Olga Campbell (seated) takes a break from signing books at the opening of her exhibit A Whisper Across Time, which also served as a launch of her book by the same name. (photo by Gordon E. McCaw)
The impacts of the Holocaust continue to reverberate. Even though most of the first-generation survivors have passed away, the next generations, the survivors’ children and grandchildren, remember.
Local artist Olga Campbell belongs to the second generation. Her parents survived the Holocaust, but her mother’s entire family was murdered by the Nazis. The need to give those family members a voice was Campbell’s driving force in writing her new book, A Whisper Across Time: My Family’s Story of the Holocaust Told Through Art and Poetry. Her solo exhibit with the same name, co-presented with the Cherie Smith JCC Jewish Book Festival, opened at the Zack Gallery on Nov. 15. The night also served as a book launch.
“The art in this show are mostly prints from the book,” she said in an interview with the Independent. “There are also some pieces that are offshoots on the same theme, even though they aren’t in the book.”
Campbell has always known that her mother’s family didn’t survive the war, but the emotional impact of their deaths built slowly over the years. It took decades for this book to emerge.
“In 1997,” she said, “I heard a program on the radio about the second-generation survivors. Their words about the trauma being passed between generations resonated with me.”
She embarked on an artistic journey, and she is still following a path of exploration. Her art reflects her emotional upheaval. Her paintings and statues are fragmented, with broken lines and distorted figures, evoking feelings of loss and anguish. One look at her paintings and a disquiet tension washes over the viewer. It is apparent that a huge tragedy inspired her work.
In 2005, Campbell had a show at the Zack, called Whispers Across Time. “Even then,” she said, “I knew I had to write about my family. The art show was not enough. I had to say more, but, at that time, I couldn’t. I was too raw, too emotional. But my family kept tugging at me. I needed to tell their story. I was compelled to write this book.”
Unfortunately, she knew only the bare bones of her mother’s life. So she plunged into a deep and long research period, surfed the internet, contacted Yad Vashem and other sources. After several years, the book crystallized.
“My book is a tribute to my family, the family I never knew,” she said.
“Of course, it is only one family of the millions of families killed during the Holocaust.”
Campbell spoke of the relevance of her book in today’s political climate. “Our world is a chaotic place right now, somewhat reminiscent of the period before the war,” she said. “There are over 68 million people around the world that are refugees or displaced. My book is not only about my family. It is a cautionary tale. It is about intergenerational trauma and its repercussions across time.”
She created new art for the book, wrote poetry to supplement the imagery, and also included an essay on her family members and their lives, destroyed by the war. The paintings in the book and on the gallery walls are powerful but melancholy, even distressing.
“My work always had this darkness, the sadness, but also a bit of hope,” she said. “I never know what will happen when I start a piece. I’m very intuitive. I would throw some paint on an empty canvas and let my emotions and the art itself guide me through the process. I use photos in my works and digital collages. My finished pieces always surprise me.”
When the book was ready, Campbell applied for another show at the Zack, to coincide with the book launch.
“I wanted to give it the same name as the previous show, Whispers Across Time,” she said, “but I checked the internet, and there are a couple other books already published with the same title. I decided to change it.” The book and the show are called A Whisper Across Time. “I feel a lot lighter now, after the book is finished and published,” she said.
A Whisper Across Time is Campbell’s second publication. In 2009, she published Graffiti Alphabet. She has been doing art for more than 30 years, but that is not how she started her professional career. She was a social worker until, in 1986, she took her first art class. That year changed her life.
“It was such fun. I loved it,” she said. “I went back to work afterwards but it didn’t feel as much fun. I decided to get an art education. I enrolled in Emily Carr when I was 44.”
Campbell finished the art program, continued working part-time as a social worker, and dedicated the rest of her time to painting, sculpture and photography.
“I’ve been a member of the Eastside Culture Crawl for 22 years, since its beginning,” she said. “I participated in the Artists in Our Midst for many years, too. At first, when people asked me, I would say I do art. Now, I say, I’m an artist. I must be. That’s what I do. I’m retired now, but I did art when I was working, too, and it was always very healing and rewarding – still is…. If, for some reason, I don’t paint for awhile, I feel as if something is missing.”
The A Whisper Across Time exhibit continues until Dec. 9. For more about her work and books, visit olgacampbell.com.
Olga Livshin is a Vancouver freelance writer. She can be reached at [email protected].