Beauty in a Broken World

By Eric Fortier

Sheila Kriemelman always works on her paintings in her SoHo, New York loft.

“I always listen to good music when I work,” she said.

This particular time she was listening to Leonard Cohen’s “Anthem” covered by Rufus Wainright. The song offered her the title of the series, “There Is A Crack, A Crack In Everything, That’s How The Light Gets In.”

The painting she was working on at the time is called “Diptych.” It is actually two paintings, but when put side-by-side, represent one work. She felt as though looking at it, she wasn’t quite finished.

Orianna, her granddaughter, is nine years old. She visits often. This particular time she grabbed a watercolor crayon from the box and went up to the paintings and made a mark on each.

Her mark was a heart.

“TuTu, I think you’re finished,” Orianna said.

Of course it was.

That was the beginning of the collaboration between grandmother and granddaughter.

Kriemelman is known as a Neo-Expressionist in the Art World. Her work is always autobiographical, loaded with content, emotive, evocative, and highly personal.

“My best work comes out of my pain,” she said. Art, to her, is therapy.

And Kriemelman knows a lot about pain.

It was a birthday party when the unimaginable happened. Orianna was disoriented. It appeared as if she was drinking alcohol and were a stumbling drunk. The adults at the birthday party were stunned, casting judgment on the parents of the child who had dropped her off.

The parent, who was in charge of the party, called 911. The child was taken to Beth Israel Hospital in New York City.

When the father of the child arrived at the hospital, the police immediately took him into custody. He was rigorously interrogated. The police wanted to know why the girl was drinking alcohol. He denied all allegations.

Orianna was four years old.

Dr. Alehandro Berenstein treated Orianna at Beth Israel Hospital. After running a series of tests, he knew exactly what was wrong with her. She was in fact not a drunk four year-old girl, but a child with a condition called AVM, Arterio-Venous Malformation. What was making her appear intoxicated is known as a “bleed” and can cause a stroke or even death.

According to Dr. John Pile-Spellman of Columbia University Medical Center’s web site, AVM is an abnormal collection of blood vessels.

“Normally, oxygenated blood is pumped by the heart through arteries to the brain, where the blood enters a fine network of tiny vessels called capillaries. It is in these capillary beds where the blood nourishes the tissues,” he said. “The ‘deoxygenated’ blood then passes back to the heart through branching thin walled tubes called veins.”

He added that Arterial-Venous Malformations are areas that lack the tiny capillaries. The location of the connection between the artery and the vein is called the shunt.

“An AVM can be thought of as a ‘Short Circuit’ where the blood does not go to the tissues but is pumped through the shunt and back to the heart without ever giving nutrients to the tissues.”

Berenstein immediately recommended surgery.

Since that fateful birthday party, Orianna has had 10 brain surgeries, including a radio surgery that only one doctor in the United States performs on children.

Yet if someone were to meet Orianna today, he or she would find an amazing 13 year-old eighth grader looking forward to high school.

“She is absolutely an amazing young lady. She never complains and never feels sorry for herself,” said Kriemelman. “That’s why she’s my muse.”

Kriemelman’s newest series of work is titled, “Beauty in a Broken World: Muse”.

The medium is acrylic on canvas. The painting shows emotion in the colors that were chosen. One viewer of her art show stated, “The yellow is a love light, a life light.”

Kriemelman said of her work, “Last October, I had a vision of Orianna’s body: her hair, her arms, nude, in a skirt with boots and pointy toes.”

To execute her vision, she did a photo shoot with Orianna in her SoHo studio.

“It’s about Orianna, and my gratitude that she’s walking and moving,” said Kriemelman. “It’s a miracle she’s alive.”

When Kriemelman first asked Orianna to put her mark on the painting, she was hesitant.

I really felt intimidated, like I was going to mess this one up because it’s so beautiful,” said Orianna of the work.

Yet she did it, and the collaboration between the two via artwork had begun.

Students at Mercy College, where she teaches Art and Culture, know her as Professor Kriemelman. Her work can be seen at The Faculty Exhibition 2009 at the Brother Kenneth Chapman Gallery, Iona College Arts Center, where she also teaches.

“After we started collaborating with art, it felt right to share in the success by splitting the proceeds with her,” said Kriemelman.

Orianna receives half of the money from all the works they collaborate on. The money goes into a fund for her college tuition.

In her class, Kriemelman always tells her students that art is whatever they want it to be. In some cases, it’s therapeutic for the artist. The provost of Iona College even remarked on the profound influence of Orianna on Kriemelmann’s work.

“Normally, her work is very dark and unhappy,” he said. “But this one has light and joy.”

Kriemelman agrees, and has also noticed a change. Her collaboration and bond with her granddaughter, seems to only get stronger.

She commented, “I emerged from the other side of the tunnel.”