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Mirrors in Their Hearts

In Art Seminar Led by Sebastian Mendes, Students Reflect on Personal Experience

In contemporary artist Sebastian Mendes’s exhibition at the Yeshiva University Museum, line drawings shaped from hurried signatures and hollowed-out loaves of bread stuffed with names evoke the heroic story of his grandfather, a consul general who signed thousands of life-saving visas during the Holocaust. The exhibition, “There is a Mirror in My Heart: Reflections on a Righteous Grandfather,” is a moving and powerful reaction to a piece of history that is both personal and global. However, internalizing his grandfather’s action and crafting a response was a delicate and lengthy process for Mendes. Now, in an interdisciplinary honors seminar at Stern College for Women, he seeks to guide students through a similar journey of self-exploration.

Called “Materializing History and Personal Experience,” the new course draws on students’ visual and literary skills to create their own personal responses to past events, whether in global politics or childhood memories. Discussion of other artistic works, including Art Spiegelman’s 9/11 books “In the Shadow of No Towers” and Alfred Kantor’s depictions of concentration camps, allow students to evaluate and create distinct forms of expression.

“We’re calling upon literature, visual art, multimedia, music, contemporary and installation art to answer an overarching question: how does one respond creatively to events of enormous historical significance or deeply personal emotive power, such as the Holocaust or genocide?” said Mendes. “Finding a means to express your reaction enables you to move forward to new aspects of the experience.”

“The seminar is really about the interaction between art, history, memory and language,” said Dr. Jacob Wisse, director of the YU Museum and an associate professor of art history at Stern College. “It deals with issues like how artists use a language of visual expression to create a legacy of historical events. These are not just issues for artists and art historians but for people who are interested in general about how events are retained and expressed—and their lasting impact.”

The course’s complex integration of both writing and visual art components has attracted students from varied backgrounds. Rachel Weiss, a studio art major, psychology minor and aspiring art therapist, enjoys the opportunity to collaborate with other students of diverse talents. “I love that relationship,” she said. “I’m involved in the arts, but my older sister is a creative writer and I’m used to calling her and working on joint projects that use my artwork and her creativity. Art is more than just painting—it’s giving new meaning to something, through dance, drama, language or any other tool.”

Mendes' (center) new course guides students through a journey of self-exploration.

Mendes’s exhibition and his residency at the museum had been in the works for a number of years but his presence at Stern College arose from a casual encounter with Assistant Professor of Art Traci Tullius, who is also his former student. “He started telling me about the project he was working on over dinner, reflecting on his grandfather’s heroic act, and I thought, ‘This is the kind of work that our students would really gain a lot from,’ ” Tullius explained. “He’s an artist who really searches history to keep it alive and communicate it visually. To have him interacting with our students about how to take your own ideas and experience and translate them into a creative process, which is one of the most difficult things to convey—it’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for our students.”

In fact, it’s an opportunity that will become more common for students on both campuses in the future, according to Wisse. “We have plans to have classes taught on site by our curators—and hopefully YU faculty—that will use the museum’s collections,” he said, in addition to other courses taught at both Stern and Yeshiva College by visiting artists. “We want the museum to be an integral and meaningful part of the student experience at YU and provide new perspectives to students across the University.”

Samantha Feldman, a studio art major who is taking the seminar course in addition to Mendes’ advanced drawing class, has definitely found herself looking at art in a new way. “There’s a question in the way Professor Mendes presents his work and others’ work to you,” she said. “It’s like he’s saying, ‘If it was you, how would you do this? How would you have responded in your art and personal life to these experiences?’ ”