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Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

I just finished reading an excellent author: Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. I had read him before --

In the First Circle -- in the early to mid-1970s, not too long after it first came out in English. The book I just finished reading is The Gulag Archipelago, which is a non-fiction account of the gulag prison system in the former USSR which Solzhenitsyn experienced first-hand as a prisoner from 1945 -1953 for privately criticizing Stalin in a letter. In the First Circle was a semi-autobiographical novel based on his experiences in one of the camps. From this book I knew he was a good writer that I thoroughly enjoyed. Hence, a couple years ago when I was looking for something serious to read, I thought of him again. The Gulag Archipelago was not only an account of some of Solzhenitsyn’s experiences in the camps, but he tried to give, as far as possible, an account of the gulag prison system under the USSR. The book was based on the experiences of other prisoners (many got in touch with him after his first novel, A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, was published), interviews with those Soviet officials with whom he was able to talk, his own research in the Moscow libraries, and other accounts of the Soviet gulag system as well as prison life under the Tsars. Impressions after reading this book are many, but the overriding one is the degree of cruelty and inhumanity that people are capable of visiting upon one another. Another shocking element is how small the number of people is who actually survived the camps. In fact, Solzhenitsyn’s experience convinced him that the purpose of the camps was to kill off “undesirable” members of the population. Solzhenitsyn was not able to definitively say how many people died, but I researched it a bit and found an article in the Journal of the Royal Statistical Society (Series C: Applied Statistics), by Stephen Blyth. In this article, statistically constructed estimates found a credible range with 95% certainty of from 9.7 to 16.7 million deaths.

Solzhenitsyn says there were other people in the camps who were trying to write about them. Of course, in the camps you were lucky if the shoes you wore were not stolen while you slept at night, so it was nearly impossible to keep things like pencil and paper, even if writing were allowed. Solzhenitsyn does mention two other authors who were able to eventually publish books about the camps -- S. Karavansky and Anatoly Marchenko. Of course, he wrote this in 1968, so I don’t know if other writings from that era have been made available since then or not, but those two authors and Solzhenitsyn’s three volume book are the only testimonies by former prisoners to which his book refers. (There are undoubtedly others because Solzhenitsyn himself said in the book, “And they will float to the surface in great numbers, because soon, very soon, the era of publicity will arrive in Russia!”) So, that lack of testimony, given the large populations that these camps housed, is another astonishing thing about this book.

Then, there is the information in Volume 1, as well as the later volumes, on the frequency with which high ranking Party officials, especially chief prosecutors and chief interrogators, were later themselves given “quarters” (25 years) or “9 grams” (a bullet in the back of the head).

Solzhenitsyn states near the end of Volume 3 that he wanted other prisoners and former prisoners to write some of the book, with some of them writing entire chapters. No one would agree to this. It seems to me that less than half of the book is based on Solzhenitsyn’s personal experience, and the rest comes from second-hand accounts of innumerable prisoners and former prisoners. It is hard to comprehend outside that situation, but for prisoners in the camps or on transit trains, one vital aspect of emotional survival was to get to know one another by sharing their stories – their backgrounds, how they came to be in the camps, what had happened to them in the camps. Writing was forbidden. The composition Solzhenitsyn was able to do in camps he managed to preserve by turning it into rhymed verse so that he could remember it.

The book is long – 3 volumes – I started it about two-and-a-half years ago. At the time I was reading a lot of spy novels from the library, and whenever I didn’t have one of those or was tired of reading those, I would dip into The Gulag. It was usually hard to read more than a few pages at a time. This is probably because it is non-fiction, and I usually read fiction, but I feel it is also because of the oppressive harshness of life that the book portrays.

Perhaps the most painful aspect of the book for me is that the “zeks” (prisoners), after they were released, were still shunned. Family, friends, everyone avoided them. In fact, many were sent into exile when they were released. Many lived in the forests away from the towns. In other words, the damage of the gulag was ongoing and permanent.

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As we said last week, Mara Clawson is a young artist whose work has been widely exhibited, and she has received national awards. She owns her own business, When the Colors Get AlongTM. Mara also has Familial Disautonomia, a rare genetic disease of the sensory and autonomic nervous system. It results in poorly controlled blood pressure, heart rate, temperature regulation, and interestingly, the inability to produce tears. This last has figured strongly in Mara’s work. Mara herself is a delightful, ingenuous, and caring person. Breck, Mara, her mother Michelle, and I had a lovely conversation one Sunday in January 2021.

