University of Minnesota
Center for Holocaust & Genocide Studies


Joyce Lyon

Joyce Lyon is the child of refugees from Poland and a Professor of Art at the University of Minnesota, Lyon became interested in landscape as a metaphor for absence and the memories of the Holocaust in her family. The forests were places where killing took place, as well as where resistance developed. Lyon, after much research, found that the forests of Poland looked very much like the Northern rural areas of the USA.

Artist Statement

"In Conversations with Rzeszow, I am engaged in a dialogue between the familiar and a place I knew initially only through fragmentary stories, silence and the efforts of my own imagination. Rzeszow is a small city in southeastern Poland, where my father grew up within an extensive Jewish community that was destroyed in World War II. As a child I was told little about the fate of my father's family; in recent years I have felt the need to know more. The dialogue in the work involves both images and text. There are several voices: my own, recounting and questioning my perceptions, and quotes from Primo Levi and Francine Prose, more knowledgeable sources, who recount and question theirs. Some of the drawings are about places in Poland: the endless fields of barrack chimneys I saw at Birkenau, a mass grave in the woods near Rzeszow. Others are places I know more intimately: a Minneapolis bird sanctuary, a summer home in upstate New York. The metaphor of place becomes a means to explore many kinds of knowing: one's own direct experience and its limitations, what can be intuited, what is possible to learn at a distance and what cannot, finally, be understood."

Artworks: Witness and Legacy

Maus II

Chimneys at Birkenau II
from Conversations with Rzezow, 1991 Oil stick
43 x 60

Chimneys shows the bleak landscape of Aushwitz-Birkenau as it looks today, with some semblence of hope given by the artist with her focus on a small tree.

Maus II

Bird Sanctuary, Minneapolis I from
Conversations with Rzezow, 1991 Oil stick
34 x 92

Bird Sanctuary becomes an important reference to the places where the Holocaust took place, the forests and marshes of Poland and other countries of the east. We may, as viewers, be led to comtemplate how safe and refreshing such sites are today, compared with the fear of the killing process in such settings.


Joyce Lyon
"Pliny" by Primo Levi from
Conversations with Rzeszow, 1991 Text panel
12 1/2 x 10

Primo Levi's poem, "Pliny," which Lyon quotes, is useful as a way of understanding the challenge of the Holocaust as a subject. Is it too difficult to enter? Can it confuse, even suffocate the viewer or scholar? Pliny attempted to view Vesuvius and was killed by a gas cloud.


Don't hold me back, friends, let me set out.
I won't go far, just to the other shore.
I want to observe at close hand that dark clod,
Shaped like a p;ine tree, rising over Vesuvius,
And find the source of this strange light.

This is the first stanza only of Primo Levy's poem, dated 23 May, 1978 which artist Joyce Lyon uses to accompany her paintings and show artistic process via a vis the Holocaust.

Pliny died from the gas emitted by Vesuvius.

Mt. Oberg, Tofte, Minnesota

Mt. Oberg, Tofte , Minnesota, 1992 Oil stick
30 x 88

Joyce Lyon found Mt. Oberg, near Tofte, Minnesota to be similar to the landscape of her father's native Poland. However, he did not remember the forests.

Bird Sanctuary

Bird Sanctuary 1992 (detail) Oil stick
30 x 44

A bird sanctuary trail suggests the possible dangers of uncovering something that might trigger the memory of the past. Some Holocaust survivors who were victims of violence in in the woods still fear to enter such places today.

After I saw 'The Partisans of Vilna'

After I Saw "The Partisans of Vilna," 1991, Text panel
12 1/2 x 10

Lyon explains that seeing the film Partisans of Vilna gave her a new perspective on the forests-that in addition to a killing place, it was also a spot for resistance by the partisan groups.

Mass Grave: Glogow, Poland I Mass Grave: Glogow, Poland I," 1992
30 x 44

Page updated 2013.