The Rich Dynamics of Thelma Rosner’s Art

Artist front of her painting:  Cross Stitch Painting #1, diptych, 8’ x 6’, o/c, 2012. Collection of the Woodstock Art Gallery.

Thelma Rosner is a multimedia artist who has been based in London, Ontario, for over 40 years. Rosner studied at the University of Toronto and the Ontario College of Education (1959-64) and later on, after relocating in London and having started a family, she completed numerous painting courses at Western University (formerly the University of Western Ontario.  After establishing roots in London she, over time, realized a successful artistic career. Her very first exhibition, Celtic Series, was held at the London Regional Art Gallery (now Museum London) in 1983. These paintings explored pattern, texture and decoration – all themes that continue through Rosner’s work to this day.  Her more recent work focuses on cultural documentation and notions of home with references to land and to precious personal objects. These ideas sprout from both her heritage and her innate interest in the ways others cope with loss. 

Being from a Jewish background, Rosner’s parents were left with little choice but to emigrate from Europe to Canada after World War I. This family heritage and cultural context is the foundation of all Rosner’s work. Using a variety of media, Rosner connects with the enormous loss her own culture has faced, and connects with other cultures for whom this experience is also relevant. With a focus on the way objects and rituals have helped individuals survive displacement, Rosner explores what it is to create ‘home’ and to connect with the deeply traumatic parts of one’s history.

Elisabeth’s Book detail (Child), 2008-2010, 30×24″, digital print 1/3

Much of Rosner’s work from the late 1990s to the 2010s deals with her personal connection to displacement and war, investigating the experiences of people directly affected by the Holocaust. Elisabeth’s Book (a Holocaust book) is a work from 2008-10. The piece is a wall installation of book pages, which were first scanned then made into digitalized prints. The pages are grouped in pairs to display a two-page spread, each with a small symbol or image. Each spread is red on the left and black on the right, with the same image on each page. The images are familiar: a heart, a child’s profile, a flower and a pot, to name a few. On each right side, silver images seem to be metal carvings on fabric pages. The book itself is tiny, no more than 4×4”, made from felt by Eszter Schwartz in 1944, during her time in Auschwitz. It was made as a gift for her friend Elisabeth Raab who was enslaved alongside Eszter. Their ‘job’ involved cutting small pieces of access metal off hand grenades. The metal shapes sewn into the felt were carved from the scraps this work produced.

Still Life with Her Recipes, installation, mixed media 1998 (Detail)

In creating her work, Rosner frequently met with Elisabeth Raab to discuss her experience as a survivor of Auschwitz. In these dialogues Raab shared the two books that had survived through the horrors with her, objects which she still possessed and were extremely precious to her.  One of these is the book presented in Elisabeth’s Book (a Holocaust book).  The act of displaying this piece is deeply tied to generational healing and cultural connection. For Rosner, a Jewish person only one generation removed from these horrors, to cultivate this connection between herself and Raab is a sort of continuation of lineage and a ritual of passing down.  Like Eszter, gifting this book to Elisabeth, the imagery of the piece and the experience that came with it, is passed on not only to Rosner but to the viewers. In addition to the act of sharing, the form of  documentation and replicating book-like qualities is what makes this work so much more intimate.

The interactions we have with books are deeply personal. The open pages of this work allow the viewer to participate in Elisabeth’s experience in a special way. The digitalized documentation speaks to the exchange of struggles on a personal and cultural level, and the way in which stories, particularly cultural stories, shift forms through retelling by subsequent generations. Rosner is sharing a story of the generation before hers in a medium accessible to the people of her own and younger generations. Scanning and digitalizing the book also allows for the scale to be greatly increased. While the original book is only 4×4”, the final images are 30×24”.  The increased scale exposes the details of metal, felt and stitching. The care that went into the book’s creation can be properly appreciated at this scale. Elisabeth’s Book (a Holocaust book), as well as other works reflecting the artist’s relationship with Elisabeth Raab, begins Rosner’s exploration of the experiences of refugees, people who have lost their land and their home. This way of referencing the loss and creation of home and land through domestic, everyday images and symbols continues to be relevant in her more recent work. 

Israeli-Palestinian, Palestinian-Israeli Dictionary, 2009-11, 33×288″ (Dictionary is comprised of 34 digital prints, 24×30”, which are images of the artist’s paintings.)

For the past decade or so, Rosner has focused on the continuing conflict between Israel and Palestine. Connecting with the stories of loss from her own culture is what opened Rosner up to exploring similar experiences and themes in cultures outside her own. Israeli-Palestinian, Palestinian-Israeli Dictionary (2009-11) is a large installation in an accordion pattern, again using the book format.  The images depict natural imagery, mostly inanimate objects such as books and nails, with both the Arabic and Hebrew words for the objects written at the top and bottom of each image. The accordion is double sided, the same images appearing in the same order on each side. However, on one side the Hebrew word is at the top of the image with the Arabic word at the bottom, while the on the other side the placement is reversed.  Much of Rosner’s work surrounding this conflict does not focus on the two groups’ differences, but on their similarities, emphasizing what is shared in our humanity.  Israeli-Palestinian, Palestinian-Israeli Dictionary invites the viewer to share a personal connection with the images presented within each fold of the accordion.  The objects represented are just mundane enough for each viewer to have a unique experience with it, perhaps being reminded of moments from their life that involved similar things. It is through this individualization of experience with the work that Rosner emphasizes our similarities as humans. This Dictionary featuring the words for ordinary objects in Arabic and Hebrew, illustrates how alike the languages are, both in the way the words are spelled and written. Rosner’s work suggests what has been and what could be gained by recognizing sameness in land, culture and individual experience.

Homeland, mixed media, 26x26x150”, 2012

It is through finding likeness that we begin to create connection and home in each other. Rosner’s use of recognizable imagery and language expresses the way cultures and individuals who have experienced war and become refugees, deal with survival, connection and memory.

 

Kenna Robinson is a student artist from London, Ontario. She is currently in her first year at Ryerson University where she is studying photography. She is a recent graduate of Bealart where she studied photography and ceramics. Kenna was recipient of the Mackie Cryderman Prize and the Vivian Sturdee Memorial Award in 2021 for her work in the Bealart specials program. 

The images are reproduced here with the permission of the artist.

This article is part of the “Young and Emerging Visual Arts Writers Project,” which is gratefully supported by the London Arts Council   .

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