The Center for Holocaust & Genocide Studies recently organized a museum visit through its Human Rights, Genocide & Mass Violence (HGMV) Graduate Group to view and discuss works related to genocide currently on exhibit at the Minneapolis Institute of Art. In advance of the meet-up, CHGS did an interview with local artist, Rowan Pope.
Rowan Pope is a lifelong artist from Minnesota. He and his twin brother, Bly, employ photorealistic techniques as a method of storytelling. Rowan addresses dark subject matter through his work, including portrayals of Franz Kafka’s novels and depictions of the Holocaust and the Cambodian genocide. He seeks to explore broad-ranging human emotions and to commemorate the lives of victims and survivors of violence through his art. “The Liberation of Buchenwald,” among other pieces by both Rowan and Bly, will be on display at the Minneapolis Institute of Art through October 28th, 2018.
You can learn more about the event here.
Emily Mitamura: The meticulous nature of your composite photo realism approach would seem to suggest the central importance of dwelling with images of suffering and those therein interred. Coming from the Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies at UMN, this imperative to remember and honor histories of mass violence is very important to the academic and public work we do. Could you share a little bit about how and why you came to this work and especially this devoted artistic practice? How does this deep attention to detail (and thus necessarily large quantities of time devoted) play into your artistic ethos and, perhaps, mission?
Rowan Pope: I came to this kind of work during my time in grad school at the University of Minnesota, through an anti-genocide art project called Voice to Vision. The project is directed by David Feinberg, who has been an art professor at the U for over forty years. Voice to Vision is a collaborative undertaking to help genocide and Holocaust survivors and the children of survivors explore and share their experiences through the process of making art. The survivors meet in David’s studio and they can tell as much or as little of their stories as they like. As they remember and describe their experiences they collaborate with a team of artists, making sketches and drawings and adding symbols and imagery to the final mixed media painting or sculpture. Through the project I was introduced to many genocide survivors – survivors from the Holocaust and Rwandan, Armenian, Cambodian and other genocides – and I heard their stories, which are all profound, devastating, enlightening, and moving. My first drawing through Voice to Vision was “Pink Scarves,” which is at the Mia exhibit now, and is based on a Cambodian genocide survivor’s story. I was inspired by his story – his name is Hong – and felt that it was something that should be put into visual form, so that others might see it. I was in frequent communication with Hong, and my goal – and responsibility, I felt – was to record and represent the events as closely as possible to how they actually happened. Through Voice to Vision I also met Joe Grosnacht, a Holocaust survivor who survived the concentration camps Buchenwald and Auschwitz, as well as numerous work camps, and I wrote a book called “Six Chairs,” which covers a great deal of Joe’s life. I visited often with Joe, recording and transcribing his testimony, and wrote seventeen stories based on his experiences during and after the war. The book was illustrated by 8th grade students at Breck School because I wanted younger students to be informed about this important subject, to meet an actual survivor in person, and to express their own feelings and ideas artistically. Making art about anything, as these students did, has a way of making the experience memorable and personal.
I’m a meticulous, detail-minded artist because I want viewers to spend time with a piece, exploring it and its “secrets,” falling into it emotionally, connecting with it in their own way. I believe that my detailed approach to my subject matter not only compels viewers to explore the image or scene for longer periods of time, but also draws the viewer into the scene itself as if they were witnesses to what’s happening. Detail also allows viewers to actually see clearly the faces – and therefore the humanity – of the people who have experienced the traumatic events I’m portraying. I believe that spending time with these images of suffering inspires empathy in viewers, and a connection to other people’s lives, which is my ultimate goal. I think that the amount of time I spend with a piece demonstrates the love I have not only for creating things, but also for the subjects and people involved in the piece, a love I want to inspire viewers to share with me.
My work is guided by a slow, patient development whereby I completely invest myself for weeks, months or even years in individual pieces – planning, photographing, drafting, and drawing – and making fewer pieces that are high in quality rather than making many pieces lightly or cursorily. Although much of my rigorous, long-term drafting and preparatory process is invisible to viewers, it is a noteworthy aspect of my work, and allows me the time to develop a closer relationship with my drawing and its themes, and to achieve a deeper understanding of the meaning behind the drawing.
EM: Elsewhere you’ve spoken about how your work aims to tell stories that help us “create a guiding ethos and moral system,” “crucial to our survival.” How does this mission play into choosing your subject matter? As I understand, your work draws directly from photographic images which you knit together into these guiding narrative-scapes. In this process of selection (and thus necessarily exclusion), how do you think about violence and representation in your work? Specifically, how do you negotiate between your artistic responsibilities and the responsibilities you bear to the people and moments of violence you depict?
RP: Many of my drawings are inspired by stories because I believe that stories have a powerful and lasting way of uncovering truths about humanity; truth itself being the thing that helps us learn, grow, and survive as a species. Since I have been surrounded by stories all my life (my parents are both writers and lovers of literature), I have come to understand not only the joy and wisdom they can instill, but also that they are a moral necessity in daily life, helping us become part of a community by creating moral systems for how to live rightly and well. They deliver messages and timeless themes that help us think relevantly about our lives and learn how to live; and they explain what the experience of being alive truly is. They reveal truths about all things human, and are therefore crucial to our lives, our souls, and our very survival. Stories about survivors are extremely important to pass on to younger generations for many reasons, not least of all because the lessons they impart may help to stop similar atrocities from happening again.
I choose the stories I represent in drawing because of their personal, emotional impact on me — the stories that affect me the most or stay with me the longest. They aren’t always necessarily nonfictional stories; they are often fictional stories, such as those written by the great author Franz Kafka. I select a variety of photographs from various sources – online images or personally taken photographs — and I collage these photographs together, usually digitally; I then draw from that collage. To be honest, my opinion of our species is not always a positive, cheerful or happy one; in fact, I believe that history has revealed us to be a species capable of unspeakable horror, violence, and atrocity. Therefore, in my effort to convey truth about humanity, the imagery I choose is often violent or frightening in nature. Often the photographs I choose are rife with emotion: this is so that they can have an emotional impact on viewers. Art that has an emotional impact, I think, stays with viewers for longer periods of time. My responsibility as an artist – and I think every artist has this responsibility – is to reveal some kind of truth about the world in which we live, and I think it’s important for artists not to shy from revealing people as they are, as they have been, and what they can do to each other. And so I want to tell the stories of people that will benefit the lives of others.
EM: Finally, who has inspired your work and how do you think this debt/gratitude manifests?
RP: People like Joe, Hong, and other survivors whom I’ve met through Voice to Vision, have inspired my work – their stories are incomparable and deeply emotionally affecting. David Feinberg has also inspired my work through this project which is so geared toward inspiring empathy and enlightenment in others. I see it as my responsibility to represent the stories of these survivors accurately and honestly, but also with feeling, and I believe – and hope – that my gratitude to them manifests itself as the art itself.
Emily Mitamura is a PhD student in the Department of Political Science studying the relationship between aesthetics and social death in the wake of the Cambodian Genocide. With an emphasis on the brutalities of the every day, her work proceeds from commitments to postcoloniality, knowledge production, and race, engaging both adjudication and memorialization efforts taken up in response to mass violence as well as knowledge claims conveyed in art, performance, and film.