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Artist creates connections of memory to long-gone Mennonite ancestors

September 11th, 2017

by Melanie Zuercher

NORTH NEWTON, KAN. – Memory, especially family memory, is a theme to which artist and teacher Gesine Janzen keeps returning.

Both are integral to her exhibit in Bethel College’s Kauffman Museum. After opening in late August 2016, “Memory Matters: Works by Gesine Janzen” is in its final month as the museum’s nine-month-long special exhibit.

Family permeates this interactive, multi-media exhibit that includes prints (several different kinds), photography, fiber art, collage and etching. And “family” starts at the beginning with the exhibit’s curators – the artist’s parents, Reinhild Kauenhoven Janzen and John Janzen of Elbing.

An art historian and an anthropologist, respectively, the Janzens gathered historical artifacts from the collections of Kauffman Museum and the Mennonite Library and Archives (MLA) at Bethel College, as well as Emmaus Mennonite Church of rural Whitewater and the personal collection of Melvin Epp, to “join in a dialogue” with Gesine Janzen’s works of art.

“Memory Matters” is built around the letters of Johann and Maria Janzen, paternal ancestors, who with five of their children emigrated from Prussia (now part of Poland) to central Kansas in 1886, joining other Mennonite immigrants in and around the towns of Peabody, Elbing and Newton.

Johann and Maria wrote letters in German describing their daily lives and urging family members still in Prussia’s Vistula Delta region to join them in Kansas.

The original letters are displayed with the archival file folders in which they are kept in the MLA, with Louis A. Janzen’s English translation of them available for exhibit visitors to read.

All the other objects were chosen “on the basis of their origin … in the Vistula Delta, and their material and symbolic connectedness to the various themes of daily life in the letters,” the Janzens write in their “Curators’ Statement.”

Among these objects are autograph albums, a German Bible and hymnbook, a “wedding rug,” articles of clothing, a grain sack, a kettle, a pail, Communion cups and a dowry chest.

Gesine Janzen, who teaches printmaking at Montana State University in Bozeman, was in Kansas in mid-March, where she met with Bethel College art classes and talked about her work at Kauffman Museum’s Spring Gala fundraiser.

Since her student days at Bethel, from which she graduated in 1990, Janzen has used printmaking to look back, recollect and evoke a sense of the past.

After a 2009 visit to Poland, where she saw “places my ancestors had lived in the 1700s,” Janzen says, “I began a series of prints that echoed the distinct absence of connection, the loss of and longing for a time I’ll never know.”

In her work, Janzen says, “I try to create a tangible reality – to hold a dialogue with people I’ll never meet.”

Most of the installations in “Memory Matters” are from 2014-16, but one of the older ones is from 2009. “Blue Heubuden,” a monotype print, is titled from the name of the small town in Prussia from which many Mennonite immigrants came to North America in the late 1800s.

The objects that accompany this piece are bricks from the Heubuden Mennonite congregation’s prayer house.

In 2014, Janzen began a series of prints about her paternal ancestors that she calls “Passages.” That summer, she had visited the Peabody Printing Museum during a family vacation and was “fascinated with the large newspaper printing machine” she saw there.

That machine was an 1880s-era Babcock Reliance newspaper press. The museum’s volunteer guide, Wesley Bentz, agreed to help Janzen produce an “art newspaper … on the equipment that would have been used at the time of immigration in 1880, just down the street from the Peabody train station where the immigrants arrived,” Janzen writes in the exhibit guide.

Another of the installations is called “Improvisations,” which Janzen describes as “free-associations of materials, prints, fabric, wood and objects inspired by details in family letters.” It allowed her to “connect with objects that were part of everyday life in the 1880s,” she says.

In her artist statement for “Memory Matters,” she continues, “Making this artwork was a way for me to try to touch [my ancestors’] lives in a tangible way. Using the tactile qualities of fabric … is a way for me to reference the intimacy of family connections and our daily existence, through a handkerchief, a tablecloth or a garment worn next to the skin.”

“Memory Matters” juxtaposes excerpts from Janzen family letters with photographs taken on the 2009 trip to the Vistula Delta, and incorporates photos and prints of the central Kansas landscape where Janzen’s ancestors settled and she grew up.

“I use the printmaking medium for its historical association with paper, text and image,” the artist statement goes on. “Artifacts … were integrated into the exhibit to trigger memories, encourage associations and create a counterpoint in the ongoing dialogue between the artist, the art and the viewer.”

“Memory Matters” has a special interactive component called “Kids Make Memories” (although it is open to anyone), which offers templates and materials to construct your own mixed-media memory installations, using the model provided by Janzen’s works.

“We are formed by our past, which helps define who we are today,” Janzen said in her museum talk.

“My hope is that [viewers of the exhibition] will make associations and connections between the artwork and the objects, and then reflect on [their] own stories and why memory matters.”

“Memory Matters: Works by Gesine Janzen” will be at Kauffman Museum through May 28.

Regular museum hours are 9:30 a.m.-4:30 p.m. Tuesday-Friday, and 1:30-4:30 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. The museum is closed Mondays and major holidays. There is an admission charge for non-museum members. For more information, call 316-283-1612 or visit the Kauffman Museum website,, or Facebook page.

About Bethel

As the first Mennonite college founded in North America, Bethel College celebrates a tradition of progressive Christian liberal arts education, diversity within community, and lifelong learning.