that was the very last he ever saw any of his family again.
In Chernobyl, Max’s father was the town butcher. I would see them in my mind wandering over hill and green fields, going to neighboring towns to do business. Back there was green and wintry snow and the old life and here (he loved America) was opportunity and no pogroms. Everything was Yiddish, he didn’t need English to make good--leave that to his children. And he was strong and handsome and tall. His shoes were size thirteen and he worked hard. He was young and he worked in a butcher store in New York and upstairs from the store lived a mother with five daughters and this mother came from the old country by herself with her five daughters and she was tough and she was strong and nobody seemed to know how many husbands she had and what happened to them. Her daughters all looked different and she lived to at least one hundred years old and she was my mother’s grandma and she was bubbe to me.
But Max was handsome and he visited upstairs and they would giggle and talk and there were five girls: Celia, Clara, Fanny, Esther and Becky. Clara was the oldest. When I knew her she was a big, square woman with legs that looked like tree stumps to me. Fanny I never knew. In the pictures, she looked thoughtful, exotic. Becky never married. She was fussy and critical, the corners of her mouth turned down. Esther looked like a shiksa. We thought she was pretty. Not dark and mysterious and beautiful like Celia but she was pretty and she put rouge on her cheeks and she was always smiling and kind and generous.
One day the Mother looked at robust Max and put her hands on her hips and said “enough! Which one do you mean?” And Max picked Celia, the most beautiful of her sisters. And she had deep eyes and dark hair and a delicate face and he courted her. So he married Celia and he worked hard and he opened his own butcher shop in the Bronx and he had his picture taken behind the counter and he’s big and strong and proud. In America. And Max and Celia had a daughter and they named her Rose. Rose, an American name for an American girl. Rochel was her Jewish name.
Rose was my mother and this story goes on and on and on. Celia died shortly before I was born and Rose died when I was fourteen years old. I lived with three men, my father, my brother, and my grandfather. It was amazing for me to put on the faces of Celia and Rose: to feel them in my very being. I’m part of the story, it’s my story now and it goes on and on and on.