PaintWriteDeathLifeArt (Sketches from a life in
Ben Tanzer, Jan
My father Michael Tanzer was a lot of things. Painter. Teacher. Activist.
Raconteur. Filmmaker. New Yorker. High-school dropout. Tough guy. He was
also a man who had regrets, someone who died much too young from a twisted
form of cancer, an artist who never quite achieved what he hoped to, and a
guy who never cried, not until the end anyway.
When my father was growing up he worked a string of jobs in an effort to
bring home additional money for his family, everything from making false
teeth - which his boss cleaned with used Q-tips from home - to delivering
hats. My father also briefly worked for IBM after he dropped out of high
school, but that job proved to be too confining - he had to wear a tie,
answer to a boss, work set hours - and after it didnít pan out I donít
know that he ever worked nine-to-five again the rest of the life.
His love was art and he would talk with awe about discovering the
Metropolitan Museum of Art, in part because it exposed him to a world
outside the claustrophobic confines of his Bronx neighborhood, but also
because once there he had found a home. My father also found his way back
to school because of art, studying with the legendary teacher Frank
Reilly. Reilly had learned to teach in the figurative style at the equally
legendary Art Students League before breaking away to form his own school.
My dad attended Reillyís school for one year before embarking on a life in
art that would find him showing and selling work for the next forty years.
During that time my dad opened a frame shop; ran a tattoo parlor; earned a
college and Masters degree; taught in every possible place one can
imagine, including prison - a class called Art as a Weapon; and created
all sorts of amazing paintings, sculptures, etchings, and screen prints.
He also dreamed of covering the city of Binghamton, NY where I grew-up in
murals, and while he painted them when ever and wherever he could - from
the wall in the waiting room of Binghamton General Hospital to an alcove
in the Security Mutual Insurance Building downtown - he never did get the
opportunity to finish the job.
He also never quite achieved the level of recognition he sought, something
that wore on him as the years went on, the rejections becoming tortuous,
his struggles to make money a palpable stressor. Some of that was his
style certainly, but there was also marketing himself and his work,
something he could never quite figure out how to do. Family
responsibilities were an issue as well and he more then once spoke to my
younger brother and I about how his grudging admiration for a family
friend who seemed to have little compunction putting his work in front of
his children. My mother though will also say that thereís more to this,
that he was never comfortable with who he was, and that he was too
conflicted about his life to fully grow and fully liberate his creativity.
Because of this, his work then was not all it might have been, and his
success, or lack thereof, a by-product of these conflicts.
For much of my life I could only recall having seen my dad cry once and
that was at his fatherís funeral. I remember being at this ancient
cemetery out in Queens or Long Island. It was a blustery day, and my dad
was standing next to his two younger brothers. They were reading passages
from the Torah and when it was my dadís turn to read his face became
contorted in a way that I had never seen before. He was like this
incredibly sad gargoyle and as he stood there the tears slowly and
It was the worst thing I could ever imagine having to watch, but then my
dad was the worst crier I have ever met. Later, when he began crying with
some frequency, it always looked like such an effort for him that it
barely mattered to me what he was crying about because I always felt bad
that he was struggling so much.
I donít think he was comfortable being around tears, his tears or anyone
elseís, but not necessarily because tears were a sign of weakness, but
because they were so raw, and so painful, and Iím not all that sure he
could bare to feel or be around that kind of pain.
My parents embraced many causes over the years, but one cause they, and my
father in particular, felt very strongly about was Israelís treatment of
Palestinian refugees. For years they participated in the group Peace Now,
traveled to Israel to bare witness, met with the Women in Black, toured
refugee camps, and spoke their minds about what they felt was an abusive
and degrading situation.
It was because of this that my fatherís sense of Jewishness was called
into question, something I have always found interesting. It is a mitzvah
to be concerned with social justice and my father was first and foremost
concerned with social justice, in many ways a champion for the put down,
the put out, the ignored, and the reviled.
But this didnít just speak to his activism. If you were to look at his art
over a life time you would see paintings of Jews, jugglers, side show
freaks, protesters, Kafka, and the tattooed, outsiders and fringe players
all. And yet these were his people, his muses, and ultimately his milieu,
the theme that dominated his lifeís work, and is in so many ways clear and
straightforward when one tries to categorize what inspired him.
What this all meant to him took on a different meaning for me though after
he became ill. While there is no question he was a champion of the
downtrodden it became more clear to me then that he wasnít just trying to
put a face on people few bothered to consider, but that he was trying to
make sense of what they said about him and his own struggles.
My father related to these characters because he felt that they were him.
As a Jew, an artist, a high school dropout, and transplant to upstate New
York he himself felt like an outsider and he spent a lifetime trying to
not only find a home and a community, but to make some sense of these
feelings. Art provided him with the means to do this if not always the
answers he sought.
I have worked as a social worker for most of my adult life and during that
time I have worked with people who were homeless, people who were HIV+,
and children in foster care. Because of this I have always been asked
whether I followed in my motherís footsteps because sheís a
And yes on paper I have followed in her footsteps. And yes in many ways
this work is the complete opposite of the path my father followed. And yet
when he became sick I began to see all of this in a different light as
well. Iím a social worker and he was an artist, but say we take a step
back. He was an activist who endlessly championed the rights of those
society had rejected, resisted, or never stopped to consider in the first
place. And as an artist his work revolved around those members of society
deemed to be outcasts, freaks, and other.
