In October 2021, the Museum finally opened our first exhibition since the pandemic shuttered our doors for over a year. The exhibition, entitled Debra Olin: Every Protection is a meditation on the folk beliefs, superstitions, and cultural lore that have helped people make sense of childbirth and early development for centuries. Debra Olin‘s large-format monoprint collages, and a hanging installation made specifically for the Museum’s balcony, draw on a 1912-14 ethnographic questionnaire produced by S. An-sky. The survey was designed to document ways of life and beliefs that were rapidly disappearing from the shtetls of the Russian Pale of Settlement before the First World War. Every Protection is inspired by many of the 283 questions relating to pregnancy, childbirth and early childhood. Questions like “Is it considered a protection for a pregnant woman to wear an apron?” and “Is there a belief that one must not place a child in front of a mirror until he gets his first teeth?” illuminate the deep folk traditions of this community – and draw connections between the ways in which people today still grasp for protection, peace, and understanding during uncertain times.
Museum intern Anna Curran asked the artist to answer a few questions about the process of creating the pieces for the Every Protection show, what it means to show this art within a historic synagogue, and the special relevance the show takes on during a global pandemic. Read on to hear from Debra Olin herself!
Although these questions were written over 100 years ago, the subjectivity of pregnancy, childbirth and protection are still relevant today. What is the significance of displaying Every Protection today in 2021?
When I was 30, I had a miscarriage in the first trimester of my pregnancy. The only reason that I was given was that the fetus “was not viable.” What happened? I was in shock! As some time passed, I began talking to other women and I couldn’t believe how many of them had miscarriages. It was a common occurrence, but it felt like a secret door had opened into the world of fertility, medical science and chance all rolled into one! On one hand, we have a lot more knowledge and options than we did 100 years ago, but the chance factor is always there. Having a baby is so common, so “natural”, so everyday, but giving birth is miraculous every time it happens. In addition, we don’t know any more today about where we were before we were born or where we go after we die than An-sky did when he conducted his survey.
Why do you think that The Museum at Eldridge Street is a good home for Every Protection?
The Jews who built and worshipped in this synagogue in 1887 were from Eastern Europe, including the Russian Pale of Settlement. Many of the folk beliefs of those worshippers have been passed down to the visitors of the Museum at Eldridge Street today. In addition, cultures from around the world pass down ideas about what is important to do or avoid during pregnancy and how to care properly for a newborn. Chinese, Latina, Greek, Italian – women from many countries and cultures confide in me when they see Every Protection, telling me stories about their mother’s advice. The Museum at Eldridge Street attracts visitors from everywhere. This exhibition is a way for them to connect and find commonality.
The history of the synagogue, much like many other religions and realms of society, originates from a male-dominating culture. Throughout the years, there have been significant efforts to shed light on the livelihood and experiences of the women who worship. Do you think it is important to display an exhibit that centers on themes related to femininity?
Absolutely, it is important to highlight the lives and accomplishments of women, to recognize their contributions and place them in historical perspective for the next generation of girls coming up. An-sky’s purpose was to retrieve information of each phase of life in the shtetls of The Pale. Pregnancy and Childbirth is the first chapter. He was a man and all the zamlers [Yiddish for collectors] were men. Many of the important milestones mentioned in the ethnographic program were focused on boys and men. Circumcision, Ben Zokher (a boy is born to you), Pidyen h-Ben (redemption of the first born son), Bar Mitzvah. But they couldn’t help but notice and note the important roles of the women in the community as midwives, healers and teachers.
What was the aesthetic process in constructing the monoprint collages? Did the design come naturally after you were inspired by the questions in the questionnaire?
There is a constant balance between the aesthetic and the technical when creating any work of art. I wouldn’t say the design came naturally, but the imagery did seem to pour into the compositions. The figure, the garments, the birds, the vessels, the use of text – this was already a part of my visual language. Someone in my family was pregnant and she sent around the photo of the ultrasound. I had to use it. It is one of our modern day protections. The questions brought me back to a book with stories that my grandfather read me as a child – I had to include illustrations from those pages. The hands, the amulets, the mirrors, the maps – everything was there for me to use.
What was your vision for the intended display of these works? How does the setting of the interior of the synagogue compliment the artwork? Has the vision evolved or changed at all?
There were no surprises with the 2D work, except to find that the frames were almost identical in color to the walls in the museum. They disappeared and made the artwork pop! The installation was another story. I had visited the space a number of times. I knew it was ornate. I didn’t want to compete, but I also didn’t want the work to be swallowed up. I also couldn’t really imagine the light. The exhibition was scheduled to open April 2020, when the light and the season changes would have been very different. I was hoping that the color of the stained glass would have an effect on the translucency of the garments. I was walking over to Eldridge Street around 4:00, the day after installing. It was sunny and the light on the installation was magical! Not something I planned or could have predicted.
You utilized moveable stencils and elements within your monoprint collages. Does this idea of “impermanence” hold a specific meaning? Did any of the artwork change or evolve as you continued your work?
Interesting that you think of movable as impermanent. I suppose that is true. I think of it more as an opening of possibilities. Because of the nature of monoprint, being able to reproduce elements, I am always asking “what if?” What if I put the ultrasound image in the apron? In a vessel? Over the figures head? Covered over with the acupuncture chart of the ear? I can keep playing, trying out compositions. One decision doesn’t negate the others. So yes, this process absolutely lends itself to change and evolution in the work.
Do you think the concept of “protection” had heightened relevance during the age of COVID-19? Have you noticed any unintentional connections since displaying these works?
I love this question! Yes, the concept of protection has had to be examined with a more critical eye. Also, vulnerability. I have tapes of my Aunt Rosie talking about having the flu as a child during the 1918 pandemic, about how sick she was and how her sister died from that pandemic. When we first started hearing about the outbreak in China, was I thinking it was going to travel around the world? That it was going to affect and connect the lives of all of us? Making connections between disparate cultures is something that I examine through my artwork. I wasn’t expecting the opportunity (maybe a bad word choice?) to be a part of something that was hitting us all at once in both personal and universal ways.
An-sky’s questions, although revealing, leave us with a sense of curiosity. Do you think there is an element of mystery within your artworks?
I think this would be a better question to ask the viewer!
Plan your visit to see Every Protection today, and discover your own answer to Anna’s question about mystery and curiosity. Thanks to Anna and Debra for this great discussion! Debra Olin: Every Protection is on view through April 24th, 2022 and is included in the price of Museum admission.
Anna Curran is an intern at the Museum at Eldridge Street. Anna is an undergraduate student at The New School, where her studies focus on Visual Studies, as well as a minor in Culture and Media and Curatorial Studies. Outside of school, she spends time on her interests in creative writing and poetry along with drawing and mixed media art. During Anna’s time at Eldridge, she hopes to refine her skills in writing and communication, and engage in hands-on experience of the inner workings of a museum.