Dwell Time: A Memoir of Art, Exile, and Repair
By Rosa Lowinger
Row House Publishing; hardcover, 280 pages; $27.99
Rosa Lowinger is a Cuban-born American art conservator and the founder of RLA Conservation of Art+Architecture, LLC, which is the largest woman-owned materials conservation practice (www.rlaconservation.com). She is the author of Tropicana Nights: The Life and Times of the Legendary Cuban Nightclub (Harcourt, 2005), a book on Havana's pre-nightclub era, which has been optioned for television by Keshet International, which is known for The Baker and the Beauty. Lowinger has also written the fictional works The Encanto File, a play produced Off-Broadway by the Women's Project and Productions, and published in Rowing to America and Sixteen Other Short Plays, edited by Julia Miles (Smith & Kraus, 2002); and The Empress of the Waves, a short story published in the anthology Island in the Light/Isla en la Luz (Trapublishing, 2019).
Lowinger has co-curated the exhibits Promising Paradise: Cuban Allure American Seduction (Wolfsonian Museum, 2016) and Concrete Paradise: Miami Marine Stadium (Coral Gables Museum, 2013). A resident of Los Angeles and Miami, she is on the boards of the Amigos of the Cuban Heritage Collection at the University of Miami, Florida Association of Museums, the Partnership for Sacred Places, and the Florida Association of Public Art Professionals.
In the new memoir Dwell Time, Lowinger weaves together the story of her Jewish Cuban family and their state of double exile - from Eastern Europe in the 1920s and Cuba in early 1961 - with the materials and science of her work.
With inspiration from Primo Levi's memoir The Periodic Table, Lowinger organizes her story by chapters based on the materials she handles in her private practice - Marble, Limestone, Bronze, Ceramics, Concrete, Silver, Wood, Mosaic, Paint, Aluminum, Terrazzo, Steel, Glass, and Plastics. This technique creates a sense of intimacy, as you can picture what most of those things look and feel like, and how they represented one thing to a prior generation, but now are used as she conserves masterpieces.
Lowinger delivers insider accounts of conservation that form the backbone of a personal story about love and sacrifice that often centers on her efforts to deal with a charismatic and mercurial mother. She juxtaposes repair of the material with repair of her personal life, with stories that include memories of her trips back to her native Cuba, the country where she was born and have shaped her view of the world.
The term Lowinger uses for the title dwell time, is a measurement of how long something takes to happen. In normal life, it can refer to how long immigrants are waiting at a border, human eyes on a website, and the minutes people wait at an airport, while in the art conservation world, it refers to the time it takes for a chemical to react with a material.
This is at the nexus of Lowinger's art-and-science based vocation and her personal journey as an immigrant, employer, wife, mother, and the daughter of parents whose difficult personalities were shaped by the abrupt loss of their country and way of life.
In this excerpt, from the chapter titled "Marble," Lowinger writes: "In a Jewish orphanage on the edge of Old Havana, a little girl drags a soapy rag over a long, white marble tabletop. There are twenty of these tables, and twice a day this six-year-old's job is to scrub ten of them clean of chicken, rice, and black beans - the typical ingredients of a Cuban supper. Pork would never be served here, of course. Neither would beef, because it costs too much. On Friday nights, the orphans might eat soup with matzo balls or long egg noodles slathered with chicken schmaltz. The girl likes both these foods. But she won't eat kasha varnishkes, no matter how hungry she is, how much they spank her, or send her to bed hungry. She is maddeningly stubborn. Beatings don't subdue her, neither does making her scrub the marble tables, the hardest task given to any of the little ones.
This girl became my mother. She was born on September 8, 1932, a national holiday in Cuba celebrating la Virgen de la Caridad del Cobre, the island's patron saint. Most Catholic girls born on this day are named some version of Caridad - charity in Spanish. They are typically dressed in yellow baby clothes, the color linked to Ochun, the powerful female Yoruba spirit deity syncretized with la Virgin de la Caridad. My mother's parents, Jewish immigrants, named her Ita in Yiddish and Hilda in Spanish.
Three weeks later, he mother died. 'I was a ten-pound baby,' my mother says, blaming herself. She also faults the system that required C-sections be authorized by a priest or rabbi. 'By the time the rabbi arrived at the hospital, I had torn my mother up.'
In Afro-Cuban Yoruba religions, each orisha, or spirit deity, manifests specific qualities of the Supreme Being. Ochun controls fresh waters, rivers, divinity, fertility, and love. The men and women born under her guardianship are gregarious and seductive, the life of the party. But cross them and watch out. This river orisha is vain, spiteful, and quick to anger. 'I don't forgive, and I don't forget,' my mother has said for as long as I can remember.
Throughout my life, I have received this warning."
