Remembering Ben Baseman

In honor of Ben Baseman’s birhtday, let’s remember the special bond between artist Gary Baseman and his father Ben Baseman and how it has influenced the artist’s work.

Ben Baseman survived the mass murders that took place in 1941-42 in cities across Eastern Europe, including his hometown of Berezne. After World War II, Ben met his wife Naomi, another Holocaust survivor at a relocation camp in Austria. In 1958, the family moved (via Canada) to Los Angeles where Gary was born and grew up with his three siblings in the Fairfax District.

When Ben passed away in 2010 at the age of 93, Gary found a hidden Yizkor book in a closet of his parents’ home. Yizkor books are memorial books commemorating a Jewish community destroyed during the Holocaust. Gary had long known about his father’s time as a freedom fighter, a partisan who fought the Nazis, but the Yizkor book offered more details about Ben’s actions during and after the war. It then became very clear to Gary that he needed to tell the chronicles of his father in the only way he knew how. As the artist has said in a piece written by the Los Angeles Times, “When my father passed away, the burden of needing to tell his story became really great. I felt like if I didn’t tell his story it would be lost.”

In recent years, Gary’s work has shown a meaningful commitment to telling his father’s and his family’s stories in order to understand his roots and also to inspire his audiences. Walking through Walls (2011) was the first formal exhibition that commemorated his father. In 2013, Gary devoted a very significant exhibition to this endeavor with his first major museum retrospective The Door is Always Open, an exhibition that honors his heritage and traditions. The titles of these exhibitions refer to how Ben Baseman “walked through walls” in order to survive war, and how the artist’s warm-hearted father told everyone–family, friends, neighbors, strangers–that “the door is always open” to his home. Mythical Homeland was another solo exhibition that honored family heritage through a birch tree forest installation featuring drawings, paintings, family photographs and keepsakes.

Other important projects and collaborations that pay tribute to his father are the limited-edition “Partisan” prints produced in collaboration with artist Shepard Fairey, featuring an image of Ben Baseman during his time as a freedom fighter; Mythical Creatures—a documentary that explores the story of the Basemans, uncovering the dark experience of his parents during the Holocaust in Ukraine; The Buckingham Warrior, an animated tale featuring a character Gary created to honor his father’s will of survival. MOCAtv produced this animation by Peter Markowski, featuring music by South African duo Die Antwoord.

As Gary Baseman fans can attest, Ben Baseman not only survived the Holocaust but through Gary’s art; his memory will live forever in his art.

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