As I sat at Jacki Apple’s zoom memorial, 8 days ago, I reflected on the ways that a life gets compacted into phrases and anecdotes, delivered with humor or tears, and what that says about one’s memories of the person. I didn’t get to speak (other than claiming some sentences in the chat) because I hadn’t thought to write to the organizers to claim space in the script. I had thought there would be an open mike. But there wasn’t. That meant that my grief and my memories had to be more contained, more invisible than I had planned. In retrospect, I understand why the producers of the event did not open things up to the guests. It could have been a zoom filled with endless, painful, and unbridled contributions, long monologues serving the speaker, and no one else.
We arrive at different stations within the deceased’s journey, some of us knowing of each other intimately and others who have never heard of each other. But somehow, there’s a desire to claim the turf you occupied with that person, as both an act of love, and an impulse to make your own life visible in the the thread of theirs.
So I’m going to use this morning’s blog to claim space for each of those who’ve become ancestors in the past few years. I don’t want to describe them as losses, even though I ache for more conversations with each of these folks. Each one of these people had an impact on my life that was truly significant, something that can’t be recaptured in a short monologue on Zoom, so I’m gratefully claiming space for what they offered me as well as some of what they offered the world.
Dear tender spirits, you shaped my life’s journey in profound ways. I will lean into my memories of you respectfully to recall the evidence of your impact.
Rachel Kahn-Hut (1938-2020)
Rachel was my cousin. The details of how we were related get confusing to me, so I will leave them be for now. Rachel was a fixture at family gatherings, usually one in the summer, and Thanksgiving, and she usually traveled long distances from California to be with us. She came solo, was never married and had no kids. For many years, she cared for her aging mother. As the first family member with a PhD and a college professor, she was admired greatly, especially by my parents, and the conversations had with her were rarely shallow. I have many stories about her, but I’m going to savor just a few here: while browsing in the journal section at my undergraduate college, I discovered an article that Rachel had written in a newly published feminist journal called SIGNS. It came out of Barnard or Columbia in NYC and I was startled to see her name there. I was a “baby feminist” coming to understand how patriarchal values had affected my place in the world, and I was beginning to express my rage with my peers. Rachel’s writing gave me a sense that I was not alone in my family, claiming space for the voices of women. Her writing buoyed my spirit and gave me courage, just when it was needed.
Rachel also took me, during one of my first visits to San Francisco, for my first dimsum feast in SF’s Chinatown. I will never forget those endless carts with difficult to pronounce dishes and how much I delighted in those flavors and textures. She also drove me to the Redwood forest in Marin, and as I gazed and smelled the fragrances of those mossy beings, I felt the enchantment of California graze my cheeks and settle in my bones. I knew I would be back someday, and so I was.
I was sad to learn, after I moved to the West Coast, and saw Rachel more frequently, staying at her home in Oakland, that writing no longer interested her, other than the postcards she faithfully sent to our son from her many travels, post-retirement. I tried to find out why she stopped writing for her field, and it seemed that she no longer had the energy for claiming space in that way. At her zoom memorial, I learned from her colleagues and friends that she had had an enormous impact on the field of women’s studies, as well as many students. I was grateful to hear those stories; they reframed my portrait of her in the best way.
Franz Rudolf Knubel (4/24/1938 – 5/16/2020)
I met Rudolf and his family, Cornelia (Nele), his wife, and his two sons, Tobias and Simon, in 1986 in Long Beach, CA. Rudolf & family had come to CSU Long Beach as part of a faculty exchange. He was a professor of design and art from Essen, Germany. The fall of 1986 was my first semester as a tenure track faculty member at CSULB, and after we had a few rich conversations in his campus studio, I was invited home to Rudolf’s family for a meal, and then another, and before long we were doing many things together. Rudolf, Nele Bruninghaus-Knubel (an education curator at the Wilhelm Lembruck Museum in Duisberg, Germany) and I had long discussions about art and politics, and it was a real education for me who had had little contact with Germans before. It was only natural that we maintained a friendship long after he had returned to Germany.