Artist Mara Clawson

Stephania: There was a drawing I wanted to ask about – it’s an older one. Yochevet? Is that a self-portrait?

Michelle: [Corrects Stephania’s pronunciation.] Mara, can you tell the story of Yochevet?

Mara: A long time ago I [drew]… a portrait of a tear [shaped] Yochevet. I thought it was not good and I crumpled it … but weeks or months later Mom noticed it in my backpack and I said, “That’s Moses’ mother” and Mom was surprised.

Yochevet, Mara Clawson, 2004

Michelle: I found a crumpled piece of paper in her backpack and opened it up, flattened it and that’s what it was. And we were kind of in shock. If you look at the color pastel of Yochevet, and this time she didn’t say Yochevet, she said, ‘That’s Moses’ mother’ – that was pretty powerful. You can see the color version online – it has a sort of baby Moses floating down the river in front of her.

Stephania: I just thought the face was stunning. Obviously the eyes were large, but it was so expressive! I was particularly impressed with that one, particularly since you were pretty young when you did that one.

Mara: Yes, I was 12, before I had my bat mitzvah.

Stephania: I wanted to ask about another piece – “Spring of Sunflowers” – were you thinking at all of Van Gogh?

Mara: I work from my own imagination, I try and make originals! People told me that my art looks like Van Gogh. So my parents showed me the Internet about Van Gogh. Even though people thought the style look similar it’s different from my own work.

Stephania: I thought you might be trying to copy Van Gogh.

Spring of Sunflowers, Mara Clawson, 2016

Mara: Of course not – that’s cheating! And besides, my family friend knows my designs besides Van Gogh and she says it’s the mark making … that looks similar. Because I went over and over and over to get the color.

Stephania: “Statue of Tears” – I wanted to ask what was the meaning of that one? What was behind it?

Mara: That’s from Arts Enables… It’s an angel statue. I usually try to draw living things, but this time I decided to do an angel.

Stephania: Why was the angel crying?

Mara: It cries when it’s raining outside. Also, sometimes I draw tears because I never have tears of my own because I have dry eyes. I take eye drops to make tears.

Statue of Tears, Mara Clawson, 2017

Stephania: So that’s why you like to draw tears, then?

Mara: Yes. I’ve never had tears in my life. Because I have FD since birth. Familial Dysautonomia.

Michelle: So your autonomic nervous system is not well developed and not well regulated. You can have problems with your heart rate, your breathing rate, your temperature regulation, your blood pressure. When you stand up, to keep your blood from pooling in your legs, your blood vessels should constrict, but they don’t with FD, and so your blood pressure can go too low or can overshoot and end up dangerously high. But she does her best with this positive attitude that you always have and this great smile. She just fights on through it.

Mara: It’s like my emotion battles whatever I have.

Stephania: Shifting gears a bit, one of the articles I read about you said that you are a public speaker. What things do you like to talk about?

Mara: About life, love. Or nature.

Stephania: When you talk about nature, do you like to focus on endangered species and environmental issues?

Mara: Yes. I do whatever I can to help life, and help the world wherever I can, so the world won’t tear [itself] apart. I did a polar bear. I heard the North Pole is melting and also that polar bears are endangered.

The reason why the North Pole has problems is because what mankind is making so far, and because so many people love and are eating meats. Me and my family are eating healthy foods like plant burgers. We are doing whatever we can… Plus I want to have snow again. I was born in January.

Breck: There’s one with snow, “Walking in the Winter Weather Day.”

Michelle: That is an oil pastel. She didn’t do oil pastels until 2015 when we bought her oil pastels which she said are like butter, and suddenly all these pictures came out!

Breck: It’s interesting how with different media different things come out.

Michelle: I say to others, “Buy the expensive art supplies early because it is like a different experience.”

Breck: Yes, I tell my students that, too. “Don’t try to save money on your paints because they have less pigment in them.”

Walking in the Winter Weather Day, Mara Clawson 2015

Stephania: Can you tell me about your iPad classes that you’re teaching? I presume you are doing them by Zoom right now? Who attends?

Michelle: Mara's helpers do all of the Zoom technology, camera setup, etc. All of her classes have been to a community where students have some sort of disability. This includes adults with aphasia, adults with other disabilities, and a camp for kids with learning disabilities.

Stephania: What do you do in an average class?

Mara: [When] I teach in a Main Street Zoom³, I draw a fast iPad bird and then I show them how to draw it.

Stephania: What do you hope people feel when they experience your paintings?

