CHILD OF THE HOLOCAUST: In the last few years, Chris Bierny-Tanz has been making public artworks that communicate a profound sense of place.
Designed in conjunction with architects Paul Edwards and Susan Holman (who has since left town for Washington state), the Tucson pieces already up are Many Color Mountain, Na:nko Ma:s Du'ag Shon, down at Mission and Ajo, and Sun Circle, constructed along the Rillito River near La Cholla.
"Many Color Mountain was supposed to be the gateway to Tucson," Bierny-Tanz says. "The name Tucson meant 'dark mountain' in Tohono O'odham. We went from dark mountain to many colors," reflecting the multitude of cultural groups that now inhabit the place.
The work consists of 17 megaliths arranged in two rows whose silhouettes suggest the mountain ranges that circle Tucson. Sun Circle, an "archeo-astronomical monument," tracks the sun as it moves across the Tucson basin during the year.
"We wanted to connect people with the sun, and with the people who used to live here," Bierny-Tanz says.
She and design partner Edwards are racking up quite a few commissions--upcoming projects include the the next segment of the Mountain Avenue renovation and a whimsical cloud piece at the Tucson airport. (Painter Vytas Sakalas is working with them on the clouds.) Public art is a relatively new career for Bierny-Tanzy, the author of a children's book and a former professor of psychology, but it's turned out to be a calling that's deeply satisfying.
Her serene artworks hardly suggest it, but Bierny-Tanz was a child of the Holocaust who had lived in three countries by the time she was 7. The extreme dislocation of her childhood helped produce an adult who prizes staying in one place, and an artist who is keenly aware of the surroundings for her art.
"The radical change of places, at age 3, at age 7, I feel in some ways has attuned me to place in a sharp way. When I do public art I feel really profoundly that I want to connect with the site. I want to find a way to express place."
Bierny-Tanz's parents were Polish Jews who survived in part because they were willing and able to move and move and move again. Even after the Nazis were defeated, they had to move their family many times. Renée and Henry Tanz spent the first part of their marriage in the Jewish ghetto of Cracow, where in the early years of the Nazi occupation the Jews felt relatively safe.
The Tanzes decided to flee anyway. (Later the people of the Cracow ghetto, including some of their family members, were annihilated, a scene that was brutally rendered in the movie Schindler's List.) Buying up false papers on the black market identifying them as Polish Gentiles, they went to the large city of Warsaw, where they hoped to lose themselves in the burgeoning wartime population. They never spoke Yiddish, relying on their flawless Polish to help conceal their true identities.
"They had numerous close calls, when people suspected they were Jewish and threatened them. Whenever something happened, they moved on. It's amazing to me. It's one thing that contributed to their survival."
In 1944, Renée became pregnant. She and her husband listened to radio reports, pored over maps, and calculated that by the time the child was born they might be safe.
"Very few Jewish children were born during the war, and very few who did survived," their daughter notes.
Despite the Tanzes' hopes, peace had not yet come when their child was ready to be born. Instead, when Renée was in labor, they were on the run. Pausing between contractions, she and her husband were struggling across a field to reach Russian-held territory.
"A horse-drawn-cart picked them up and took them to a military hospital."
The family stayed in Poland until 1948, when a son was born, and then once more fled their home, this time just before the new Soviet rulers sealed the borders. They lived in Paris for six years, then left for America in 1951. Henry Tanz, a lawyer in prewar Poland, failed to find work in New York, and the following year the family moved again to Chicago. He never worked in his profession again, instead earning a meager living in the garment industry. Despite the fact that both parents had lost most of their immediate families, and despite the frugal living, Bierny-Tanz says she and her brother had a happy childhood.
Her mother has since died. Her brother lives in Minneapolis. Her elderly father lives in Tucson. Her roaming days far behind her, Bierny-Tanz lives in the city too, with her husband and son.
"Having this kind of life has created in me the urge to make connections between what happened then and what I'm doing now.... When you're conscious that your life might not have happened, or might not have been able to continue, then you want to have it somehow fit together, not be random, make a whole out of it....
"In my public art, I have an interest in getting into the minds of other people, and understanding experience from other people's perspectives. It relates to being an immigrant: being very conscious of other people's points of view."
Chris Bierny-Tanz will share her family's story in a free talk at 2 p.m., Monday, September 18, at the Tucson Jewish Community Center, 3800 E. River Road, as part of a daily series in association with the exhibition A Message of Hope: Anne Frank in the World. Call 299-3000 for information.
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