In 1990, Bob and I visited them in their amazing historical home (a remodeled orphanage that was hundreds of years old) outside of Essen, in the village of Werden. I unexpectedly fell in love with Germany, and the work of so many to heal the wounds of the war. I loved walking through the cobblestone streets of their village and savoring the amazing breads. Rudolf would often say that Germany lost so much of its culture, particularly the arts and sciences, when their Jews were persecuted and murdered, and one of the only aspects of German culture that remained was the bread. I met several of Rudolf and Nele’s friends who were doing important cultural work with Turkish immigrants. During that visit, we had the amazing experience of witnessing the German weather report transition from being East & West to just Germany. Tobias and Simon, both teens at the time, were so excited when they heard that broadcast that their hopes for future were palpable.
For almost 3 decades, we visited with each other. Once when our son was 7 years-old (2002) we were able to offer him a taste of German hospitality. After a few days in their Werden home, we traveled with Rudolf and Nele to see the Documenta show in Kassel via fast train. I had never been to a major international art show and I was not disappointed. There was a ton of provocative work dealing with imperialism, racism, and colonialism. In 2004, Rudolf & Nele came to Tacoma, where Rudolf had an exhibition of his work at our campus gallery (that sadly closed soon after). In 2005, I had an exhibit of a new installation (AND NOW, Behind Curtain #2) in the show, Spielraume (Game Room), thanks to Nele’s curation, at the Lehmbruck Museum. In 2010, we met up in NYC in the Cooper Hewitt Design Museum, and I remember their assistance in purchasing an ultra modern watch that I ended up barely wearing. It was the second time I had purchased a rarely worn watch in their company (the first one was at an Yves Klein exhibit) and I wonder what that says about our relationship (LOL). I believe that the last time we saw them both was in 2011, in Berlin, where we celebrated our son’s 16th birthday. Getting a tour of Berlin with two people who had gone to university and art school there, when the Berlin Wall still divided the city, was a fascinating experience. Again we had many conversations about art & politics, especially when visiting the town of Potsdam and learning about its significance during the Nazi regime.
Rudolf once told me during one of the visits to his home that he was a carrying a story that was a burden to him. When we had first become friends at CSULB, some of the white male faculty had approached him and asked him, quite insistently, why he had chosen to be friends with “that NY Jewish Bitch.” He was horrified at the time and decided to keep that little gem to himself until I was long gone from CSULB. He and Nele had made it their business to befriend many Jewish people over the years. It seemed like a very noble and personal reparation quest since they both had been quite young during WWII, and had experienced the bombing close to home.
The truth is that Long Beach like many parts of AmeriKKKa contains the seeds of anti-Jewish racism, one of the building blocks of white supremacy. That a woman from NYC who was not raised with religion, but who looks like an “other,” would be perceived as dangerous to the locals, especially if she is teaching art for social change, is no surprise. Rudolf had naïvely believed that the U.S. was free of the hate and fear that had fueled the rise of Nazism. Perhaps he realized, after the rise of Trumpism, that our country was built on white supremacy, patriarchy, and Christian hegemony. I never got to ask him. I had hoped to visit him again after leaving my most recent academic position, but he died of the cancer that had caught him just as the pandemic was in full throttle.
I zoomed with Nele about a year ago, and that gave me some comfort. She is the third friend to become a widow in the past 2 years, and like my other friends, she is traversing that new territory with grace. https://www.pbs.org/video/wpt-documentaries-franz-rudolf-knubel/
Sylvia King (June 5, 1950 – January 13, 2022)
We met our dear friend, Sylvia, in 1993, at a training for activist artists in Ukiah, California. She and two colleagues from Jubilee Arts in the UK (The West Midlands in England) had been brought to CA to help teach community art practices & ethics to a group of us, with facilitation support from Don Adams and Arlene Goldbard. They used a community-based arts action research model that really spoke to us. Bob and I went on to lead workshops on “activist art in community” at the Institute for Social Ecology using some of the techniques offered in that intensive. Our work with Jubilee Arts also influenced my teaching at CSULB, Goddard College, and UW Tacoma. Major ingredients were: 1. being clear about the intention of a community-based arts project, 2. think about the context, 3. who is the audience, 4. make a skill inventory of the participants, 5. listen carefully and respectfully as we collect stories and brainstorm creative strategies, and 6. be transparent with and responsive to community members. It was really the Ethics of Community-based Arts Practices 101, although it was not named as such, and I’m forever indebted to that training. Sylvia invited me to be an artist in residence