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Artist Jenny Yurshansky  reflects on family history in ‘Legacy of Loss’

| Friday, September 6, 2019

Saint Mary’s welcomed fall 2019 visiting artist Jenny Yurshansky to speak to students about her exhibit “A Legacy of Loss” at its official opening in Moreau Art Galleries on Thursday. Ian Weaver, assistant professor in the art department, introduced the artist by explaining her diverse background and detailing his own personal experiences in working with Yurshansky.

“I was super impressed by her work,” Weaver said. “She works exceptionally hard — I felt like a slacker comparatively.”

Yurshansky said she refers to herself as a conceptually-based research artist and researched her current project three years before she even knew what the pieces would be. Her complicated family history inspired her current exhibit and required extensive research, she said.

Sara Schlecht | The Observer
Saint Mary’s visiting artist Jenny Yurshansky drew on inspiration from a family history of separation to create “A Legacy of Loss”

“I am a refugee,” Yurshansky said. “My family comes from what was the Soviet Union.”

While her immediate family fled to the U.S., Yurshansky’s extended family on her mother’s side was forced to disperse throughout the world, she said.

“A whole section of my family fled the Soviet Union to Argentina” Yurshansky said. “The immigration of a whole set of sons ended up being the reason why my great-great grandmother committed suicide because she was so devastated that her family was torn apart in this way. So again, we see these legacies of loss.”

Her family was further separated throughout the events of World War II, she said.

“My family is Jewish so in order to escape being murdered, my grandmother, her sister and eventually her mother fled all the way to Uzbekistan, 3,000 miles making the journey on foot, train and on hopes,” Yurshansky said. “Not everyone made it back.”

Yurshansky said she often needed her mother’s help to fill in some of the missing puzzle pieces and teach her more about her family history, though she was not always willing.

“Part of what makes these histories so difficult to share amongst ourselves is that because there is so much pain attached to them, it’s difficult for those who have gone through it to speak openly about it, it’s really difficult to bring up and dredge up all that pain,” she said.

Eventually, her mother opened up and began sharing her story more freely, Yurshansky said, even accompanying her daughter on two visits to her hometown.

“It has loosened something between us and now conversations do happen unprompted,” Yurshansky said. “At least between us I think it has been a healthy thing and I can say as her daughter there has been some sort of healing that has happened for her.”

While on these trips, Yurshasky said she visited her great grandfather’s grave for the first time and rubbed an etching of it, inspiring one of exhibit’s biggest pieces, a large hand-embroidered muslin sheet outlining the etching of the grave. She said she stumbled upon some precision blanks, the lenses used to make glasses before they’re ground down, and had the idea for the main piece in her exhibit: 13 hanging branches with 1,000 pieces of glass on them, expressing so many families’ migrations.

“The lenses are just an incredible way to speak about memory,” Yurshansky said. “You think you would have clear access to your own memories but when you have layers of trauma and pain that can be blocks against that, then you have a situation where you can become precisely blank.”

Yurshansky said she wants her piece to spark conversations and allow people to make connections.

“One thing that I worry about as an artist is if the work becomes completely about me,” she said. “The function that I really want it to have and serve is that I want this work to become a place where dialogue can happen. Us sharing these stories and finding connections with one another and seeing that we are all connected in some way through history, that’s what I want this to open up.”

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