Mara: Whatever design they like, whatever they like to draw, whatever they dream of, feel happier or sad or whatever they feel, whatever helps their life being. Because I want to help the world.

Stephania: That’s interesting, Mara, when you say whatever they feel like being, because maybe if they want to feel sad looking at your painting, and that’s a good thing, too.

Mara: Like my “Searching for Home” painting, the homeless girl has tears of her own, too.

Searching for Home, Mara Clawson, 2015

Stephania: I’ve asked about what you like about making art. What do you like about being an artist? What’s good about being an artist?

Mara: I love the colors to mix. I love to do it freely and have fun. My mind [is]… so focused.

Stephania: What do you hope for your future as an artist?

Mara: To keep moving forward. To show what colors are made of. And I love to help people and to make people happy with my art. Wherever people like to help me, I let them, and they let me know when I can help.

Stephania: So do you want to take any kind of classes when you say people might help, or do you want to help others?

Mara: Both. It’s like teamwork when you help each other, not just yourself. I never had someone teach me, I taught myself.

Breck: You know, you did a painting called “Green Meadows” that has a deer in it? [It] has the deer’s face looking at us, facing viewer, and [therefore] it looks like its nose is coming forward. That’s a difficult thing to do. You did a good job on that.

Mara: Thank you. I looked very hard to do the shape before I drew on the paper.

Michelle: The inspiration for it was there was one deer that looked us straight in the eye out behind our house, right? When the tiger lilies come out, the candy store is open for the deer!

Stephania: So how did you draw the deer face?

Mara: I drew it from memory because I used to watch “Bambi!”

Green Meadows, Mara Clawson, 2019

Stephania: Thinking both as a successful artist with your own business and as a teacher, what would you say to a young person (say in high school) who desperately wanted to become an artist?

Mara: Don’t be like me. Be who you are, whatever your imagination, or you follow your heart to whatever you like to draw. Don’t give up just do what you like to do; my parents never give up so I can spread my wings…

Stephania: I’m finished with my questions. Do you have anything you’d like to ask Breck?

Mara to Breck: What art styles do you teach in class?

Breck: I have them work from life. I try not to teach a style. I try to let them have their own style.

Mara: Just give them hints, that’s good. At least you don’t give them too much information, just [let them] do what they like.

Breck: Yes, I try to give them hints to help them draw what they see, but I try to let them have their own style.

3. Main Street: Mara is referring to Main Street Connect, an inclusive affordable housing apartment complex and community center (in Rockville, MD) where 25% of the building’s units are set aside for adults with disabilities. It is a community that values and celebrates people of all abilities.

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We recently had the pleasure of chatting with Mara Clawson, a young and prolific artist from Maryland. According to her bio, Mara’s work has been exhibited in six museums and 15 galleries across the United States. She was the winner of the VSA/Kennedy Center Emerging Young Artists with Disabilities Award for her video, To Survive. Mara is also the subject of the documentary film, Living Art by David Rochkind of Ground Media, which premiered in six cities as part of the 2019-2020 ReelAbilities Film Festivals and other screenings in Chicago and Minneapolis. Mara not only creates art, she owns her own business, When Colors Get AlongTM, teaches iPad drawing classes, and is a public speaker.

Mara has Familial Dysautonomia (FD), a rare genetic disease of the sensory and autonomic nervous systems. It results in poorly controlled blood pressure, heart rate, temperature regulation, and interestingly, the inability to produce tears. This last has figured strongly in Mara’s work. Mara herself is a delightful, ingenuous, and caring person. Breck, Mara, her mother Michelle, and I had a lovely conversation one Sunday in January 2021.

Artist Mara Clawson

Stephania: I guess I’ll begin by asking a classic question: why do you enjoy making art?

Mara: Ever since I was 11 and … I didn’t know what to do, and they offered me charcoal pastels and said draw anything you want so I drew a bowling ball with pins knocking down. And because I love mixing colors – it makes me who I am.

Breck: It feels good, doesn’t it? Especially during the pandemic, because it’s something you can do inside. It’s kind of a relief – sometimes I feel so cooped up inside. It feels good to do artwork anyway but especially now it gives you something to do indoors. It keeps you from being bored! Do you like doing drawing?

Mara: Yes.

Breck: I could tell, in your work.

Mara: I draw landscapes, portraits, people, food. I just finished one of a compass.

Breck: I saw one on your website called “Making Tastes” – you did that one in 2020, right?

Making Tastes, Mara Clawson, 2020

Michelle: You know, Mara titles all of them, and I’m always amazed by her names. They’re often “ing” –action words. “Making Tastes,” that’s the one with the chef’s hat on, right? You sold that one in Houston, didn’t you?”

