Charmaine Banach’s artistic work draws from the deep well of her family’s experiences during the occupation of Poland by foreign powers during World War II and the years following.
Banach is an assistant professor of graphic design, and a recent addition to Youngstown State University’s department of art. Her art is on display at the McDonough Museum of Art’s biennial faculty art exhibit.
Banach received her Bachelor of Fine Arts degree from the University of Iowa in 1999. She earned her Master of Arts degree from the Savannah College of Art and Design, where she attended as a fellow. She also holds a Master of Fine Arts degree from the University of Iowa, where she taught introduction to graphic design.
Most of her work can be considered graphic design. Drawings and pictures, which she calls “analog animations,” dot the walls of the McDonough.
Banach said she grew up listening to stories about the hardships her parents and grandparents saw during the war.
“I feel like I have all these memories of war that are not my memories,” Banach said.
German and Russian forces occupied the area in Poland where her grandparents lived during the war, she said. Her grandparents were often forced to work essentially as slaves for whichever invading army happened to be coming through at any given time.
Banach said she spends so much time thinking about the stories her parents and grandparents have passed down to her that she feels they occupy her mind in a similar way an invading force can occupy a territory.
The title of her exhibition’s interactive website, http://stateofoccupation.org, reflects her occupied mind.
“All the opportunities I’ve had, all the things I’ve done, all the things I get to complain about. Maybe I didn’t like my lunch, but my parents went without food for days,”
One particular piece, titled “Bullet in Suitcase,” tells the story of the day Soviet forces attacked the farm on which Banach’s grandparents lived.
Her father, who was around 2 years old at the time, was unable to run, so his mother simply shoved him into a suitcase, closed it and headed for the woods with the few things she could carry.
The Russian troops began to fire at Banach’s grandparents as they were escaping. One of the bullets penetrated the suitcase while Banach’s father was still inside.
“It must have been an intense moment. She couldn’t even stop running to check on her child,” Banach said. “She knew that, if she stopped, they would all die. She had to turn off her emotions, which is what humans always have to do in war.”
When Banach’s grandmother reached the safety of the woods, she was finally able to open the suitcase. Banach’s father wasn’t moving and was curled up in the fetal position.
The bullet had passed through the suitcase and had even grazed her father’s shirt, but he was unharmed.
“There are so many stories in which my dad should have died. There are so many stories in which my mom should have died. It’s incredible that either of them survived,” Banach said.
Banach considers herself a storykeeper for her family. As time goes by, and events begin to pass out of living memory, she said it’s important to remember these stories and to think about them from a modern perspective in order to fully appreciate the things we often take for granted.
Another piece called “Broke,” which can be seen at the McDonough, tells the story of Banach’s maternal grandmother, who worked at a Campbell’s Soup factory when she first immigrated to America from Poland.
“She was lucky enough to have a job during the Depression, but she was making soup that she would never have been able to afford. She couldn’t buy Campbell’s Soup, and they certainty wouldn’t have given her any,” Banach said.
One day, while working on the canning line, a large piece of machinery fell on Banach’s grandmother’s wrist and broke it so severely that evidence of the injury remained for the rest of her life. When she was in her 80s, she still had a lump on her wrist the size of a golf ball.
“Her supervisor came up to her after it happened and told her that if she left the factory to go to the hospital, she wouldn’t have a job when she came back,” Banach said. “That’s the way people were treated then, and I complain about my chair at work being uncomfortable. Look at everything I have that I can’t even appreciate.”
Banach said she considers the work she has on display, which is only a portion of a much larger body of work, to be a good example of how design can merge with art.
The exhibit also includes interactive pieces displayed on a computer at the gallery. Viewers can explore Banach’s work, read the stories behind the pieces and interact with them. Viewers can also visit the project’s website for the same experience.
“Design is a process of thought; it’s an attempt to solve a visual problem,” Banach said.
One of the interactive pieces Banach designed is a game in which the viewer has to help her grandfather make his way safely through a minefield to a truck. The viewers learn the significance of the story only after they have completed the task.
In 1947, the Polish government issued a statement that allowed any citizen to take ownership of any discarded mail vehicle that had been abandoned in a minefield.
With the Polish economy in shambles, and no jobs available, Banach’s grandfather saw a truck as a way to help transport and feed his family. He walked through a field of mines and then drove the truck back out of it.
“That story always reminds me that I come from very strong people,” Banach said.
Banach’s digital designs have reached millions. In 2011, she designed an iPod app that was ranked the as the No. 4 top seller for several months. She is pleased that so many people have been able to see and interact with her work.
Cutline: Charmaine Banach, assistant professor of graphic design at YSU and recent addition to YSU’s art department