“TransAtlantic,” Jessica Straus’s recent exhibition at Boston Sculptors Gallery, consisted of an immersive, room-filling, mixed-media installation that viewers could enter and roam around. Parts of the floor and wall were covered with World War II-era maps mounted on plywood tiles, showing the coastlines of North America and Western Europe, with the Atlantic Ocean stretching in between. A fleet of carved wooden airplanes and an ocean liner seemed to crisscross the space. Straus’s maps focused on France, her mother’s native country, and the Northeastern coast of the U.S., where she was born and raised. Straus’s father was a U.S. soldier who participated in the Normandy landings and subsequent march to Paris, where he met and fell in love with her mother. After Straus’s mother immigrated to the U.S., the newly married couple settled in the Boston area.
“TransAtlantic” also included hand-carved wooden replicas of iconic American and French symbols—a Statue of Liberty placed near New York City’s harbor and an Eiffel Tower near Paris. A passenger ship painted in red, white, and blue rested in the Atlantic, evoking the famous RMS Queen Elizabeth, which Straus’s French grandmother took when she visited her U.S. family. Several small lifeboats followed the ship, each one carrying a replica of a letter from the grandmother in France to the mother in America. Passenger airplanes hanging from the ceiling bore replicas of letters from family in America to family in France. Straus carefully scanned and reproduced the envelopes saved by her mother and grandmother as they kept their correspondence alive over the years.
With this installation, Straus celebrated migration and international alliances, using personal narrative to focus on the importance of the strong and longstanding friendship between France and the U.S. She first conceived of “TransAtlantic” after receiving a commission to create an exhibition in Normandy, where it was shown at a church in the small village of Athis de L’Orne, an area that was heavily bombarded during the war. She then reconfigured the work for its homecoming to America. In a time of rising nationalism, weakening international alliances, and growing anti-immigrant sentiment and xenophobia, Straus subtly promotes the importance of international friendship while eschewing military references or overt politicization.
Her almost toy-like objects and skillfully reproduced artifacts, like her previous works, are meticulously crafted, reflecting woodworking skill as well as an ability to select and assemble many different components to create an evocative narrative. “TransAtlantic” was a perfect example of “the personal is political,” bringing political and cultural issues to the fore in a masterful and visually compelling way.