Monday, February 24, 2014

A tribute to Edith Kramer, 1916 - 2014

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Jug and flowers from Edith Kramer's home in Austria.
We've all had teachers who have guided us in ways which in retrospect were exactly perfect and I have to say Edith Kramer was one of those teachers for me. (Although at the time I was studying with her I did not appreciate the experience fully, of course.)    I wonder if the appreciation or lack of it had to do with the fact that sometimes what a teacher imagines they are teaching may be different from what a student is actually learning.  For example, while Edith was teaching psychoanalytic theory in art therapy, with a heavy emphasis on Freud, I suspect what I was actually learning was something else having more to do with how Edith lived and worked.  A lot of it had to do with how to live a satisfying life, one filled with inner rewards, inner satisfaction rather than the trappings of our materialistic culture; a life filled with as much art as possible, great conversations with many friends over pots of tea and great bread (from the east village in NYC); a contemplative life, a curious life, an artist's life.  I have a very deep sense of gratitude and debt for the many things that I learned from Edith Kramer.

Edith teaching at NYU, photo by Herschel Stroyman (beautiful gallery here!)
One of the more important thing I learned was the idea of story-telling in the art room, and how appreciative the people we work with are, when we can furnish their minds with inspiring, challenging, sometimes scary and ultimately reassuring stories of resilience, like The Wonderful Adventures of Nils by Selma Lagerlöf.   Edith would tell these stories as she helped the Wiltwyck boys master paint and brush at Wiltwyck Boys' School. Their loved the stories of the little boy, Nils, and his struggles to become a real human child.  I can certainly empathize with the boys' identification with Nils and all that he was learning from the old, gray goose, Akka.  I can certainly understand why they begged Edith to tell them more stories about Akka. Both Akka and Edith probably helped many children become human. How satisfying it must have been for them to paint and listen to these stories.  (If you are interested in what this school was like, there was a film made actually before Edith got there, "The Quiet One", but you certainly get an understanding!)

In looking through the slides of Edith's work, her home in Austria, and photos from her family,  I realize that Edith valued history, and the idea of being a part of a lineage.  We learned the things that Edith learned from Friedl Dicker-Brandeis, and of course we can pass these things on.  Lineages are a very good thing to be a part of, we aren't as isolated and separate as we imagine.

One of the best things I learned from Friedl through Edith, was not to wait to do good things in the world. Friedl had told Edith that she thought that something was very wrong with her, that she needed a lot of psychoanalysis because she had never felt more alive than while she was imprisoned for her Communist activities.  Friedl thought this must be masochism and so she should be analyzed right away. In actuality, her ability to remain fully alive under extreme adversity served her and the children she worked with in Terezin very well. This is comforting because I doubt that perfection is anything I could achieve in this lifetime, and if Friedl could do good things without perfection and under such impossible conditions, then surely I could do some good, too, with conditions that aren't too bad.  (There's a lovely write up about Friedl's work here and of course Elena Makarova and Linney Wix have written about her.)

Another aspect of appreciating history and of being a part of a lineage is the sense of community this engenders. I learned to appreciate that so much when visiting Edith in Austria. The sense of history going back generations and the sense of strong, living, supportive community was so very alive when I visited. Edith wasn't just Edith Kramer, artist/art therapist there, she was "their Kramer", in a way held by the community, as if they had created a supportive transitional space with this feeling of history and community.  Just knowing such community and history is possible is more deeply satisfying and comforting than any material rewards could ever be.

Edith and her mother
 Finally I believe that Edith sparked in me the desire to search for things that provide inner satisfaction (more art, more puppets, more beauty, nature and community) and to search for the part of the super ego that is kindly and care-taking, the inner-Akka, or even, perhaps, the inner-Kramer. The search for these things has been the best adventure of all. It must surely compare with Nils' adventures with Akka, and I have learned everything about being human from this adventure.

So for all of these things and for so much more, I would like to say thank you to my teacher and friend, Edith Kramer!

Nils and Akka


Here's a quote from the end of The Further Adventures of Nils, when Nils has become human and tries to say good bye to his friends and companions, the geese:

"He sat down on the sands and buried his face in his hands. What was the use of his gazing after them any more?

Presently he heard the rustle of wings. Old mother Akka had found it hard to fly away from Thumbietot, and turned back, and now that the boy sat quite still she ventured to fly nearer to him. Suddenly something must have told her who he was, for she lit close beside him.

Nils gave a cry of joy and took old Akka in his arms. The other wild geese crowded round him and stroked him with their bills. They cackled and chattered and wished him all kinds of good luck, and he, too, talked to them and thanked them for the wonderful journey which he had been privileged to make in their company." -Selma Lagerlöf



7 comments:

barbarasaintjacques said...

Lani, this is a beautiful and caring accolade for your friend and teacher, Edith. Thank you you for sharing the information included for others to learn from.

Merrikate said...

Thank you, Lani, for sharing Edith Kramer's gifts to you with us. This is a tribute that surely would have meant a great deal to her,"Unsere Kramer," herself a clear, unshowy beacon and blessing. You are so fortunate to have known her.

Erika Cleveland said...

Wonderful, Lani and thanks so much. It is so helpful for me to see Edith through your eyes. I was there too and didn't get quite the same experience but your vision of her is so true and also loving. Thanks.

Felter Skelter said...

Thank you, this is touching and inspiring

Quatrune Brain: a mind map that includes the arts said...

Lani ...
.... you never cease to amaze, delight and inform me with your Internet sharings.

Thanks you so much for this generous sharing in your E-Memorial about your experiences with Edith Kramer......

Loved the picture of Edith as a baby, with those bright curious eyes...... in her Mother's arms.... with her head upon her mother's breast....

May all read, be informed, and as appreciative as I am.

For me, it is from sharing like this, of a highly mindful person, that continues to grow into challenges, that we, as art therapists, develop as a sense of identity, community and depth of history. Much gratitude, Namaste, Roberta (as in Sho'Be')

www.quatrunebrain.com said...

Lani ...
.... you never cease to amaze, delight and inform me with your Internet sharings.

Thanks you so much for this generous sharing in your E-Memorial about your experiences with Edith Kramer......

Loved the picture of Edith as a baby, with those bright curious eyes...... in her Mother's arms.... with her head upon her mother's breast....

May all read, be informed, and as appreciative as I am.

For me, it is from sharing like this, of a highly mindful person, that continues to grow into challenges, that we, as art therapists, develop as a sense of identity, community and depth of history.

Much gratitude,

Namaste, Roberta

(as in Sho'Be')

Deborah said...

Hearing you read this today at the puppetry workshop with such love and reverence and a slight catch in your voice towards the end has made Edith alive for me. Thank you for pointing me back towards her, and sparking me to remember she is part of my art therapy lineage.