Alumnus’ art keeps Holocaust memory alive

When Martin Mendelsberg (MFA ’72) was 10 growing up in Denver near First Avenue and Grape Street, horrifying images leapt from the television screen and seared their way into his mind: the Nuremberg crimes.

“It scared the hell out of me,” says Mendelsberg. “I sat there not believing it or understanding it but knowing it was horrific.” 

It was a life-defining moment because Mendelsberg, a graphic designer, typographer and design educator, has dedicated much of his adult years to creating art that’s been both a poignant and evocative response to the Holocaust. 

His work has been exhibited around the globe and represented in permanent collections at Yale University, the New Zealand National Gallery and Victoria University School of Architecture. 

One collection, the Holocaust Portfolio, is a series of prints of the Hebrew letters he says are designed to keep the memory of the Holocaust alive. But he adds the work is also “a metaphor for all genocide.”

“I’m obsessed, in a good way, by the Hebrew letters. I’ve spent a lot of time studying the structure and meanings of the letters — they’re the foundation of my work.”

That work has yielded notes from all of over the world filled with words such as powerful, spiritual, educational and moving.

And this fall Mendelsberg’s Web site caught the attention of Guila Clara Kessous, a director working on the play Once Upon a Time written by famed Jewish author Elie Wiesel. She wanted Mendelsberg’s images as background scenes. 

“I remember getting a call at about midnight and this voice with a low, French accent on the line saying, ‘I’ve got to have your work.’” 

The play opened in Boston in December to a full house with Mendelsberg’s work of 12 scenes — 32 feet wide and 18 feet high — on the stage.

Mendelsberg’s early introduction to art came from his grandfather, a tailor and architect, who moved to the U.S. from Poland in the 1920s. 

“I’d watch him work on plans for the houses and go with him on building sites when I was little.”

While at DU, Mendelsberg studied painting and sculpture. He says his time at the University helped him grow a “personal voice … an identity” as an artist. “It was a self-driven kind of program where you were encouraged to develop and experiment in a lot of different areas.” 

He says he’s not driven by selling his work. Most is in museums.

“It’s mostly about education. World War I was to be the war to end all wars. We can’t stop war, but we can sure as hell try. It’s one painting at a time, one speech at a time. We all make small efforts and hope they add up. I think it would be even worse if no one was talking about war or writing about it or producing art.” 

He pauses when asked what he wants his art to do, then says, “I want it to affect people intellectually and emotionally.”

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