By Ryan Klinker, Liberty University News Service—
The Liberty University Art Gallery’s latest exhibit, “The Auschwitz Album Revisited,” displays 40 paintings by the late Christian artist Pat Mercer Hutchens that capture the poignant and unforeseen final moments of life for Jewish victims at one of the Holocaust’s most notorious concentration camps.
The Liberty Art Gallery is open Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. and on Saturdays from 12 p.m. to 3 p.m.
Hutchens chose to use her talent to help others remember the lives lost during the Holocaust. The collection has been shown at the National Holocaust Museum in Ukraine and The Jewish Community Center at Auschwitz, in addition to many other galleries internationally. Pat and her husband, Jim, who is a retired brigadier general and military chaplain, have used their organization The Jerusalem Connection to help support the nation and people of Israel for 20 years.
“They were really devout Christians and felt a burden to help the nation of Israel, so Pat did those paintings based on her love for Israel, and she also didn’t want people to forget the real life experience of victims of the Holocaust,” said Todd Smith, director of Liberty’s art gallery and chair of the Department of Studio & Digital Arts. “Our goal with this exhibit is to honor Pat’s life work and her love for those who suffered so much.”
Pat was inspired to begin this work after seeing the Auschwitz Album, a collection of photographs taken by Nazi SS officers during the “selection” process for Jews when they would arrive to the concentration camp by train. In those photos, she saw the raw facial expressions and body language that exemplified the confusion and uncertainty of the moment, and she wanted to create something that could show compassion and sympathy.
The paintings show the all-too-familiar elements of the Holocaust, such as the yellow stars sewn into coats and how the prisoners were separated, sometimes from loved ones, into two lines upon arrival at Auschwitz. While there are many pieces of literature and art that show the Holocaust’s darkness, Pat chose to use her empathy as a Christian for the Jewish people.
Shelley Neese, who has worked with Pat and Jim as part of the Jerusalem Connection for roughly 15 years, described the paintings as portraying the Jewish people through God-inspired eyes rather than the unfeeling perspective of a Nazi guard. She focused in on the individuals or families in the crowd of people, highlighting the humanity in the inhumane process.
“The photos are almost too much to look at, they’re through the eyes of the Nazis and they have this cold, hard edge to them because you know that the person behind the lens did not care about these people,” Neese said. “(Pat) would single out mothers or children or rabbis standing alone, and that way it humanizes that person.”
As she was painting these pieces, Pat experienced persistent nightmares in which she would unsuccessfully try to revive the victims of Auschwitz, particularly the children, doing whatever she could to save them.
“She would wake up and be more motivated to paint, because that was her way of breathing life back into the victims,” Neese said.
The 40 paintings were donated to Liberty after Pat passed away from a battle with ovarian cancer in 2013, and they have now become part of the university’s permanent collection.
As more people saw her work, Pat began receiving messages from survivors or those who knew them saying that their loved one is shown in the painting or requesting that she paint people who would have been at Auschwitz. What was originally planned to be 12 pieces grew to 20 and eventually 40. Neese believes that, had Pat been able to continue working, the collection would have grown even more.
An opening reception was held on Thursday night and the exhibit will close on March 9 – a date that coincides with the beginning of Purim, the annual Jewish holiday that celebrates when the Jews were saved from the Persian official Haman, who planned to kill all of the Jews in the empire at the time, as recounted in the Book of Esther.
The Liberty University Art Gallery is located in Marie F. Green Hall and is free and open to the public. Select pieces from the university’s permanent collection can be found throughout campus, with some displayed in President Jerry Falwell’s office suite, Montview Mansion, the Montview Ballroom, and multiple other locations.