Embodying the Labor of Remembering: New Work from Tamar Segev
Tamar Segev’s paintings explore connections between generational memory and architecture. The painted, cut, and sewn surfaces enable a bodily form of remembrance as they come together in response to Tamar’s experiences visiting the remnants of her grandmother’s apartment in the Lodz Ghetto in Nazi-occupied Poland, and her family's stories that have traveled through several generations.
Abigail Holcombe: From viewing previous works, I know that your work involves a lot of personal memories and familial heritage. Are there any memories or photographs that were at the forefront of your research when you were creating these paintings?
Tamar Segev: For me the walls, and in turn my paintings, house all of my family’s memories, but there were definitely some memories at the forefront of my research. I’ll share one about potatoes. At Limanowskiego 48, where my grandmother and her family lived in the ghetto, they tore out the pavement so each household could have a small spot to grow potatoes. You grow potatoes by planting the part that sprouts, which you must deliberately not eat in order to make sure you can grow more. This was difficult due to the lack of rations - something like a quarter of those imprisoned in the Lodz Ghetto died of starvation. At night, my grandmother, her sister, and their father took turns guarding the potatoes — like “treasures,” my great-aunt told us. When I asked my dad to retell me this story for my research, he replied instead by telling me proudly that he was the only student in his high school biology class who knew how to grow potatoes. My grandmother had taught him, because to her it was a necessary life skill that helped them survive. I think this story has been at the forefront of my research because it not only happened in the courtyard of Limanowskiego 48, but it also reflects the way these stories are now passed on and the filters that exist. This is my grandmother’s story, but it is also my father’s, and now mine. My dad also started growing these tiny potatoes in our backyard during the pandemic, his way of conjuring his mother’s memory.
Sydney Vize: Do you know how to grow potatoes? Did your dad teach you?
TS: I know that you keep and plant the “eye” - the part that sprouts. But I’ve never tried it, I’m not sure of the actual process and how exactly he did it.
SV: Has your relationship with the reference photos that you worked from changed much over the course of making these paintings? Are those photos used or seen by you or your family in other contexts?
TS: For these paintings, I am working from photos that I took on my phone during the trip. I have a few main photos that I’ve used over and over as source material. There’s one photo where there is so much going on in the wall that I still feel like I’ve barely scratched the surface. The photos that I took of Lodz are just for me. People have seen them pinned to my studio wall, but I don’t intend to show them.
SV: Why is that?
TS: I’m more interested in showing the process of remembering rather than sharing the actual evidence of the walls themselves. The memories that exist for me within the walls are partially due to the memory work that I’ve done - showing the walls themselves isn’t the point, it’s more about showing the labor that it takes to do this kind of remembering.
AH: The relationship between the painted, drawn, and sewn marks have a nice energy and range to them. I think about fast and slow making and the difference between a mark on a surface and an actual puncture of a surface. How did you determine the approach or treatment of each mark in these works? Do the markings relate to photographs, or other objects/materials you collected during your time in Poland?
TS: The markings relate to the photographs and also to what I remember from experiencing the walls themselves. For example, the top half of the wall in the entryway of Limanowskiego 48 was painted yellow. It was clear the wall had been intentionally scratched and these carvings appeared as tick marks and irregular grids. In the first painting of Limanowskiego 48, I depicted the grids and tick marks mostly representationally. I scratched into a thick layer of paint with a T-pin and palette knife. This type of scratched mark appears repeatedly in the later paintings. I interpret it as a mark that embodies the action of excavating memory.
SV: The physicality of your process and of your materials really comes through in these paintings. The scale of the work seems to support that physicality being a part of a viewer’s encounter with them - how does your subject matter translate into the scale of your paintings?
