Twenty Years ago I was sitting in the studio of a little old Jewish sculptor, Milton Horn. Eighty-six, the Russian Born artist, and friend to the late Frank Lloyd Wright, was lamenting that he was the last of the “true classical artists.” Upon the table beside me, a posed photograph of his late wife Estelle, resplendent in a silver-tint nude art pose taken many years before. In the musty, languishing air of his studio, light filtering dull and gray through tall shuttered windows, Horn wagged his finger at me almost scoldingly.
“Get away from Chicago,” he urged. “Get out of America and go to Florence and study the great Masters.”
I was resolved from that moment, but being a greater fan of the modern decided that I would go to Barcelona and study in the home of Picasso, Miro and Dali, whose work I found relationship to Horn’s style. Horn, clearly not an admitted fan of the Modern, scoffed at the idea, but relented grudgingly, conceding(or rationalizing) that I would inevitably pick up classical arts education if nothing else by simply walking the streets of an old European city.
I would, I resolved. I would pay all my bills in advance, pack my cat, Manhattan, off to my parents, and go off to Europe until my funds were exhausted. But Europe was in transition, and parts of it rushing headlong from the chaos of that transition into complete disaster. The first reports from Sarajevo, the Bosnian capital were only just emerging. Those headlines told of snipers, random shelling, roundups of men and something new called “Ethnic cleansing.” It was a phrase I immediately recognized for what it truly was, a phrase the UN and Western governments seemed all too careful to avoid using: Genocide. Like calling rape “non-consentual intercourse.”
Reports began to emerge about artists not simply struggling to survive, as food and water became scarcer, and the search for those necessities became increasingly deadly gambles on Sarajevo’s streets. More and more the idea of my studies and explorations in Barcelona and elsewhere in Europe became increasingly inane. Sarajevo, I decided was where I needed to be. I would show solidarity with those stalwart and besieged Bosnian artists. I would place my own existence on the line for what had been, up to that point, merely words and ideals about human rights. And there was something more.
Not sure if I fully realized it then, but something stronger was drawing me to Bosnia and the war. Hardly satisfied with the media’s oversimplification, and painfully ignorant about Yugoslavia, which Bosnia was seeking to break from, I began to obsess over the culture and history. I devoured the history of Yugoslavia and southern Europe from Russian, Yugoslav, Ottoman, German, Italian and Western sources. I read all of the literature I could find, like Andric and Selimovic, and watched classic Yugoslav movies from a local video store, “When Father was away on business,” and classic war films like “Igmanski Mars,” “March to the Drina,” and “Tito and me.”
One night, exhausted from work, newspapers and books scattered on the bed beside me, I sketched an illustration about the conflict. It portrayed the haunting image of a young woman standing beside the coffin of a child, the war raging behind them. The Islamic crescent was etched upon the coffin, a Christian cross around the woman’s neck. Little did I realize the faithful place where sketch would lead…