Mara: Yes, that’s in oil pastels.

Michelle: I think that was January 2020 because it showed in Houston in February 2020, so it was pre-pandemic.

Breck: I haven’t had a chance to show my pandemic artwork, either.

Stephania: How old were you when you first began making art?

Mara: With my doodle things I was only 3 but shapes and things I began to make when I was 11.

Stephania: What mediums do you prefer to use?

Mara: Soft pastels, because I started when I was a child. But later when I was in Arts Enables¹ I worked with oil pastels and learned I could mix it better so I’m very happy to do oil pastels, too. I also do ceramics with VisArts sometimes.² I also do acrylics [painting] at Arts Enables.

Stephania: Do you prefer working with pastels or your iPad?

Breck: Yes, I saw where you use Procreate in the digital art. Some of my students use it and they like it. Do you like Procreate?

Mara: Well, Procreate not very messy in your hands and you can do whatever you want. It’s like having an art store in your fingertips. There are jillions and jillions of colors - whatever color goes together.

Stephania: Where do you get inspiration from the most? Are you getting it from things you see in the outside world, maybe walking around outside? Maybe not right now, during the pandemic!

Mara: From reality!

Stephania: I didn’t know if you maybe got it from watching TV or reading magazines or things like that, because I noticed you did one of a pangolin, which I loved.

Mara: That’s from a newspaper.

Make Way for Pangolin, Mara Clawson, 2016

Stephania: Ahhh! I never knew what a pangolin looked like or even heard of one until the pandemic started.

Mara: It’s one of those endangered species. I wanted to help these poor creatures. And I like to paint what things I remember that I watch… But it’s not gonna pop out like a firecracker, I have to think about it; sometimes just think about it.

Stephania: How do you decide when a painting is finished?

Mara: I guess when the picture makes sense. When it makes sense, with the colors [especially]. When the colors get along. That’s where I got my website name.

Stephania: Do you ever work outside? I was thinking some of your plants and birds were so lovely I didn’t know if you were actually outside looking at them.

Mara: Sometimes. Some are from my imagination. And some of my landscapes are from online [photos] and I use the pictures to make a landscape.

Stephania: Tell us a little more about what’s different working on an iPad vs. working with pastels on paper.

Mara: The iPad is brighter and the colors are more vivid. Working with [soft] pastels I am using my hands and I can mix colors; I use my fingers. With oil pastels, I color over and over until it makes sense.

Breck: I like the feel of putting the paint on the paper. Do you like that, too?

Mara: I like every kind of design of paper, [pastels], or pencil I use. It feels good, whatever I mix on paper.

Breck: The digital painting you did of Natasha, the dog – that was very nice.

Natasha, Mara Clawson, 2018

Stephania: Was that a commissioned piece?

Mara: No. I volunteered. My best friend lost her dog, so I decided to draw a portrait of their French bulldog to show how Natasha missed her, too.

Stephania: I read online that sometimes you do commissioned work?

Mara: Yes, sometimes – like my friend Carol has been everywhere and since the pandemic she can’t go to Hawaii, so her husband Jerry asked [me] to do a landscape for her, full of memories, to make of her favorite beach. It’s for her 70th birthday.

Stephania: So landscapes are part of the commissioned work you do? Do you also do pet portraits or people portraits? It looks like online some of your portraits might be, but I didn’t know if you did those commissioned.

Mara: Some are commissioned. Like my friend’s grandma who died. They asked me to do a portrait – it was the first portrait I did. It has no color in the skin, but it does have her shape and her “real-life person.” When we took it to their house they loved it. It looks like their lovable bubbie was standing right there.

Ruth, Mara Clawson, 2016

Breck: Is that the one online that is titled, “Ruth?”

Mara: Yes.

1. According to their website, “Art Enables is an art gallery and vocational arts program [in Washington DC] dedicated to creating opportunities for artists with disabilities to make, market, and earn income from their original and compelling artwork. In addition to earning income from art sales, artists build the skills, relationships, and experience necessary for a successful career in the arts. We offer our artists the creative space, materials, and marketing support they need to develop and succeed as professionals.”

2. VisArts is a nonprofit organization in Rockville, MD whose mission is “to transform individuals and communities through the visual arts.” Mara was referring to the VisAbility Artlab at VisArts, which is “a supported studio art program for emerging adult artists with intellectual and developmental disabilities seeking to launch a successful career in the arts.”

Part 2 next week.

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