2014-01-02 / News

Auschwitz victims give island painter inspiration for solo art exhibit

By Ken Shane

In 2012, Hannah Stahl, then a senior at Vanderbilt University, won the prestigious Margaret Stonewall Wooldridge Hamblet Award for her work as an artist. Stahl had grown up in Providence and her family moved to Jamestown after she graduated from Moses Brown. While she was at Vanderbilt, Stahl came home to Jamestown and spent two summers working at Slice of Heaven.

The Hamblet Award came with a grant of $25,000, to be used for travel expenses and to study independent art. It also came with the promise of a solo art show at Vanderbilt. Stahl is excited to announce that her show will open on Jan. 9 on the Nashville campus.

Following graduation, Stahl took part in an intensive sevenweek artist-in-residence program at the Chautauqua Institute School of Art in upstate New York. When the program was completed, she returned to Nashville and rented a studio to continue her work while also working for a photographer. In December 2012, she began to apply to graduate schools.


Left, islander Hannah Stahl visited Poland during her seven-week trip to Europe. Above, one of 10 portraits influenced by Auschwitz victims that will be on display during her solo exhibit. Left, islander Hannah Stahl visited Poland during her seven-week trip to Europe. Above, one of 10 portraits influenced by Auschwitz victims that will be on display during her solo exhibit. Stahl began her travels in May, spending seven weeks alone in Europe. She visited 18 cities on her trip, including Rome, Florence, Prague, Vienna, Salzburg, Amsterdam, Berlin, Dresden, Brussels and London. The highlights of Stahl’s art tour included seeing the work of two painters who have inspired her. In Rome, she saw 20 paintings by Caravaggio. In Amsterdam, she visited the Rijksmuseum, home to a number of Rembrandt paintings.

“I was really interested in their light source,” Stahl said. “They would light their figures as a way to create meaning in their art. That was really important to me. The contrast with the darkness was something that I always liked.”

Art wasn’t the only thing on Stahl’s agenda. She also traveled through eastern Europe because her family’s Polish heritage had instilled a deep interest in the Holocaust. Some of her relatives were lost during the genocide. She visited several concentration camps sites on her tour, including the infamous Auschwitz death camp. Stahl also had a chance to visit the Polish cities of Warsaw and Lublin, as well as the small town where her great-grandfather grew up. He was fortunate enough to leave Poland before World War II, but lost two sisters in the camps.

“It was an interesting experience,” Stahl said. “It was something that definitely forever changed my perspective.”

Stahl gained perspective from traveling on her own for almost two months, having to rely on her own resources to get around Europe. She didn’t speak the language of any of the countries she visited.

“You start to pay attention to other people in a different way when you’re alone,” Stahl said. “My connection to other people became really important to me. The more north and east I went, the more difficult it was.”

During her first week of travel, Stahl learned she had been accepted to the New York Academy of Art for a two-year master’s program. It allowed her to travel more freely, knowing her education would resume in September. Stahl’s mentor at Vanderbilt had a relationship with the New York school, and Stahl visited the campus last year. During her visit, she was impressed with the work of the students.

“I really appreciate that the school has so many rigorous courses,” she said, “and they expect a lot of you technically. Ever since I visited, it was my top choice.”

Stahl said she was nervous about moving to New York City, but finds she has more energy living there than ever had before. She’s been inspired by the people she works with, and hearing the city alive outside her window 24 hours a day makes Stahl want to get out and work.

The program provides quite a workload, with five classes each semester. After being in classes all week, students are often in studios on nights and weekends. There is homework every week, and a final project due at the end of the semester. She somehow had to find time to put together her show while not neglecting her studies.

Stahl began painting for her solo show when she returned from Europe, and finished four pieces before school started. Stahl used whatever free time she could find to create the rest of the paintings – the show will display 10 of Stahl’s pieces. She will drive her paintings south to Nashville on Tuesday for the installation.

Stahl has titled her show, “Women of Auschwitz.” The 30-by-40- inch paintings are all portraits. The idea came to Stahl when she visited the concentration camp. She wanted to make people aware of what had happened there, so she began collecting photographs of women who were killed in the death camp.

“Victims of these events in history are always reduced down to a number, or a small black and white picture, or just a name,” Stahl said. “I wanted to reverse that, and somehow bring these people back to life. It was a really difficult process for me to execute.”

Using the photographs for inspiration, Stahl began sketching. She then decided to paint instead, and in a larger format. Originally she painted in black and white, but found those colors didn’t push the paintings in the right direction and return the focus to the individual, which was her goal. She began to add color and the paintings came to life.

“I’ve been treating these people in an unusual way for treating portraits, and that’s intended so that you have questions about these people,” Stahl said. “If you have questions, then I’ve succeeded.”

Stahl’s intention was not to copy the photographs. She wanted to make them her own, so rather than paint any one victim, her portraits are composites of a number of the photos, blended with her own ideas. By causing people to think about horrific events like the Holocaust, they will be inspired to consider the good in life that co-exists with such evil.

Now that the show is set, Stahl can give her complete focus to school. She has been commissioned to do several pieces and plans to work on those in the summer. Stahl also hopes to travel in the future.

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