AN INTERVIEW WITH ROSA LOWINGER (Provided by Row House Publishing):
|Rosa Lowinger. Photo by Scarlett Freund.|
What made you decide to write a memoir and share your story? In 2009, when I had the Rome Prize at the American Academy in Rome, I came across the memoir The Periodic Table by Primo Levi. As I read the way he structured a family story around the metaphor of chemistry, I realized that I had a similar book in me, about conservation. Initially, I thought of it entirely as a way of showing the world what the conservation field is all about, because there are no books out there AT ALL that display our work in a way that is true and makes sense. Our profession is rife with powerful metaphors about damage and repair, and I felt that telling that story would resonate with so many people. I thought about this book for years and years but put it on the back burner as I built a business, which is now the U.S.'s largest woman-owned materials conservation practice. Then, the pandemic happened. Suddenly I found myself with time to write and reflect. I began a novel, hired a writing coach to help me structure it, and out of the blue I mentioned the idea for a memoir. She said, "stop everything and write that book proposal." As I began to unpack the conservation material, a story about my family burbled through the narrative. It centered around my troubled, volatile, and extremely abandonment-averse mother. I realized that our family's loss of Cuba, a country that my grandparents had moved to in the 1920s traumatized my family irrevocably and made my parents difficult to live with. As I wrote, I began to see the healing metaphor within this subject matter as a way to understand my family history of double exile. Art Conservation teaches us that the basis of all repair is understanding the source of damage. My goal with this memoir was to use this knowledge I have to unravel and learn to understand the intergenerational trauma at the foundation of our family life.
What is the definition of Dwell Time and why did you pick it as the title for your memoir? In conservation, the term dwell time refers to the amount of contact time a chemical material needs to work. It is a measure of action on something you are trying to remove - soap on dirt, solvent on a stain, paint stripper on a varnish. The term dwell time also refers to the total time a person spends in an airport, or looking at a web page, or the time a family lingers at a border, waiting to get into a country, or the time you live in a city before moving on. I chose this title because it perfectly describes how I was trying to clean away the murkiness that made my family difficult to understand. Metaphorically, Dwell Time can also mean the amount of time you need to work on a problem. As I write in the book: "We repair and make reparations by taking the risk of going past our own immediate emotions. Acting is its own salvation. You take the harsh decision or material, blend it into a gel, and watch the magic happen. The content of this book is like one of those solvent gels. That's my hope, anyway.
What exactly is an art conservator and why did you pursue this career? How is it connected to your personal history? Materials conservators (this term is more esoteric, but it's used to include both art and architecture) repair, preserve, and perform preventive maintenance and basically enhance the longevity of all built heritage, which includes artworks, natural history collections, books, media, film, sculpture, paintings, murals, textiles, costumes, tapestries, archaeological sites, and historic buildings and their materials. One work blends art, science, and good hand skills. We are trained in the science of chemical deterioration and repair, and we work within specialties, like doctors. In public building restoration projects, for example, we are the ones who determine how stone or metals are treated, how terrazzo floors are repaired and salts leaching through tiles are addressed, yet we are often relegated to the sidelines and the architects get all the credit, even though they do not have the technical knowledge about materials that we have. In all, the curators, gallerists and fabricators get all the attention, yet it is only we (conservators) who know what to do when someone puts their elbow through a painting, or an outdoor sculpture starts to rust. I pursued this career because I fell into it. I was studying art and not very good at it. A professor recommended the field to me. I got into grad school by default and found that the field dovetailed with my sensibilities. It was all a bit subconscious I imagine. As a conservator, you are a servant to a work of art, never the protagonist. It's got an odd humility to it, work done in the service of someone else's aesthetic. I was raised to be beholden to others' visions, my mother especially.
You left Cuba when you were four years old and returned for the first time thirty years later to attend a preservation conference in Old Havana. What was the significance of this trip? How is Cuba so closely aligned with your work? The significance was monumental. My entire life shifted. I began going to Cuba as often as possible. It was all I wanted to do. Seeing the extraordinary historic fabric of Havana and Cuba - the amazing materials, all needing repair - was a seismic shift in my attention. I was trained to do exactly what Cuba needed. And, I had never known anything about the historic buildings there - the 500 continuous years of architectural history in tile, stone, metal and wood. 99% of Cuba's buildings are historic and every single one needs work. And yet...the embargo and the U.S. relations with Cuba make it impossible for me to work there.
You write in your memoir, "Being a Cuban exile made me into a hyper-outsider, someone separated from the others by a steel trap door of misunderstanding born of the political situation." Please explain. Cuba and the U.S. are sworn enemies and Cuban Americans are the reason for this six-decades-long embargo. It's all about Florida politics. Florida is a big swing state, and hardline B.S. about Cuba being a terrorist nation, etc., wins votes from the strong Cuban voting bloc. The U.S. has relations with Vietnam and China, but not Cuba. It makes no sense. When the Soviet Union controlled Cuba, travel by Americans, especially Cuban Americans, was highly restricted. When the Soviet Union fell, and Americans, including Cuban exiles began traveling there in more significant numbers. We were like hyper outsiders because we knew so little about the country compared to other Latin Americans, who had been going back and forth with ease. It is an odd situation that all immigrants from communist regimes understand.