Dorothy Grostern

By Heather Solomon

The Canadian Jewish News : Arts Scene : April 19, 2007

Exhibit gives a personal perspective on the passage of time

Dorothy Grostern has made a career of drawing souls and piecing together human narratives in pastel. When her 97-year-old mother entered a nursing home in August 2005, it triggered what Grostern terms "an avalanche" of work through which the artist is trying to come to terms with the passage of time.

Anyone who has an elderly parent will be moved and even wrenched by "A Time of Innocence," Grostern's new 30-piece series. It hangs form May 9 (vernissage is 5-9 p.m.) until May 23 at Beaux-Arts David Astrof in Thomson House, 3650 McTavish St., below Pine Avenue.

The building is home to McGill University's graduate society, and Astrof has adopted the historic locale for a number of years, to show his stable of artists.

Viewing is by appointment only at 286-2476, and somehow this seems appropriate for such an intensely personal exhibition.

The gallery provides an ambience of old mahogany and the richness of the past to complement Grostern's tightrope walk between her childhood and her adult angst.

"I was sitting and watching my mother in her bed, talking to her," Grostern says. "She's blind, helpless and has to be fed. It makes me feel so sad, and I asked myself what I could do? It occurred to me to remember her for the way she was."

Beginning the series last February, Grostern was assailed by imagery and ideas that rained down on her "like an avalanche. It was as if I needed to do this."

Grostern cast her memory back in time and recalled her mother's life, how she was born in 1910 to a long line of sabras in what is now Israel. She lost her own mother at the tender age of two.

Her father, a Torah scribe, shipped his daughter, who was then 14, to his sister in England when he remarried. Now abandoned by both parents, at 18, the girl struck out alone to another relative's home in Australia, where she married an Israeli-born German Jew.

The couple moved to England in 1932, and in 1940, Grostern was the last of three daughters born to them. In 1941, Grostern's father voluntarily left to fight on the coast as a gunner. His wife was temporarily abandoned again, with three small girls to raise alone during times of deprivation and danger.

She never forgave her husband, though they remained together until his passing 11 years ago. Despite her bitterness, she managed to sew her daughters' dresses and keep them together in Kent where they were the only Jews in the village of Borough Green. In 1955, they all moved to Canada where Grostern's father, a furrier, could prosper in his metier.

Grostern tells the story through the clothes her mother sewed, researched from old photographs and going back to the late 1920s, when her mother dressed as a bridesmaid for a cousin's wedding.

Some of the large-scale works are diptychs on paper, separate drawings in one frame. "His and hers" wedding garb hangs without occupants, their style speaking of an era gone by and the temporal nature of human flesh.

Then there is her father, whom she adored, costumed as Rudolph Valentino, and her mother resplendent as Queen Esther, dressed with a spirit that was eventually sapped by the rigours of life.

"I had the need to tell people that she was beautiful then," Grostern says.

She and her sisters move through the images with the obliviousness of youth. Grostern shows herself at the age of nine, enraptured by her very first doll, Wendy, for which she had waited through a war where there were no toys. The human eyes of the baby doll show how vivid her relationship with it was.

As the paintings and drawings move forward through time, the bitterness of advancing age robs her scowling mother of the opportunity to enjoy her fresh-faced grandchildren. She has been abandoned yet again, this time by youth.

Grostern remembers her father more kindly, in the guise of a benevolent ghost hovering in the background, sometimes shining forth in a sunbeam.

The final tableau of Grostern at her mother's side is painful to look at. The elderly woman, skeletal and insensate, sits with her hands crossed on her lap, shutting out her supplicating daughter.

Grostern is still agonizing over the daily deterioration of her mother, but this exhibition has given her some release. It also gives Montrealers a window onto the power of memory and the brevity of life's gifts. Don't miss it.