Ex-architect paints multimedia Holocaust mini-stories

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In 1980, Karl Rawicz quit architecture, abandoned materialism and decided to pursue his dreams.

Fortunately Rawicz, now 66, had more than dreams. For one thing, he had an understanding wife. And he had talent.

Today he is a successful artist living in Sonoma and, during the past 17 years, Rawicz has never had to get a day job. Art is his day job.

His paintings are in galleries from Seattle to Los Angeles. The city of Santa Rosa selected some of his Holocaust paintings to be part of its Kaleidoscope exhibit celebrating ethnic diversity, which will tour schools in Northern California. Currently an exhibit of his landscapes is in downtown Sonoma.

Rawicz's art is a synthesis of his own passions and life experience. Beneath his paintings are messages about the Holocaust or the defilement of the environment. Often Rawicz incorporates other materials into his paintings that are visible only on close scrutiny. Sometimes he uses poetry to help explain what a painting is saying.

Born in Germany, Rawicz fled with his family to Palestine in 1933. Ironically, their flight was not directly related to Nazism. Rawicz's father, a professional boxer, was wanted by the police for severely beating up a man.

Within a few years, many members of his mother's family also fled Germany. However, most of his father's family remained and perished in the Holocaust.

Rawicz lived in Palestine through its declaration of statehood and fought in the War of Independence.

"In 1948, I came to the United States to study for a while and I'm still here," he says.

He got a degree in architecture and, for many years, lived in Los Angeles and worked as a set designer for a variety of companies including Warner Bros., Twentieth Century Fox, MGM and CBS. He moved to the Bay Area 25 years ago.

"I did what a nice little Jewish boy does — take care of his family," says Rawicz.

But after raising his four daughters, "then it was my time to do what I wanted."

His wife, Diane, went back to school, got a job at Dominican College in San Rafael and Rawicz went after his dreams.

His first dream was to have his own theater. He started by designing, producing and directing shows at Fort Mason in San Francisco and the Marin Theater Company. Then came his own theater, Eden2 Theater Ensemble, which started in Mill Valley and then moved to Sonoma. Rawicz dedicated Eden2 to children's theater and adapted children's stories for the stage.

While researching material for the theater, Rawicz encountered American Indian literature, which put him on the art track.

"I came across some photographs in the United States Library of Congress of mutilation of Indians by Americans," he remembers. "It reminded me of my own background."

Rawicz drew a series of pictures he titled "Earth Women," depicting American Indians and children from the Holocaust. Gallery owners were enthusiastic about the artistic quality of the pictures, but said the intensity of the subject matter diminished their commercial appeal and were therefore reluctant to show them.

Rawicz encountered another problem: Because he is Caucasian, galleries specializing in Native American art wouldn't take his work, and general art galleries were not interested in Native American subjects.

So Rawicz decided to look exclusively to his own background for material. Using photographs and memory, Rawicz began painting his "Ancestors" series.

The paintings, he says, "deal primarily with my and my family's experience in the Holocaust. I draw my ancestors in the way they have been. I don't depict them in agony. They were good people. They had good faces. They had bad faces. They were human beings."

In one work are two of Rawicz's great-uncles who died in concentration camps. Both are wearing World War I uniforms. The painting is saying, "I fought for you in the first World War, thanks for killing me."

Another painting shows Auschwitz and symbols of the Holocaust in the background. In the foreground, a woman and a young boy walk out of the camp's gates. The woman is Rawicz's mother and he is the boy. The picture tells of their escape from Germany.

"Each picture is a mini-story," Rawicz says, describing a painting of his grandmother who died in the Holocaust. "Why was she left in a land of barren people?"

His multimedia technique adds depth and meaning to his work.

"I start with a canvas and first add layers of information from photos to authentic letters to a poem, cloth, anything I feel will give me or my unconscious a subtextural basis," Rawicz explains.

In his multimedia landscapes, he starts with materials he has found littering the environment. These materials are glued to the canvas and the painting is done over them.

"When the painting is finished, you can barely see [the underlayer], but if you look real close you can see these elements," he says. "They become the literal part of the story."