She left me marvelling why my soul
Was sad that she was glad;
At all the sadness in the sweet,
The sweetness in the sad.
-- from "Daisy," by Francis Thompson
Some artists just paint their hearts out. Mindy Weisel certainly does.
Though born in Bergen-Belsen in 1947 -- inheriting the grim legacy of the German concentration camps -- Weisel paints the passion of life, the intensity of the moment. Her richly colored abstracts positively glow. Slashed and dashed with gestural writing and mysterious imagery in dark blacks and crystal blues, greens and reds, these enormous watercolors define emotions ranging from the deepest brooding sadness to the gayest laughter. And they are hard to ignore -- they draw one in and arouse one's empathy much the way the elusive calligraphy of Mark Tobey does, or the numinous forms and spaces of Mark Rothko. Weisel's energy communicates directly, from heart to heart.
"My whole life is concerned with expressing and capturing the moment," says Weisel, who is petite, intense and rarely still. "I paint feelings. You can change ideas and thoughts, but you can't change feelings. You just can't suppress them. The only things I really trust are feelings.
"When I am painting, nothing else exists. You have to work that way if you're really going to be alive."
Weisel's studio, a spacious addition to her Chevy Chase home and off limits to her husband of nearly 20 years and their three children, overflows with her work. She makes paintings as compulsively as some people smoke cigarettes -- one after another, day in and day out.
Beginning each painting by writing down her feelings at that moment, she then starts the process of building layer upon layer of color, allowing her mood to direct her brush but orchestrating the composition with a critical eye. Black is the most pervasive element in her work, but it doesn't come across as moody or tragic -- rather, it seems to shine like a color, enhancing the brighter tones that slip through it.
"When I first started painting," says Weisel, "I found that I needed black -- black layers and mystery. I needed energy, and the energy comes through from behind the black. I used to think that black was sadness or anger. But a professor friend of mine once told me that black signifies wisdom. To me it is a mystery.
"I go through a process of turmoil when I work. I'm a process painter. The process is important to me. My first teacher, a master watercolorist, said that if it's good, a painting will speak back to you. My paintings give me answers. If a painting doesn't give me an answer, it gets torn up."
Weisel has, over the years, done a number of series that attempted to reconcile her feelings about the Holocaust, her parents, her family. And, like other female artists, she has had to deal with conflicting feelings of allegiance to her family and her art.
"For a long time I thought I should be alone, painting in SoHo. I thought that was what an artist had to do. But I was brought up to be a very traditional Jewish wife. Now I realize that I have the best of all worlds. I have a beautiful family, and my life is very stable. And I paint. Every day I paint. If I paint, then I don't have to ask what the meaning for my life is. The painting for me is an anchor -- I'm not sure to what, but I'm anchored."
Weisel began scrawling her feelings in crayon and paint when she was very young. Her parents spoke only Yiddish, and her writing was an effort to communicate -- to them and to the world. Often, she feels that her work is still an effort to communicate with her parents. But what most clearly governs her efforts as an artist is simply life, and all that she feels about being alive.
"As long as I'm alive, and as long as I'm feeling, then I have what to paint," she says. "Life is a cut flower. It's beautiful for a while, but then it dies. Everything dies. But while you are here there is so much intense joy, and intense sadness."
Weisel's most recent series are self-portraits, depicting herself as a gypsy, seductive and passionate. As with her abstract work, the faces in these portraits change from day to day, reflecting her changing emotions.
"Sometimes," she says, "I cry in front of my paintings, or while I'm working on them." She laughs. "That can be bad, because tears can ruin a watercolor."
A show of Mindy Weisel's work opens Wednesday, March 27, at the Baumgartner Gallery (2016 R St. NW).