Transforming Letters of Hardship into Works of Art

Julian Harris makes memories permanent by transforming letters of hardship into works of art


Tribeca artist Julian Harris’s exhibition, “Love­letters,” opening this month at One Art Space, came to life two years ago when his mother gave him bundles of letters that had been lovingly preserved since World War II.

The letters told the heart-wrenching story of a family torn apart by war. Harris’s Jewish grandfather had been thrown into an Italian concentration camp, his grandmother was stranded in Vienna and his mother and uncle had been shipped off to England on the last Kindertransport, the voyages that saved Jewish children by sending them to live with British families. At ages 5 and 4 they were put on a train by their parents, not realizing that their separation would last for 9 years.

“This story had been forgotten,” Harris said. “My family never talked about it and no one had been interested in the letters. By making this art I am keeping this story alive.”

The letters are alive—and transformed—in his art.

Piles and boxes of letters cover the floor in the basement studio on Jay Street studio. He steps over them to show his grandfather’s accordion and suitcase, objects wrapped in letters that his grandparents wrote to each other during the war.

“There were prob­ably 5,000 letters. My grandmother kept everything. These letters were important to her, they were kept throughout the war, then taken to Italy where they lived and then brought to America when they were starting a new life.”

Paintings with letters collaged over part of the canvases will occupy most of the show. Many feature disembodied eyes looking out at the viewer; some are his mother’s eyes, some his own and there are others.

“I like the idea of eyes looking out from letters that you read,” Harris said. “These are the survivors’ eyes looking out at you.”

Another series called Letterboxes is completely covered in letters, some with stamps bearing the face of Hitler. “I love the way these look,” Harris says, running his hand over the surface. Another set subtly reproduces the shape of a swastika interspersed by the letters.

Harris acknowledges that using the original letters may cause controversy.

“I do feel the need to defend this because academics might say that these letters should have been preserved. But this stuff was going to be thrown out, and now everyone is interested in them. It’s the function of art to stir things up and get people thinking.”

But just in case, he has meticulously archived all the letters by digitally photographing each one. Some letters were off limits, such as ones that had never been opened, returned undelivered by the authorities to his grandmother.

Others were marked that they had been opened, apparently by Nazi censors checking for seditious content.

The family had much to fear. Harris’s great-grandmother was killed at Auschwitz and his great aunt was killed at Chelmno.

“I’ve translated some of them and mostly they’re about the minutiae of everyday life. My mother was thrilled by the idea of making art with them...Their story is better memorialized this way than being kept in a pile of boxes.”

There is a whole set of letters in English, detailing his mother’s escape to England and her life there with a British family, that he has yet to touch.

“They’re definitely part of our family,” Harris says. Those letters tell of the gradual Anglicization of his mother and of the extreme hardship his grandmother endured in Vienna where she was forced to forage for stinging nettles to eat.

“I think one of the reasons my mother didn’t talk about this was an English reserve, a stiff upper lip she acquired there,” Harris says.

While the back-story of the letters is compelling, Harris hopes the works, as art, will speak for themselves. “I want them to have an impact as pure art but as you look closer you realize these are letters from a real family drama.”

But beyond any artistic merit, Harris hopes the work will have a lasting legacy.

“My dream is that my son will keep some of these and pass them onto his children. It’s already meant that he knows this story and his friends know this story. My family went through a horrific experience and now I live in what might be described as the lap of luxury in Tribeca. They survived, I’ve survived, and now this story won’t be forgotten.”

“Loveletters” and other works by Julian Harris,  Nov. 8–28. One Art Space, 23 Warren St, Tuesday through Saturday, 11:30 a.m. to 6 p.m.