A dark moment in history inspires beautiful work

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    Strassberg's Holocaust Bone Structures series is a collection of assembled bone-like ceramic pieces that symbolize the genocide that occurred during the Holocaust. From left: "Expulsion," "Maus Haus," "Barracks House No. 8" and "Train to Auschwitz."

Artists draw their inspiration from many sources—the environment, geometric shapes or angles, and even family history.

Roy Strassberg's inspiration for his sculptures and pottery comes from these categories and more, and leads to beautiful work based on one of the world's darkest moments in history—the Holocaust.

Strassberg, interim chairman of the Department of Art at Appalachian State University, finds inspiration from historic sites, maps and photographs to create his own "reflection and understanding of the event," he said.

A family history

The subject matter has interested Strassberg since he was a child. "My heritage, my house was so palpably Jewish you could cut that Jewishness with a knife," he said. His grandparents were of Polish and Russian-Polish heritage. He recalled a family member with a number tattooed on her arm, a reminder of her time in a concentration camp.

"I was not a child of a (Holocaust) survivor but I came from that culture," he said. "That became the theme and focus of my work in 1992."

That focus was further honed with the support of research grants Strassberg received while on the faculty at Mankato State University and when he was chairman of the art department at UNC Charlotte. The UNCC grant supported his travel and research to Eastern Europe, where he visited Poland, the Czech Republic and the Auschwitz concentration camp.

The creative process

His artistic work evolved from those research opportunities. His early work included ceramic depictions of guard towers, chimneys and barracks adorned with abstract markings and geometric forms. Later, his work focused on assembled bone-like ceramic pieces called the Holocaust Bone Structures series.

Strassberg wrote in the web-based magazine Charlotte Viewpoint that in creating the series, "I was determined to find a simple symbolic language in that the images used were easily identifiable, but placed in contexts that were eccentric and/or peculiar to ordinary experience. The bone image emerged as a way of suggesting that this work, when seen in context, could ultimately be construed as a symbol of death on a gigantic scale; in a word, genocide."

Strassberg's clay and porcelain pot series, called Wire Pots, is an extension of the bone series and features etched drawings that are based on topographical and aerial photography of areas surrounding "the killing centers" that were located in Eastern Europe, as well as photographs of the wire enclosures from these sites.

Strassberg, who came out of retirement to take the interim department chair position at Appalachian, prefers to identify himself as a ceramic sculptor rather than a potter, saying he couldn't keep the structured form out of his work. He spends two hours each morning in his Boone studio sculpting, glazing, firing and sanding his ceramic pieces to a satiny finish before coming to campus. It's an activity, he said, that helps fuel his work when he teaches an advanced studio class. "I want to make work that is consistent with what I ask my students to do," he said. Weekends are spent in his studio at his Davidson home.

"My work is not the Holocaust," he said. "My work reflects my understanding of the event."

Strassberg's work has been featured in more than 200 exhibits and is owned by corporations and museums, such as General Mills, the Dupont Corporation, the Mint Museum in Charlotte and the Yad Vashem museum in Jerusalem, Israel, as well as private individuals.

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