Paintings trace immigrants’ journeys to America through Ellis Island

By: K. Michelle Moran | Grosse Pointe Times | Published February 10, 2016

 “Hatbox with Suitcase and Trumpet,” an oil painting by van der Pool, depicts some of the cherished mementos that immigrants brought with them to America.

“Hatbox with Suitcase and Trumpet,” an oil painting by van der Pool, depicts some of the cherished mementos that immigrants brought with them to America.

Photo by K. Michelle Moran

GROSSE POINTE SHORES — Imagine having to flee your homeland in the middle of the night, able, at best, to pack a scant few belongings in a single bag. What would you bring with you? What cherished family mementos would travel with you on this arduous journey?

These are the emotions Leendert van der Pool taps into in “Treasured Memories: Paintings by Leendert van der Pool,” on display through March 20 in the Activities Building on the grounds of the Edsel and Eleanor Ford House in Grosse Pointe Shores. Van der Pool, who grew up in the Netherlands, spent more than 20 years working on paintings of what was left behind on Ellis Island, including suitcases, musical instruments, cooking and dormitory areas, all of which formed the experience of generations of immigrants making their way to America. Of more than 120 paintings of what he saw on Ellis Island, Ford House visitors will see an overview that consists of 31 large-scale oils and pastels.

“(It’s) about how objects help re-create the past,” van der Pool said.

He said he wanted audiences to see the entire process that immigrants went through, from entering Immigration Hall through medical or legal quarantines and sometimes long periods in resident halls, where they would entertain themselves with music and other traditions from their homelands.

“They have only a suitcase (when they arrive),” van der Pool said. “They have a whole new future in front of them.”

The first time van der Pool came to the United States, circa 1990, he visited Ellis Island, which by then had become a tourist attraction with a museum. Still, a number of buildings and facilities had remained largely untouched since the island closed for immigration purposes in the early 1950s, and the artist was allowed access to many of those areas — albeit accompanied by security personnel because of building safety issues. 

Van der Pool took photographs of what he saw to form the basis of the paintings he later created. He said he wanted to convey “what things they were going through physically, mentally,” to express the emotional states of people who were leaving the only home they’d ever known for a strange land with an unfamiliar language and customs.

“For the immigrants it is a dark period, because it is stressful — a lot of nerves,” van der Pool said of the time on Ellis Island.

He said he felt “emotional” himself during his trips to Ellis Island, and the sight of suitcases and other precious personal items left behind left him wondering why. Were the people they belonged to deported? Did they die? Did they simply abandon what little material possessions they still had left?

Now a U.S. citizen himself, van der Pool divides his time between New York and Paris, where he teaches and paints. But his journey to professional artist was an unconventional one. Growing up in the waterfront city of Vlissingen, van der Pool said he dropped out of school at age 15 to become a merchant marine after a childhood of watching the large sea ships gliding past his hometown.

“My heart went out to the sea,” he said.

Van der Pool worked his way up the ranks, becoming a captain on inland ships by the time he was 29. But while walking on land to deliver some customs papers to the office one day, he said he was struck by a taxi and badly injured. 

While recovering in the hospital and later at home, he said he started to draw on a sketchpad out of boredom. Van der Pool proved a quick study, and two years later, the largely self-taught artist had been accepted into a Dutch government program — now defunct — that subsidized the careers of artists and purchased works from them for placement in public spaces.

Van der Pool’s wife is noted American calligraphy artist Eleanor Winters, and four of her works are also part of the Ford House display. Winters currently has her own exhibition at the Holocaust Memorial Center in Farmington Hills. Titled “A la Mémoire des Enfants Déportés,” Winters’ work looks at the 11,400 French Jewish children who were deported and, in many cases, killed in the Nazi concentration camps between 1942 and 1944. It’s on view through May 15. 

“The connector (between the exhibitions) really is memory,” Winters said. “These were originally planned as collaborative exhibitions. … The thematic link is how we remember the past, how we visualize it, how we express it.”

Despite the distance between the venues, Ford House officials are encouraging their visitors to go to the Holocaust Memorial Center to see Winters’ exhibition.

“That’s what we’re hoping,” said Mark Heppner, vice president of historic resources at the Ford House. “We were trying to encourage people to do that strategically.”

The Ford House display also features artifacts from the house’s collection that reflect the period when Ellis Island was an immigration hub — objects like musical instruments, trunks and bakeware — the kinds of items that immigrants often brought with them. Given that many of the estate’s staff members were immigrants themselves, this art show is a perfect fit.

“We are so thrilled to have Leendert’s work here,” Heppner said. “We’re trying to make a connection to memories. … The memories live on through these objects.”

The Edsel and Eleanor Ford House is located at 1100 Lake Shore Road, between Nine Mile and Vernier roads, in Grosse Pointe Shores. Admission to this exhibition is free, although there are charges for special programs associated with the show. For more information, call (313) 884-4222 or visit www.fordhouse.org. 

The Holocaust Memorial Center is located at 28123 Orchard Lake Road in Farmington Hills. For more about Winters’ exhibition, call (248) 553-2400 or visit www.holocaustcenter.org. 

Call Arts & Entertainment Editor K. Michelle Moran at (586) 498-1047.