The beginnings of the Foremothers Project

How did my Foremothers Project begin? It began in my mind with the death of Ruth Bader Ginsburg (RBG), noted Supreme Court judge and inspiring activist for women’s rights. For me it was an arresting moment, as if time temporarily stopped. RBG’s death, and the loss of her voice and vote on the US Supreme Court, motivated me to reflect on my life and all I took for granted as a contemporary woman. As I began to wonder about the remarkable women who blazed a path for the women of my generation, I went to the studio and began making collages. And so, while it began with RBG’s death, if you look back to my Memory series you will see that I planted the seeds of this project in earlier memory-inspired artwork.

Defining my foremothers

For the Foremothers Project I am exploring women in my family, but also some prominent women artists and change-makers whose lives have informed my journey. As I explore my foremothers in visual form, I tell aspects of each woman’s story. Each collage I create is like a fragment of memory that might surface in a dream. And, as in a dream, my collages invite the viewer to decode and interpret them. The more I explore and learn about a foremother, the more material I have to draw from.

Remembering RBG
Robin Brooks, Remembering RBG, mixed media collage on panel, 14 x 11 inches

Finding ideas and inspiration from stories, memories, and artifacts

To create my Foremothers collages I draw upon sensory memories, sights, sounds, and family stories . And I sometimes draw or represent artifacts such as a coffee pot or piece of costume jewelry that have been handed down to me by one of my foremothers.

My grandmother Sarah Brooks

My father’s mother Sarah Brooks (nee Schuhalter) came to America around the turn of the century from a small shtetl, or village outside of Kiev called Ysutta (sp?). Sarah’s ancestral lay in the region of Europe known as the Pale of Settlement. The Pale is where many Jews migrated after multiple expulsions. While living under the Russian czarist regime, life became untenable for my grandparents and many other Jewish people–hence their migration across the ocean to America. Sarah married another immigrant named Bennie Brooks. He was an upholsterer by trade. They settled in Newark, New Jersey where they raised four children, three boys and a girl. Yiddish was my Grandma Sarah’s first language and she never fully mastered English. Nor did she learn to drive a car. In my memory, Nanny’s home was her domain. She filled her little sun-lit fifties cape on Pleasant Valley Way with plants, birds, and a kitchen full of good smells–fruit compote, coffee cake with cinnamon, and those forever crunchy cookies my father used to tease her about. My father loved his mother and maiden older sister Miriam and often brought us for afternoon visits on the weekend. The collage, below, is a compendium of memories of my Nanny–her sunny window, the parakeets she loved, and her well-tended African violets.

Memories of Sarah, a Foremothers collage, mixed media collage on panel, 8 x 10 inches, 2021

The Story of my foremother Rebecca

Rebecca Rosenfield (nee Kaplan) was my maternal grandmother. She was born and raised in Worcester, Massachusetts. Her father had a bakery in Worcester and he owned a delivery wagon and horse. The tragedy happened when my great grandfather died suddenly and my great grandmother lost the bakery. Great grandmother Julia was left with the four children and no income. What a hard life it must have been for Julia and consequently, for my grandmother Rebecca and her siblings.

My grandmother Rebecca

Robin tells more of Rebecca’s story

When she was in her late teens, Rebecca met a dashing fellow a few years older named Irving Rosenfield. Here is a photo taken of my grandfather when he was a student at Northeastern University in Boston.

My grandfather Irving from his college yearbook, The Cauldron, Northeastern University

Rebecca and Irving married and had two children, my mom Shaila and her older brother Jerry. Irving was raised on a farm in West Medway, Massachusetts, the fourth of five children. Their parents were immigrants from the Pale of Settlement. The farmhouse they lived in lacked central heat or running water. Water came from a pond on the property. It was a hardscrabble life for the family.

As soon as possible, Irving left for Boston, pursuing higher education at Northeastern University. He earned a B.S. in civil engineering. During WW2 Irving left Rebecca and his two young children to join the See Bees and shipped off to the South Pacific. After the war, Irving took the family to central Nebraska where his civilian job was to oversee the construction of earthen dams.

Rebecca gets sick and dies in the midwest

Rebecca’s life story is tragic. Living in Nebraska, she felt isolated–completely cut off from her family and Jewish roots. At the tender age of 40 she died from a rare autoimmune disease called pemphigus Rebecca is said to have had a vibrant spirit, and she was by all accounts, a beautiful person inside and out. Despite her lack of advanced education–she never went to college– she was a talented writer and deep thinker.

Robin Brooks, Remembering Rebecca, acrylic on panel, 12 by 8 inches, 2021

How art and storytelling can heal the past

By researching family history and working through my memories in visual form, I hope to heal any intergenerational trauma that I may be carrying. For my mother, and my uncle Gerald, the loss of their mother Rebecca was a terrible trauma. And I have no doubt that my mother’s tragic loss of her own mother at a tender age has had an impact on me and my siblings.

As Resmaa Menakem, author and therapist has said that we all carry unresolved traumas in our bodies. In his book My Grandmother’s Hands he speaks about how trauma gets passed along through the generations. The new scientific field of epigenetics bears this out. Menakem is primarily focused on healing racialized trauma, yet I find his work useful as I walk this path of memory and healing.

Share your thoughts

As always, I am curious to hear your thoughts about this body of work. Please use the comments or my Contacts page

Wearing my pearls for Kamala, celebrating the Biden Harris Inauguration, 1/21/2021