As a social worker I have focused my attention on the very same kinds of
people. The homeless, children, and those who are HIV+ are not accorded
many rights much less respect by society at large. I too then have been
drawn to the same causes as him, trying to provide a voice to the ignored,
and given this, the paths we both went down are not so opposite. The thing
is, the means have been different, and therein, lies the rub.
My father struggled as any artist does to find his voice and the level of
success he craved. Creating any sort of art is a wonderful thing, a
fantastical thing really, but what makes one an artist lies in the
transaction, someone must receive it. My brother and I grew up immersed in
my fatherís struggles and as I look back now thereís no question this
played a significant role in my own artistic development and my own
struggles to be an artist.
For as long as I can remember I wanted to write. I always had ideas for
stories and essays and books, and even made lists of what I would write
about once I started doing so. But I never wrote. Couldnít bring myself to
do it. Initially I would tell myself that I wasnít writing because I
hadnít lived enough, hadnít seen enough things, and certainly had not
suffered as much as I thought an artist was supposed to. Later I wondered
if it was a fear of failure or maybe success that was holding me back.
One of the stories I planned to write, if I ever started to write, was
going to weave together the different experiences I had when I was kid
with men who left their families for one reason or another, particularly
my father and my family, who he had left sporadically over the years. I
was going to write it from the perspective of a child who cannot make
sense of why people leave their families, and ultimately finds himself
leaving his own family as an adult, still confused about the dynamics and
reasons that underlie such decisions. It was going to be brilliant. And it
was waiting for me.
One night my wife and I got a call from an acquaintance of ours who told
her that she was thinking of leaving her husband. She had this little baby
and she was so young and at the time we really didnít know anyone our age
that had been in a failed marriage. We both freaked out. Calls like that
force you to think about your own experiences and your own potentially
buried feelings. How good is our marriage? Would one of us ever leave?
Would we know how to leave? Why would we want to? And on and on.
All this stuff was going through my head, and as I sat there trying to
sort it out, I felt this intense need to write about the confusion and the
fear and the sadness I was experiencing. When I was done I had not only
written my first story, but I had written my long imagined story about
people leaving home, and it looked just like I had always visualized it
In writing through my confusion that night I found my voice and after that
the words started to flow in an incessant and unstoppable manner.
Fast-forward a year later. I now wrote everyday, stories rife with people
struggling to interpret their bad dreams, understand their mysterious
ailments, and communicate with their distant parents. My father had been
diagnosed with cancer. And I was asked to read some of my work at a
gallery opening that a friend of mine was involved with. One of the pieces
I read was that first story now known as ďLeaving HomeĒ and my wife
videotaped the reading so I could show it to my parents. My dad and I
ended up watching the tape together by ourselves and as we watched it he
started to cry.
ďDad, do you want me to stop the tape?Ē I said.
ďNo, I want to watch it,Ē he replied.
We did, and he continued to cry. When the reading was over, he was still
crying, and started to speak.
ďI feel so bad about the decisions I made,Ē he said crying harder, ďand
the affect they had on the family.Ē
I didnít respond, and didnít know how to, but while it was quite painful
to hear, more then anything I was struck by the fact that my dad was
crying, something I hadnít seen him do since his fatherís funeral twenty
Those tears turned out to be just the beginning. Over the next year as he
looked back on his life and particularly at that which he had and had not
done the tears became a regular part of our visits.
About a month before my dad passed away an orthodox rabbi he had
befriended offered to come to the hospital and perform a Yom Kippur
service for him. The rabbi - decked out in a black coat and suit, a black
fedora pulled down tightly around his head, his paesí curling into his
fantastically full beard - arrived with his young daughters and a young
follower who had come to blow the Shofur, or ramís horn.
He performed the service, and the little girls sang, and as we sat there
transfixed, my father eyes began to brim with tears. The young follower
then blew the Shofur seven times, and each time he did the intensity of my
fatherís crying grew stronger. I was now accustomed to him crying, but I
had never seen him cry quite like this.
ďMike, what are you feeling,Ē my mom asked after the ceremony was over.
There is some debate between my mother and I about his answer - my mother
believes he told us that with each note of the Shofur he felt he was being
healed and I believe he told us that with each note he felt more at peace
- and our memories may be less reflective of what he said, and more
reflective of how we need to remember the event.
Either way, we were both left with the same thought - what if he had cried
more during his life, would he have been at greater peace with himself?
Would he have known himself better? Would the ability to do so have been
freeing? And might all this in turn have been invaluable to his work and
his artistic process?
You can never know these things, but I think about them constantly, every
time I put pen to paper, every time I fire-up my laptop, and every time I
write about someone struggling to cope with or understand a feeling thatís
a little beyond their comprehension, the theme that now drives my work as
an artist, the theme I cannot stop exploring, and the theme my dad also
knew all too well.
Ben Tanzer lives in
Chicago where he tends to his vineyards, shoots pool, dabbles in social
work, compulsively watches High School
spends all sorts of quality time with with his lovely wife and young sons.
He has had work published in a variety of magazines and journals including
Rated Rookie, Clamor, Punk Planet,
Abroad View, Opium, THE2NDHAND, Thieves Jargon, The Truth Magazine,
Chicago Parent, Third Coast Press, 20dissidents, Torkstar,
His debut novel
is being published by Manx Media this spring. You can read his blog,
This Blog Will Change Your Life,