Haunting ghosts of camps come to life in JCC exhibit

As Carrie Zeidman walked around Auschwitz in 2008, she was struck by the lush green grass dotted with flecks of yellow dandelions.

Carrie Zeidman

“It looked very different than I expected it to look,” Zeidman recalled. “The sun was out and it was a beautiful spring day — but at the same time, I could almost see Auschwitz’s past superimposed on the present.”

That thought sparked a two-year project titled “Ghosts,” a series of seven digital 30-by-40-inch paintings on display through June 24 at the Addison-Penzak Jewish Community Center in Los Gatos.

The digital paintings are based on photographs, or composites of several photographs, that Zeidman took while visiting concentration camps during a trip to Poland and Israel with the Jewish Federation of Silicon Valley. She then superimposed images of concentration camp victims and survivors based on old photographs she found in museum archives, history books and on websites.

“I spend a lot of time before I start working to determine the direction and mood of an image, and see where that takes me,” Zeidman said. “So I start with a feeling or emotion or mood and then put that down onto the canvas. I’ve succeeded if someone looking at the canvas picks up on that emotion.”

Zeidman, 49, calls her work “topographical contour painting,” a term she coined about 10 years ago when she first developed the technique — but couldn’t find any existing method that accurately described what she did.

“Childhood Lost”

The art is created in Adobe Illustrator by painting solid-colored shapes over a photograph to create the illusion of depth and texture, much like a topographical map. From a distance the eye blends the rings of color into a smooth continuous tone, but looking at the art up close, viewers can see the individual shapes and tones used.

The Cupertino woman started her art career as a graphic designer 25 years ago but has worked full time as an artist for the past several years. She usually spends from four to eight weeks on one digital painting to get everything  — composition, light, shadow, depth and texture — just right.

In the first painting of the series, titled “Childhood Lost,” Zeidman painted a scene of an empty barracks as it looks today — dark and dilapidated with sunlight streaming through the dingy glass windows — but added the image of a little boy sipping soup.

“These barracks were a holding pen where prisoners would sit on the floor, sometimes for days, before being assigned to another barrack,” Zeidman said. When she created a digital painting of the scene, “I tried to put myself in that place, and from a child’s point of view thought about what it would have been like to be stuck in this place for days at a time, separated from your family, not knowing what would happen to you.”

In other paintings, the contrast between past and present is more stark, with the presence of people from her trip in the paintings alongside shadows of concentration camp victims.

“March of the Living”

“March of the Living” shows a chain of women walking along a dirt path in front of a barbed-wire fence while a young woman with a sun hat and scarf walks nearby.

Similarly, “Women’s Barracks” shows a young woman in an emerald green fleece jacket standing inside the women’s barracks as two shadowy figures lay on the bunks beside her.

Three digital paintings are composites of scenes from Israel. For Zeidman, these bright, vivid images serve as a stark contrast to the “Ghosts” series.

“We spent a week in Poland, walking around and looking at the past, at the horrible things that happened, at the Jewish communities that were decimated, and then we flew through the night and walked off the plane into the sun rising over Israel,” Zeidman said. “That was the most emotional part of the whole trip for me. It really gives you a sense of the importance of Israel to the Jewish community.”

Zeidman has received a lot of feedback from people who’ve seen the digital paintings at the APJCC. Viewers have told her they’ve been moved and touched by the powerful images.

“I want viewers to be thinking about how the past impacts the present and how easily the past can be repeated if we forget it,” Zeidman said. “There are a lot of things going on right now that are very frightening and reminiscent of things that happened in the 1930s in Europe, and that frightens me.

“People have forgotten the past or have gotten complacent. We have to remember this could happen again if we don’t pay attention.”

Carrie Zeidman’s work is on display alongside paintings by artist Leah Jachimowicz as part of the exhibit “Kindred Spirits: Echoes of Our Past.” Both women’s artwork relates to the themes of Yom HaShoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day) and Yom HaAtzmaut (Israel Independence Day).

The exhibit is on display through June 24 at the Addison Penzak JCC, 14855 Oka Road, Los Gatos. The APJCC is hosting a free artists’ reception from 1 to 3:30 p.m. May 9. Information: carriezeidman.com or www.svjcc.org.

Stacey Palevsky

Stacey Palevsky is a former J. staff writer.