Introduction to Ravages by Maureen Fain.

Self-Portrait by Maureen Fain. All rights reserved.


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Maureen Fain

An Interview with Maureen Fain

By Rebecca Seiferle

I first became aware of the work of Maureen Fain when Lisa Katz, an Israeli poet and translator and contributing editor to The Drunken Boat, sent a number of images from Fain's “Ravages” series. I was struck by the images and began a conversation, via email with Maureen, about her work. That conversation evolved into this interview.

Fain is an Israeli artist noted for her watercolors of nudes which evoke the colors and textures of the Judean desert. The paintings of “Ravages”, which originated out of Fain's experience of breast cancer, also express the connection between the landscape and the human body by being painted on crushed layers of Jerusalem rock. “Ravages” is also a powerful departure, both in terms of the medium used, and in the powerful confrontational approach. The paintings while depicting the ravages of breast cancer are also powerful images of wounding in all of its forms, capable of being felt in a number of contexts.


Seiferle: Would you like to talk about the inception of these images and the process of painting them?

Fain: It has been a private journey of exploration. I waited about five years to find a way to show how it felt to be mutilated, and when I began to paint I had no idea how each work would turn out. I only wanted it to be good art, not just emotional spew. I spent about a year painting the pictures, and each was a surprise. They gradually became very sensual and abstract, and positive: —life-assertive, with rich color.

Seiferle: What persuaded you to exhibit the paintings?

Fain: At a certain point I showed the works to a few women who had had mastectomies and their shocked recognition and identification convinced me to exhibit . I had been so irritated by coy euphemistic photographs of a pretty rose on the left-hand scar, passing as breast-cancer art. No one had punched the viewers in the gut, and I wanted the doctors and the men to see the especial cruelty of a mastectomy, and also to show that it is after all not only a negative experience. And of course it is so common. And of course it dealt with death as a reality, and the betrayal of the body which is a fact of life.

Seiferle: You have shown these works in Israel and Berlin. What was the response to those exhibits?

Fain: As regards the original exhibition of thirteen paintings at the Jerus Centre for the Performing Arts, a vibrant and viable theatre complex that hosts dozens of exhibitions a year, the blase', “seen it all before” curator apparently spent an hour in tears alone in the exhibition the day after the opening. That was the kind of response I got. The night before the opening we had a discussion— very intense and emotional and well-attended—on art as therapy or as art. As I knew, the reaction was amazing and women came from all over Israel to see the show., and I had endless phone calls. People still talk about it. The Berlin show was different: Apparently in Germany the men get all the prizes and kudos in the arts, so they have a separate Women's organization for poets, sculptors, painters, musicians, etc., called Gedok. They and the German Govt sponsored a group show and symposium with 5 Israeli and 5 German women, which was held at the Schoeneburg Ratthaus where Kennedy gave his famous “Ich bin ein Berliner” speech. We Israelis were guests of the City of Berlin and the symposium was very dynamic: I chose to show four of the “Ravages” paintings and four nude watercolors, which I am known for (I have exhibited my nude watercolors also at the Israel Museum ). The color of the nudes is the color of the rocks of the Judean desert, and the “Ravages” series is painted on a special surface which is actually made of layers of powdered Jerusalem rock, so the surface looks and feels like stone. So I spoke about the paintings in the light of our dying in the land. We live with death as a constant element of our lives. It is a fight over rocks. We are irrevocably part of the land, death leaves us scarred irrevocably. And of course once you are aware of death you cannot regain your pristine unknowing state. And the physical scars as well as the mental are an integral part of our lives and my own personal life. So in Berlin the word cancer was not mentioned at all and the works had their own meaning in a totally different, yet connected way. The other women artists were dealing with identity and personal issues, violence memory, family, and it was amazing how much we had in common, yet how “loaded” the dialogue with German/Israeli still is.

Seiferle: That's fascinating that correlation between the life of the body and the land in Israeli. The nude series, the earlier work, had colors of the rocks of the Judean desert? Has this long been a theme of your work?

Fain: I have been painting nudes in watercolor for about 20 years, and this is actually the core of my work. I have been painting large desert landscapes, also in watercolor, for about ten years, and over the last years I came to see that not only were the colors the same, but the nudes were like landscapes and the landscapes were very feminine nudes. In both subjects there is power. I specifically choose the desert as a subject as it is so noble and overwhelming, and harsh and stark. Nothing pretty or kind, and very biblical of course. I also choose to paint the nude as it is also a special truth — vulnerable and fragile and poetic.... and also ugly, depending on the moment or the model. But that is the human reality, usually hidden. I was surprised when I realised that the two subjects had so much in common.

Seiferle: You've mentioned that you “paint in watercolors as a rule, but found it was not a strong enough medium for the 'Ravages' series?” How did you make the surface of layered Jerusalem rock for these paintings? Was the series a departure from your previous work in other ways?

Fain: Although my watercolors are strong, it is a polite medium. By painting in oils I could get deeper. The surface was about three layers of powdered Jerusalem stone mixed with glue and gesso, then sanded down: smooth in some places, sandy and pitted in others. This meant that I achieved accidental effects as with watercolors, but could build layers with the pigment as well. In addition, I painted from the gut and not by observing a model or scene. I usually paint instinctively without planning in advance, but these results were a big surprise!

Seiferle: You've said that you “always feel reluctant to plan ahead in Israel. . . the future is so uncertain.” Has this effected your artistic work and in what way?

Fain: In Israel we lead a surreal life: there is a war going on yet we try to act normally and continue as if there is a future. Total split and lots of denial. One thing on the suface and all of us with constant fear, suppressed or controlled, inside. And one lot of my work (most of it) is lyrical, a celebration of life and rather joyous, very lovely, and these “Ravages” paintings were therefore a shock to my collectors. A dark side —reality — which they had never dreamt I had, and which they would rather not have been made conscious of.

Seiferle: What are sort of your thoughts on art as therapy versus art as art? or do you see that as a conflict?

Fain: Art, for me, has constraints of formal necessities. I can paint subconsciously and freely but then a critical eye has to restrict and define and organise the page or canvas. Art therapy has to be free and spontaneous, almost like vomiting onto the page, and one is accompanied by a supervisor or safe person who then interprets. I would hope that my paintings have the balance of cool thought to enable them to stand as art and not just emotion.

Seiferle: Has your work continued to reply to the “Ravages” series and in what way?

Fain: My work has so far not continued to reply to the “Ravages” series as it was a finite statement. I may in the future be moved to do something relating to the human condition.

Seiferle: What would you like the viewer to take away from this series?

Fain: I would like viewers to feel the anguish of mutilation. (A mastectomy is cruel to ones innate femaleness. One survives it but is changed irrevocably). I would like viewers to see the pain of growing old — how the body disintegrates. I would like viewers to understand that a scar which opens us up to the reality of death can be an eye opener in a different way — it can be accepted. I would like viewers to think the paintings are beautiful and sad and hopeful, like our lives.


To view the images of Ravages.