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Karen Finley, soccer mom, maker of ceramic hearts


One of the fiercest of the early women performance artists, Karen Finley, has just made a piece of public art that, well, lets just say it’s channeling her inner kitty cat.

Karen Finley, speaking at Moore College Wednesday night as part of the studio art graduate program lecture series

Finley, one of the NEA Four, was known — in her early days — for performing nude, sometimes with a male performer, also nude, in pieces that were jabs at societal norms and usually angry, funny, messy (Finley rolling around in gallons of honey) and anything but comfortable.

But, the self-confessed soccer mom (honest, she said that!), who spoke at Moore College of Art and Design the other night, was earnest and sweet and educational.  And what she talked about — the creation of her public art,  “Open Hearts,”  a Holocaust memorial at the site of the Nazi concentration camp, Gusen — clearly has been a transformative experience for her.

The artist, who is a professor of art and public policy at NYU, has been focused on the issue of trauma over the last several years.  Among other things, she just finished a run of dinner theatre performances called  The Jackie Look (about the private trauma of Jackie Kennedy Onassis and society’s trauma at her trauma).

Karen Finley showed a clip of Billie Holiday singing Strange Fruit as part of her talk about how art can help people deal with trauma.

The question, said Finley, is whether art can mitigate trauma. Can art help people deal with evil through metaphorical means? Finley spoke of jazz as an art form that comes out of the trauma of slavery; and the Vietnam Memorial as visual art that deals with the evil of war. Bhutto dance is Japanese artists’ response to Hiroshima, and even Night of the Living Dead is a response to Vietnam and the rash of horrible images people were bombarded with in that “televised” war (Mai-Lai massacre, etc). Basically, Finley said she believes that art can deliver a metaphorical punch to evil that is meaningful.  Trauma often becomes taboo to talk about, she said.  Art doesn’t cancel the trauma, but art can provide an organized way to respond.

The artist was clear that she had followed the Muse on this new public art project of hers. And, the Muse took her through a sequence of synchronous events that led her to making ceramic hearts. That’s a little bit like saying “I’m not responsible for this art, my Muse took me there,” but clearly, Finley was steering her Muse to a certain extent.

It all started in Philadelphia, a year ago when she participated at an ICA forum about Robert Mapplethorpe, art and freedom. Between sessions she wandered over to see the ICA’s Dirt on Delight and the clay show catalyzed her to action. She went home saying to herself “I want to work in clay!”

Shortly after that she encountered art by Holocaust survivors at her daughter’s son’s family’s house and she was asked to participate in a show in a village with a Holocaust story that was unmemorialized.  She started making clay hearts, and people asked her if they could help. She worked with students in Austria and many others.

Open Hearts  is a group of pink, hand-made ceramic hearts that are placed in the outline of a heart symbol. The ceramics are laid right on the grass under a tree at the site where there is also a small engraved stone telling the story of the Gusen camp, which was burned down after it was liberated by the Americans.

You might step on the hearts if the grass was tall enough, but Finley is fine with that. From dust to dust and from clay to earth was her thought.

Somebody applauded her for her courage as an artist and she thanked them and said she doesn’t feel special. “I’ve had many benefits in my life. Many joys.” She said she feels a responsibility to give back.

Here’s an article at a Graz website about Finley’s Holocaust memorial that has a small picture that seems to be a model of the work before it was installed. I can’t find any other pictures. But interestingly, Finley did another public project back in the 90s that was an AIDS memorial, and it sounds ephemeral and earnest just like this new one project.