with Jubilee Arts in England in 1994, but the Dean at CSULB denied me a sabbatical that had been approved by the sabbatical committee and the department chair. The chair believed that the dean was punishing me for receiving tenure. As mentioned in Rudolf’s piece above, there were several white men on the faculty who were desperately and sadly scared of me, perhaps because my students asked challenging questions in their classes and several were furious that I’d actually received tenure for the right reasons like doing a good job, being a good teacher and excelling in my art career. The hostile climate at CSULB was one of the reasons I left my position soon after being denied sabbaticals two years in a row. Despite the huge disappointment of not getting that particular sabbatical, Sylvia invited me to give a public talk at Jubilee during the period when they were building a major community arts center, The Public. The tragic story of that cultural center’s rise and demise was devastating for Sylvia both on an emotional and physical level. Witnessing the impact that the collapse of her visionary project had on her health during our subsequent visits to England was really hard. Over the years, Sylvia became one of our dearest friends. She was incredibly supportive and kind in every way, and we felt blessed to know her. We’re grateful that she had such loving daughters and friends who saw her through her final decline. I last visited with her in 2018 right after my exhibition opened at ONCA in Brighton, and Bob saw her in 2019 right after meeting with his PhD advisors at the U of Roehampton. Sylvia, we feel your spirit and laughter close to us. While I did not get to attend a zoom of the memorial, the notes from her daughters and watching the recording helped me feel included in the celebration of her life.
To learn more about the legacy of The Public & Jubilee Arts visit https://www.thepublic.com/arts.html
Lauren Soth (1935 – 5/24/2022)
While I was not invited to his zoom memorial, I was able to write about Lauren on social media and on the Carleton College memorial page. Lauren was a significant “gate opener” in my life, particularly in relation to my academic path. He would often tease me that I had “sold out” by becoming a professor.
I wrote this message on his memorial page, https://www.carleton.edu/farewells/lauren-soth/: “Lauren launched my academic career when he offered me a visiting artist gig at Carleton College from 1984-86. It my first full-time teaching position. He had invited me to campus in the spring of 1983 to give talks on my work. He had been following my art career in NYC and thought it would be good for students to hear from me. Students loved my talks, and when the art department suddenly had to replace Deborah Brown who had taken an emergency leave, I was the first person they called. I am indebted to him for this – he truly believed in my work.
Lauren had a persona that bristled; he was not shy to give acidic retorts or wickedly probing questions. He was also unexpectedly kind and curious. Given that I and a fierce cohort of baby feminist artists did a sit-down strike in his office when he was chair of the art department when we were juniors (in 1974), and that he conceded that we were right and gave us a budget to bring in visiting women artists, brought in female art historians, and more, it was to his credit that 10 years later, he was able to offer me a teaching gig with all sorts of perks. He was on board with my retooling traditional art classes to make them socially engaged and interdisciplinary, and to my great delight, I saw that he had added a plentitude of women and artists of color to his art history lectures. We met up at the College Art Association for many years after my return to Carleton and he was never shy to tease me about my career, and I was always glad to hear his stories.”
One bonus story is that our dear friend, Danny Kolker, also a Carleton grad (’74), was transformed by Lauren’s freshman art history seminar, and has become one of the most well informed & passionate art lovers I know. He is a fixture in the Miami Beach art scene, and beloved by the arts community for his deep insight about the work he encounters. Another gift, courtesy of Lauren’s influence.
Suzi Gablik (1934-5/7/2022)
Although I had heard of Suzi Gablik in grad school, it wasn’t until she unexpectedly wrote about my work, that we connected and became friends. She was visiting NYC (from London where she then lived) to see and write about exhibitions for Art in America. In her 1984 review of the exhibition, “The End of the World: Artists Visions of the Apocalypse,” at New Museum of Contemporary Art, she highlighted my installation, THIS IS NOT A TEST. Her review was insightful and praising in such a profound way that I felt compelled to write to the magazine and thank her. They forwarded my letter to her, and she responded quickly. She was already back in London, but she invited me for lunch when she was next in NYC. We ended up eating, walking, and talking several times during her visit. We discovered that we shared a distaste for the commodified art world, and a passion for art for social change. About two months after we met, I was invited to be a visiting artist & professor at my alma mater, Carleton College. I was given a huge budget with which to invite visiting artists and scholars, and Suzi was among the many I invited.
