Art versus life

Art versus life

Tenafly JCC to host work of mid-century Jewish artist

The countryside at dusk.

Stories about starving artists, creative souls driven to make art no matter what it does to them or to their families, are among our culture’s most basic tropes.

They can be tragic – the ballerina dancing to death in her red shoes, the writer starving in his garret – but they somehow end well, if posthumously, with the artist finally recognized for his or her genius.

It’s not impossible that this scenario will play itself out for the artist Jack Goresko, who certainly has the first part of it nailed. That’s the part where he had to live a tortured life, compelled to make art, driven to make art, ignoring his family and getting by on scraps, and dying, in 1991, largely unrecognized.

Now, though, his son, Eben Goresko, has gathered, restored, and begun to show his work. Jack Goresko’s paintings and sketches will be on display at the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades in Tenafly from November 2 to November 23. (The show will open with a reception on Sunday, November 2, from 1 to 3.)

According to family lore, Jack Goresko, who was born in 1916, always had a pencil in his hand. His parents were Russian immigrants who made their way to Montreal. “His father worked in a clothing factory, and saw my father’s penchant for art as impractical and unlikely,” Eben said. “He didn’t get any support from them.”

If it was not easy to be an artist in Montreal then, it was even harder to be a Jewish one. Jack Goresko, a proud Jew and devoted Zionist, found himself drawn to Jewish art.

“Montreal back in those days was a very provincial place,” Eben said. “They didn’t recognize Jewish artwork in any way.” But his father studied with Alexander Bercovitch, who was both Jewish and a well-known local artist and theater designer, and he also was able to fortify his self-taught skills with some study at the École des Beaux-Arts de Montréal.

“So my father just continued with his art, and to my knowledge he didn’t really do anything else,” Eben said. He joined an artists’ colony. In 1941, he married Susan Boroff, another child of immigrant parents, “and they lived a bohemian life.” They traveled around Quebec Province, going from the Gaspé Peninsula to Montreal to its exurbs, living in artists’ colonies and on a farm with family friends, but they never quite managed to fit in or settle down.

As World War II ended and survivors began trickling into Canada, sometimes silent about their past but sometimes telling stories about some of the horrors they’d endured, the parents and children they’d lost, the waking nightmares they’d been unable to shake, Jack Goresko heard them. He had always painted everything – what he saw, what he knew, what he imagined, what he felt – and now he also painted what he’d heard and learned from the survivors.

In 1950, the Goreskos decided to change their luck by moving to the United States. “First they checked out Chicago,” Eben said. “My father was looking to either study or teach at the Art Institute there. He was told that he didn’t have the academic qualifications he’d need to study there, but with his skills, he could teach anatomy in the fine arts department. It was such a mixed message! Technically we can’t admit you as a student – but you should be teaching here.”

Next, on the advice of a family friend who lived there, they moved to Philadelphia, and there, in the mid 1950s, the family’s two sons were born. “It’s not a stretch to say that my parents were not average householders,” their son said. “They came poor as church mice, looking for better fortune, and my father was getting ahead with his ideas and his work – but then we came along, and that forced him to put it on hold.”

Jack Goresko never again even tried to support himself and his family as a full-time artist, but he never stopped painting. The time that he needed for his art he took from his family, his son said; he was “a little detached and remote.”

After trying a series of doomed entrepreneurial ventures, including a stint as a Fuller Brush man and a stab at plumbing, losing confidence and hope as he went, eventually Jack resigned himself to the apparently inevitable.

“He had to work in the post office at night – he lived on No Doze – and they tried to establish themselves in a lower-middle-class life,” Eben said. “When you have children, you need stability.”

After many years at the post office, Jack became a government illustrator, a job that required a firm hand and a good eye but no creative skills; surely the irony of his civil service title was not lost on him.

His mother, though, was an artist of sorts, but she “was not a fine artist, like my father,” he continued. “She was more of a wheeler-dealer type, and an athlete, and she had a dance background. Both my parents lived an art life, but my mother was the one who really took over with my brother and me, and guided us toward the arts.”

Eben Goresko is a pianist, and he studied art at the Fleisher Art Memorial.

Not only was the family poor, it also had to confront a series of heartbreaks and disasters. Jack’s brother, William, died young; his second son was named after the uncle he never knew.