TS: It was important for me to make a large painting that granted the presence of a wall in comparison to one’s body. The bigger paintings are a full view of the wall, while the smaller ones are what you see when you get up close. Scale is also important to my process. For the largest paintings, I made each one out of their own separate original paintings, which I then cut up. The smallest paintings are made from the leftover fragments. This is a significant part of my process because I make all the initial paintings on a large scale, where I’m really using my whole body to paint and move around the canvas.
SV: Do you think about your process of using these leftover pieces in the smaller paintings metaphorically too?
TS: I think about the cut pieces of painted canvas as fragments of memory. The smaller paintings become sort of shards of these fragments, or memories of remembering. I think of each new painting as a return to Limanowskiego 48, and no matter how many times I return I’m left with fragments of memories. There’s no way to fully understand my grandparents’ experience, or fully reconstruct memory, or recover what’s been lost.
AH: There are some moments where two separate edges of canvas become sewn together. This gets me thinking about architecture and what might lie inside or behind the walls of a space. I am wondering if you viewed these moments of sewing as a kind of mending action or as more of a puncturing of a preserved surface/space? I guess in general, I’m curious about how you were thinking about the action of sewing in relation to these pieces?
TS: I think of the moments where two separate edges of canvas are sewn together as mending or rejoining with thread. This relates to how I observed the accumulation of material on the walls themselves, where new coats of paint seem to act as bandages over layers of peeling paint. I think about the action of piercing through the canvas as an attempt to penetrate memory, and the act of mending as a way to piece memories together.
I also relate the action of sewing directly to a lineage of textile work in my family. I used to sew a lot when I was a kid and teenager, and I remember my dad taught me to hand-sew as a child, using fabric scraps from my grandfather’s textile factory in Israel. My grandfather had learned from his father - both my grandparents’ families worked in the textile business in Lodz before the war. We visited a textile museum in Lodz during our trip and my dad eagerly explained to my whole family how all the machines worked. My grandmother and her sisters were also sent from Auschwitz to work in Czech factories as enslaved laborers, where they operated spinning machines, which turn cotton and wool into thread. This was how they were able to survive.
I knew all this family history beforehand. However, during my research, I also learned that my great-aunt Dorka, my grandmother’s youngest sister, had embroidered tablecloths and garments, including Nazi uniforms, in a workshop with other children in the Lodz Ghetto. She described how they had to use these sharp metal threads that would cut their fingertips. Coming across this painful memory complicates the action of stitching for me. I interpret the physically demanding gesture of stitching as embodying the labor of remembering.
Emmaly Crimmel: I'm interested in how you would define the open spaces of canvas in these works as they relate to memory and architecture. I read them as gaps in memory or ways to navigate around the work, like doors or entryways in a home. Has the meaning of the open canvas changed for you over time?
TS: The negative space in the paintings, or the open areas of canvas, are meant to visually allude to the walls. Throughout the walls, there were heavily built-up areas of material. There were also these striking areas of negative space within the walls, in which it seemed like all the wall’s skin had peeled off. I actually cut up the canvas for the first time because I was struggling to keep this sense of negative space in my paintings. I now interpret these areas as gaps in memory, and the cut pieces of painted canvas as fragments of memory.
SV: Do you have other spaces or locations in mind that would make sense to investigate through similar methods? It seems that these methods of uncovering and remembering that you’re discussing have a lot of room to create other possibilities in other places, even though the specificity of place is so key in this work.
TS: As of now, I don’t have any specific spaces or locations I am thinking of. But I absolutely agree. The methods of making that I have developed in this project are a response to my family history, so I need to see how, or if, they can translate to other places. I am interested in continuing to investigate memory embedded within our built-environments and landscapes. I think there’s a lot more to explore within this space for me, and I’m excited to experiment with new materials and methods. These might open up possibilities to create other kinds of visual relationships to architecture without literally representing the walls.
Tamar Segev is from Boston, Massachusetts and received her BA in Studio Art from Carleton College. She will receive her MFA from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in 2021.
Sydney Vize, Abigail Holcombe, and Emmaly Crimmel are Studio Art graduate students at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.