The most profound aspects of our relationship emerged after we both moved to southern California. I was hired by the art department at CSU Long Beach and Suzi was a visiting scholar at UC Santa Barbara. Suzi learned that one of the people who inspired the revision of my audience-participatory installation at the New Museum, Joanna Macy, was going to be leading a workshop at the Ojai Foundation. She encouraged me to go and meet Joanna in person. Suzi and I made the journey to Ojai together and to say that the experience was life-changing is an understatement. Suzi introduced me to Joan Halifax, now Roshi Joan of the Upaya Zen Center, but back then, Joan was the director of the Ojai Foundation. Both Joanna’s work and the experience of being on that sacred land deepened my capacity to be present and alive to the creative work of social change. I felt truly anchored. A year later I was invited to a retreat with Thich Nhat Hanh for activist artists. I was deeply honored to be there, and again it was life changing. It was an intimate retreat with less than 40 participants. I was about to marry an ordained lay monk in the Vietnamese Zen lineage, Bob Spivey, so having Thây’s introduction to sitting meditation helped to nurture the beginning of our marriage.
I credit Suzi for opening many doors: particularly that of my many layered, spiritual path, one that I had been avoiding, due to so much early conditioning from my family of origin. But with Suzi’s encouragement to meet my mentor, Joanna, an exquisite thread of my life’s journey was reinforced, and I am deeply indebted to her for that.
In return for that gift, while Suzi was brainstorming her new book, The Reenchantment of Art, I began to offer her the names of artists whose inspiring work needed to be included in her research. We spent many meals discussing who and what represented the new paradigm she was trying to put forward. I was grateful to be part of the birth of the book and was honored to have my work highlighted in it.
Suzi eventually decided to leave Santa Barbara, realizing that she could not afford housing there, even in exchange for the treasured Jasper John’s painting that she had been gifted. She moved to Virginia, bought a house in Blacksburg, and we kept in touch for some time. When she visited her aunt in Los Angeles, we would always meet for a meal. During one of those visits, I shared that I was pregnant. Suzi’s response was unexpectedly negative; she blurted out, “you’re throwing away your career.” Her conventional notion of the female artist, solitary, without children, startled me. I don’t think she realized that her role in opening the door to spiritual work begun at the Ojai Foundation was part of the reason that I became open to hearing the disembodied voice who became our son. I’m not going to share the details of that story here, but it’s important to offer that Suzi’s discouraging words actually goaded me to become more focused and determined to commit to my art practice from the beginning of our son’s life. I also wrote an essay about it: “You Might As Well Throw Away Your Career” that was delivered at the Women’s Caucus of the College Art Association in Chicago in 2014. Sadly, my correspondences with Suzi ended not long after our son’s birth in 1995. She sent a gift and a note and I’m sure I responded, but I felt estranged from her and disappointed that someone so committed to shifting paradigms had internalized such a deep stereotype about women artists.
During the memorial zoom for Suzi, I shared small tidbits of my journey with Suzi, but found myself feeling saddened that I had not maintained our relationship over the years. I was glad to know that so many artists had benefited from her support, some of whom I had met in different ways over the years. I felt a bit bereft that I had never really mended the wound.
THICH NHAT HANH (October 11, 1926- January 22, 2022)
I had never heard of Thich Nhat Hanh until the winter of 1989. I had just met the man who would become my husband in October of 1988, and I was slowly learning what it means to have a commitment to a meditation practice. Bob was not a proselytizer for Buddhism, by any means, but when he heard that I had been invited to an activist artist retreat with Thây, he encouraged me to go. I had never experienced a silent retreat, and the first three days of the week were in silence. There was something both soothing and strange about it, because for the first time I was able to see/hear the voices in my head making up all kinds of stories about the people around me. When people finally spoke to each other, I was astonished not only by the timbre of their voices, but the way they articulated their thoughts. It was so distinct from my own fantasies and assumptions that it gave me pause.
Bob and I chose to go to Plum Village a year later, and we loved the energy of this refuge in the south of France. I loved the tea ceremonies and the dharma talks (although I fell asleep in at least one of them, and remember Thây’s kind voice saying, it’s okay if you fall asleep because you’re still getting the message). My favorite memory is making potato knishes on Ancestor Day with two Vietnamese nuns, one who spoke Italian and the other spoke German. There was something deeply moving about all of us in different diasporas sharing the intimacy of my grandmother’s recipe (revised in my particular way – sour cream replaced by yogurt, and white flour replaced by whole wheat) together.
