An artist who survived the Holocaust creates multimedia works that address pain, suffering, hope and redemption.
Sitting in her Northeast Baltimore kitchen that doubles as a de facto gallery, 86-year-old multimedia artist Gigi McKendric hums with energy. She’s in the middle of describing her sweeping plan to create a “living memorial park” dedicated to seven Israeli schoolgirls killed in 1997 at the Jordanian site of Naharayim by a Jordanian soldier.
“You always begin with the children,” says McKendric, who envisions the $14 million memorial, “A Living Memorial Park at Naharayim: Seven Girls, One Dream For The World,” as a monument to peace. She wants to create a place where Israelis and Arabs can learn from each other.
“My goal is no border, no soldiers, no guns,” says McKendric, who hopes to meet with Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Jordan’s King Abdullah ll to solicit their support for the project. McKendric also has made a nine-hour documentary about the families of the slain girls that was incorporated into a multimedia installation exhibited at Yeshiva University in New York.
McKendric doesn’t think small. Her works cross genres and span continents. A glance at her voluminous resume includes film projects like “A Day In The Life Of A Firefighter Before Sept. 11 And A Day After,” which focuses on the life of Keithroy Maynard, one of 12 African-American firefighters who died in the 9/11 attacks.
The film tells the story of Maynard’s life through interviews with his twin brother and mother, and incorporates multimedia elements. Housed at the National Sept. 11 Memorial & Museum in New York, it was made in collaboration with Vin Grabill, associate professor of visual arts and director of the Imaging and Digital Arts MFA program at UMBC.
An Obligation to Create
As a Holocaust survivor, McKendric says she is acutely aware of suffering and the need to address violence in any form. “When I see human suffering, I see a human existence in danger of being cut short,” she says.
“This is the moral obligation and responsibility of society, to attend to its obligations and its own survival.” — Gigi McKendric
McKendric’s installation “J’Accuse: A Call to Conscience” refers to writer Émile Zola’s letter to the president of the French Republic repudiating the anti-Semitic Alfred Dreyfus affair. “J’Accuse” also addresses the Holocaust, the Kent State killings, the slaughter of 11 Israeli athletes at the 1972 Olympics, the conflict in Northern Ireland and the apartheid years in South Africa.
Born in Romania, McKendric was brought to Canada by the Canadian Jewish Congress in 1948.
“Before that, I was all over Europe,” says McKendric, who never publicly reveals her given name. She chose both her name and birthday as a form of reinvention. Gigi McKendric was chosen because “it’s like Gary Indiana or Judy Chicago,” she jokes, referring to noted artists who famously renamed themselves. She chose Aug. 17 as her birthday because the building that once housed her birth records was destroyed in an earthquake.
McKendric studied art in Canada. Always interested in children, she began asking embassies to send her children’s artwork from around the world. She eventually amassed work from 27 countries for an exhibition that toured Canada.
McKendric moved with her then-husband to the United States, where she continued her studies at the Art Students League and the New School in New York City.
A Baltimore resident for the past 28 years, she lives in and works out of a converted firehouse chock-full of paintings, sculptures, photographs, plaster masks and other works in progress.
In 1998, McKendric was commissioned to create two sculptures at Cross Country Elementary School in Northwest Baltimore using the hands and faces of the school’s students, parents and teachers as models. She also has performed and displayed her work at the Baltimore Holocaust Memorial and numerous other venues.
McKendric’s most recent project is a series of solar-powered, red, white and blue sculptures called “Tribute USA Ode to Sun” that collect energy during the day and self-illuminate at night. Still more projects, poems and ideas are in the works.
“I have two assets,” McKendric says, pointing to her head and her heart. “I walk the walk.”
To view a video about McKendric’s documentary “A Living Memorial Park at Naharayim: Seven Girls, One Dream For The World,” visit Vimeo.com/16327773.
Top photo: Born in Romania and a survivor of the Holocaust, multimedia artist Gigi McKendric works out of a former firehouse in Northeast Baltimore and focuses on real-life subject matters for inspiration. (Photo by Steve Ruark)
Jill Yesko is a Baltimore-based freelance writer.
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