Eben’s mother, Susan, developed early-onset Alzheimer’s when Eben was 19. Eventually, the family put her in a nursing home on the Jersey Shore, where she survived, completely gone mentally and on a feeding tube, for 12 years. Jack visited her every day. She died in 1990; he died in 1991.

In 1985, Eben’s brother broke his neck in an accident. For the last 7 years of his life he was quadriplegic, and he died in 2008.

“Everybody has hard times,” Eben said. “I said, ‘Okay, this is more tragedy. You just live through this stuff’ – but it wasn’t easy.”

So here was this small family, never flourishing, now broken apart. And here, on the other hand, was a legacy, a scattered trove of artwork. “This is the deal,” Eben said. “My brother and I grew up knowing that there was art, but we didn’t get too much of it. Just snippets. That’s because of the kind of life our father was living.” He was always painting, sketching, making studies for larger works, mulling over ideas, working out inspirations, but always at odd hours, in odd places, on odd pieces of paper.

Jack Goresko drew character sketches, landscapes, pastoral scenes, animals, and Holocaust-influenced dark works “about man’s inhumanity to man,” Eben said. “When we were very young, my parents would talk about their experiences in Montreal, meeting with survivors, people with tattoos. There is a connection to it in much of my father’s work, a deep sense of empathy and emotional power.

“His Holocaust artwork is unlike a lot of others that I’ve seen because so much of his work had to do with the human form. He was a master at capturing human beings, their bodies and their facial expressions. Most Holocaust artwork I’ve seen has been far more literal than my father’s.”

So the brothers knew that their father was a serious artist, but his work ended up sitting in piles, moved from place to place as their parents’ lives grew darker and then theirs did as well. “In 2000 we moved it to my brother’s house, where it just sat,” Eben said. “We didn’t have that much energy to look at it. And then, when we did, we found that much of it was disintegrating.”

Luckily, they met Keiko Miyamori, who specializes in restoring paper, and she worked on some of their father’s art. “She told us that his work had been done on high-acid paper,” he said ruefully. “They weren’t as savvy about that, and he would work on anything. Anything.”

The brothers had to do triage; they had neither the time nor the money to restore everything, but some of his pieces were “stabilized, deacidified, and mounted on rice paper,” he said. But that project ended in 2001; when William Goresko died in 2008, there still were mountains of boxes holding “interesting, amazing work and a sense of unfulfilled promise,” Eben said.

After his brother’s death, Eben moved to Longmont, Colo., outside Boulder, where he is a pianist, piano tuner, and technician. He took the boxes of his father’s work with him. In 2010, he started realizing that it should be allowed to live. He took samples to the JCC in Boulder, and he was told that it could be shown – in fact, people there fell in love with it – but it would have to be framed first.

Framing is very expensive. “I wasn’t ready to spend $10,000 to $15,000 on frames.” Foiled again.

“But then I developed a stubborn resolve that I would do anything necessary to make this happen. So I decided okay, I would learn to make frames. So I bought equipment, and I am a handy person.

“So I started practicing with cheap wood, figuring out how to make frames. I took a couple of months to tool up; I built 60 frames of all different sizes out of all different kinds of wood. The frames are gorgeous.”

In February 2012, the JCC in Boulder mounted a show of Jack Goresko’s work.

Next, Eben decided that the art should move back east, where it was made, where its soul was created, and where there is more of a Jewish community to appreciate it. He sent it to Rochelle Lazarus at the JCC in Tenafly, who fell in love with it – and soon the rest of the community will be able to react to it as well.

Eben said that he felt a need to have his father’s work seen. “It’s my family legacy. It’s in my blood. It’s a mitzvah. I am not doing this to become rich.” In fact, he said, “It’s been brutal.”

Because it is prohibitively expensive to insure and ship art, he decided to drive it cross-country himself. “I have a minivan!” he said. “It’s a little risky out on the highway.

“But if nothing else comes out of this, for me personally I just know that I have done whatever I can to bring this work to the light of day, and then what will be will be.”

He returned to his father’s vision. “It was empathy,” he said. “Only in a world with empathy can we truly see other human beings. And a world without empathy is a world as close to hell as we can imagine.

“Empathy is the only salvation for humankind, and all of my father’s work is imbued with it.”

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