The most important lessons that I received from Thich Nhat Hanh happened at another retreat in Malibu, CA in 1991. It was retreat for Vietnam War veterans and peace activists and it was well attended. Maxine Hong Kingston led a writing workshop for the handful of vets who had the courage to attend. The experience of hearing the veterans stories of their trauma and shame on the last day of the retreat broke open all of our hearts. Witnessing how the system of war abuses everyone, taught me deep compassion that I was able to carry into my work as a teacher who works with vets and people who are part of the military or military families. It was deeply humbling. It was at this retreat that I learned the importance of a sangha for maintaining the practice and when we returned home, we formed one with lovely people who lived in the Venice, CA area. And when we moved to western Massachusetts, after I left my tenured position at CSU Long Beach, we found another lovely sangha who became a family of choice during our eight years in Shelburne Falls. And now, going through my husband’s cancer journey, we have created The Bad Buddhist Sangha to offer support and nourishment to our community and to our family as we navigate this time of uncertainty.
Our last retreat with Thây was in 2011 in Vancouver, BC. We had not been able to sit with him during our son’s early years, but at age 16, he was able to join us for part of the retreat. It thrilled me to see Sam do walking meditation next to Thây, and as someone with sensory issues, he really enjoyed the silent meals. During the five years we lived in Seattle, we belonged to Vipassana meditation groups that introduced me to many different and wonderful teachers, but we have always returned to Thich Nhat Hanh as our anchor.
I attended many online celebrations of his life after his passing and was very moved by the ceremonies held at his home temple in Hue, Vietnam where he’d been living for several years after his stroke in 2014. I feel Thây continuing inside me, so I have not grieved his passing. I recite his gathas (meditation poems) every night when I have insomnia which has been nightly these days. I listen to the podcast, The Way Out is In https://plumvillage.org/podcasts/the-way-out-is-in/ every week to strengthen my practice through the resources offered in their recordings. Our sangha is currently reading https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/52575747-zen-and-the-art-of-saving-the-planet and our discussions have been rich.
I should mention that I was not raised with religion, but rather with strong ethical principles and the values of tikkun olam (although it was not named as such since my parents did not practice the Jewish religion). Tikkun Olam means to repair the world. I’m not a card-carrying Buddhist or even a Bu-Ju, or Ju-Bu, but I am someone who is deeply grateful for the teachings generously given by the honorable Thich Nhat Hanh, poet, activist, and monk. I would not be me without his deep insights guiding me daily.
Jacki Apple (December 11, 1941- June 8, 2022)
I started this blog post almost two weeks ago with Jacki’s memorial fresh in my mind. I met Jacki through my grad school studio mate, Bruce Barber. Bruce and I were both attending the Nova Scotia College of Art & Design in Halifax, Nova Scotia and were in the middle of our first year of the MFA program when we traveled to NYC for winter break, 1977. Bruce, originally from New Zealand, had met Jacki and her ex-husband, the artist, Billy Apple, when they were traveling in NZ. Bruce remained friends with Jacki and wanted me to meet her when we visited the City. Jacki was then working at the Franklin Furnace, an alternative space that specialized in artist’s books, window installations, and performance art, and Jacki was the curator of the latter two offerings. In 1979, after I moved back to the City, Jacki offered me a slot in the window installation line up. I knew exactly what I was going to create there, a facsimile of an employment office. At that time, I had just left a full-time position with the NY State Arts Council as an administrative assistant in the Museum Aid Program. I was full of questions about what meaningful work might mean during the recession in NYC, and I wanted to engage with other underemployed folks to find out how they kept their spirits up during the job hunt. Jacki was excited about this project and gave me full license to play with the idea.
