ZARA KRIEGSTEIN: A Memory
My first awareness of the art of Zara Kriegstein was in my home. My wife had a lithograph on the wall of a piece that I tried to ignore, not because of the subject matter which was the inside of a Mexican nightclub and not because of the intense colors—none of that would ever bother me—but because, to my eye, the piece was dominated by the image of a man with a large nose, who was a spitting-image of my uncle, a person whom I did not happen to like. My uncle, who would not have been caught dead in a place like that, would probably have done very well there in any case.
It was my wife who thought Zara would be an ideal artist for my story, A Child’s Book of Existential Psychology, that I had written more than a dozen years before and had always hoped to have illustrated and published. So, when we went to a gallery opening in Santa Fe and my wife informed me that Zara was there, I wasn’t shy about asking whether she might do my illustrations, my taste notwithstanding. I don’t always trust my taste in these areas and I am usually willing to expand my horizons where it concerns art.
Zara responded by saying that she didn’t usually do that kind of work, but she would have a look at the story and would consider. I remember meeting her at a café near the Santa Fe Plaza to get her reaction to what she had read and to find out whether she would be willing to work on the project. If you knew Zara, you would know that her manner was very direct, even brusque. I waited on her judgment. She took a moment before she told me that she would not consider working on it unless I first made changes and particularly wanted me to change the end of the story. “It’s so 80’s”, she said. I told her that I would be willing to change the end, but that I had no idea what I would change it to. And we left it at that.
It was my burden now to figure out what she might want that would coincide with what I could live with in a literary sense. We met again after the rewrite, although I will admit that I had no idea whether she would like it or what it might look like when illustrated. I should add that most of my text described what the images should look like, except for the last few pages, the ones she requested, for which I could offer no guidance. When she finally agreed to do the art that I had just learned I had commissioned, I had to hope that the result would make more sense aesthetically in the context of what she decided to do for illustrations, which meant, of course, that I was opening the piece up for her to add not only pictures, but also meaning. What she added took my breath away. Also, it was because of this exchange that I feel comfortable saying this work is a true collaboration.
Zara and I were never friends. I liked her and enjoyed the theater she created all around her and her look and authority of a Russian countess. I was aware that she took on the project mostly for the money and also because she knew that she could give it life. There is no doubt in my mind that she made these illustrations with the same diligence and energy as she gave to all her other work. My proof was her excitement before she showed me the final image, the same image that appears on the cover. She had it turned to the wall when I entered her studio. There was no music, but, when she finally turned the canvas for my view, it could have been accompanied by a drum roll. When I looked, I became as excited as she was proud of the baby, our hero, dressed as Sherlock Holmes.
All this was brought back to me when my web designer asked for a photo of me to include in the Translimbic Press website. When I saw how he intended to use the photo, I said that I would not want to include a picture of me, if there was not also one of Zara, of which I had none. As I knew, she had died of cancer in 2009. I heard that the cancer was caused by the chemicals she used from printing years before she worked on my book. Then, the next blow came when I tried to find her son, Gandalf Gavan, in New York, to obtain a photo of her, only to learn that, like Zara, he too had died, but of a heart attack over a year ago as of this writing.
I offer this tale so that the reader of this work should know that I would have preferred to have Zara’s picture on the website, just as I would add it along with my own to any future editions of the book. As it is, you might see a picture of me smiling at you as you read this (perhaps not). Any smile of mine might be sincere, but bittersweet. I would have preferred to have Zara participate in whatever this book becomes. This is not a new sentiment on my part. I told her something similar after she had finished her work.
I would add that she did not like the green cover, but would have preferred red. She also had some objections about the layout of the book, which I never quite understood, but which I assumed was still another way that she wanted to put her own stamp on it, none of which offends me. Disagreements are part of life after all and are a product of people’s individual characters. I am not closed to the idea of a red cover. Maybe in some future edition, if there is one, I will make the cover red, Zara red, the way she would have liked it.
©TransLimbic Press 2017