The storefront of the Franklin Furnace was disguised as an employment agency, with signs advertising various opportunities and perks. It was not at all obvious that it was a satire. People came in, with resumes underarm, looking for work. As someone without gainful employment myself, I was almost always there to invite people in, have them sit in the booth, where the chairs were rigged with an audio switch. As soon as someone sat down, the 5-minute audio loop would go on. The audio was full of questions, inner thoughts of a job hunter, and lots of humor. People quickly got hooked, and once the tape was over, they would remark, “I don’t know what that was, but I feel much better.” Behind the office booth, was a space with coffee and tea, books about creating your own job, and comfy seats in which we could sit and schmooze. Jacki sometimes joined us in conversation. The installation, “Apply Within,” attracted the attention of Lucy R. Lippard, who wrote about it in ArtForum Magazine. And thus, my art career was more firmly launched.
Soon after this, Jacki and Martha Wilson (founder and director of FF), hired me to be an artist’s assistant and publicist for the gallery. Both of my “bosses” were deeply committed to their work, intelligent, and eccentric, but it was Jacki who took me underwing. Through her invitations to events and my work at the FF, I was able to meet many local and international artists, many who expanded my sense of how art could function in the world.
This generosity continued after Jacki moved to Los Angeles. When I visited LA for the first time for a cousin’s wedding, she hosted me in her apartment, sharing her delight in her new home, taking me on a tour of favorite spots, like the local Trader Joe’s in Culver City (it was one of the first of that chain) and the beloved Rose Café in Venice.
A few years later, I joined Jacki in southern California. I had become a new faculty member in the art department at CSU Long Beach, their NYC artist. I felt very much like a fish out of water in Long Beach, so Jacki invited me to parties, events, exhibitions, and dinners to help me find my cohort.
Soon after moving to LA, at one of those parties, she introduced me to Sheila Pinkel, saying “you need to know Sheila; she’s one of your activist artist peers in town.” Sheila and I shared many interests in common; over the years, we shared meals, spaces in exhibitions, and on stages as speakers. I discovered, to my delight, that LA was filled with feminist artists, many of whom were very welcoming, without the pretensions and competitive energy that I found so off-putting in the NYC art world. I thought that Jacki fit in beautifully in LA where she curated shows, experimented with her own work, performed, wrote, was an inspired teacher with devoted students at the Pasadena Art Center, and ran her KPFK-fm radio show about sound & performance art. She was in her element and highly successful.
When my artist’s book, One Size DOES NOT Fit All (originally known as “The Fat Book”) was published in 1993, Jacki confessed to me that she was “fat-phobic,” a common prejudice in our current society, and that she found it difficult to even sit next to fat people in public. I was grateful to hear her speak so honestly about her struggle to see all bodies as deserving of love and respect.
We were able to share our growing interest in sitting meditation as a spiritual practice, and in the last year or so before I left Los Angeles, we sat together in Venice, CA, in a sweet, little sangha inspired by our teacher, Thich Nhat Hanh. Jacki maintained a sitting practice, attending retreats, long after we left LA in 1995.
In subsequent years, I visited with Jacki every time we came to LA, whether it was for an exhibition that I was participating in, a conference I was speaking in, or for a family occasion. She was always a gracious host, sharing her passions for her current projects and her excitement about the work of others. I last saw her in person in 2018 when I was attending the College Art Association meeting. She shared some of the process of archiving her huge body of work, I was impressed by her incredible vitality and passion for leaving a legacy for future students and historians.
We only spoke a few times during the pandemic and her cancer journey, and I regret that my husband’s own cancer journey kept me from keeping better in touch with her. When I last spoke with her, she expressed deep compassion for what we were going through with our son’s mental health struggles, and shared her disappointment with what had happened to the once lively arts hub of LA once the internet and social media interrupted more in-person connection.
Some End Notes about Zooms and Mortality
Ultimately, the process of memorializing someone in the distant forum of zoom can be deeply unsatisfying, especially if you carry many layers of experiences and stories about a significant person in your life, and there is no open mike in which to share them. Even with the opportunity to say your piece, the lack of physical contact while mourning someone is challenging. How to manage this grief then? Well, this writing is the first step. I know that these losses will continue. It is that time in my life when more and more of those around me will become ancestors, and I need to prepare somehow for that inevitability. The hyper-mobility of my pre-pandemic life connected me with many people all over the world, so my losses with be many, and given the current chapter of climate emergency, increasing poverty, violence, and polarization, and pandemic, the work of grieving will occupy many of us more than ever. May we find the tools to navigate it all with generosity, kindness, and grace and inspire our communities to imagine a world where seven generations will thrive.