My sister in law Janina was really somebody. She was a beautiful girl, a beautiful and talented woman , a wonderful and caring wife to my brother Ira, and a great mother, grandmother and great grandmother.
Her first love was her family, but her second love was her art. It was through her extraordinary talent as an artist and her beautiful tapestries that she retold the story of her life.
Janina’s life story could be material for a book or a movie. As a young girl she survived WW II, fled from the Nazis and Russians, and finally made her way to this country, and to Chicago where she met and married my brother Ira.
But survival was not enough for Janina. She joined us as a stranger, but immediately became an integral part of our family. She was a caring and devoted daughter in law to our mother, as well as a loving niece to our Aunt Miriam. And she was a good friend to me. I will so miss our Monday night dates in Sanibel where we regularly attended the BIG Arts movies together, often preceded by a snack at Over Easy.
But in addition to being an important part of our family community she never forgot her heritage and her beloved Lithuania. Truly a woman of many cultures, she shared her talents and good fortune with the many communities that were part of her life. The family, the Hyde Park community in which she lived, Sanibel, her winter community, the artistic community, the Lithuanian community that was her heritage, and finally, her museum. Janina’s life long dream was to give back to Lithuania the good fortune of her talent through establishing an art museum in Lithuania. Happily, she was able to fulfill that dream. Janina’s dream is a legacy that ours as well as future generations will benefit from for years to come. Danny and Vida, Peter and Dorothy, Paul and Anja, and all the grandchildren and great grandchildren, I know that in your grief, you are all so very proud of your Mom and the life she lived.
We miss you Janina.
I presented this speech as though I was reading from Janina’s Autobiography which I invented as I believed she would have written it. I comented on each passage with my thoughts about my Mother.
Color is what I know. It inspires me. It nourishes me. It helps me see the world through a kaleidoscope of sparkling lights infused with sunset orange, ocean blues, luscious pinks and elm greens. It gives me the courage to create with abstract shapes and themes. I can think clearly when I look at the colors around me. It sets me free… This could be the beginning of one of the many chapters in my Mother’s life. Janina loved to be in color. You can obviously see it in her art, in her beautiful collection of fabrics, in the way she used color to decorate and add life to her homes. Never over doing it, but just enough to make you notice. I was fortunate to grow up in this world of color. It was always changing, things moved around in Janina’s homes, a new piece of art there, an old Bedouin rug here, a beautiful Peruvian bowl with Lithuanian easter eggs in it neatly placed on the dining room table with an African Masai fabric as the table runner. Her colorful collections grew and slowly took over a wall in one room, and later another room. In Janina’s world, color is living and changing and moving – nothing is black or white. My brothers and I learned from this – to see the world in many different shades, never to see something for what it is – but to think what it can be…
I was contemplating painting the walls in the kitchen, but then I realized how uninspiring a flat coat of paint can be. Maybe I should add a second color for the trim and stencil a design in the middle. Then it occurred to me, that new fabric laced wallpaper would be perfect. As I brought out the paint scrapers and went to work, I knew this wall is going to look wonderful. Not only did Janina scrap off the old paint, she prepped the walls, bought the paper and hung it herself. When the chair leg was broken, Janina would fix it. When the grass needed to be mowed in her home in Michiana, she did it. When the cherry tree leaves needed to be raked, Janina would finish it along with weeding the flower beds and trimming the prickly evergreen shrubs. The few scrapes on her legs or an unexpected bout of poison ivy were a minor sacrifice to getting the job done. After my brothers and I became old enough to hold a real shovel and strong enough to lift a large basket full of weeds, maybe age 6 or 7, the expectations became quite clear. Get it done before you can play. There was no option. Maybe a small chance to climb a tree when she wasn’t watching, or a quick run to the beach while we were supposed to be shoveling the sand out of the driveway. And when we said we were done, Janina would always come out a do a final inspection. Rarely would the outcome be “OK great job” more often it was “you missed that spot” or “finish it like I said so”. If we didn’t do it, Janina would step right in and “just do it” herself. Of course there would be a consequence. Nothing really stopped her from just doing, so we all learned and tried to emulate that special drive that she possessed. I know many of you here today have been inspired by this attitude through her advice, opinions and philosophy on life. Janina you did it, and you kept on doing…
I have struggled with the concept of being independent. I know that I need it to define who I am. I fled my country and my family to save myself, to survive, to grow, to get my own education however I could. It was not easy leaving Europe, but arriving here with my son and having to start all over with a new language and customs and live amongst all these different people from all over the world. That was overwhelming. But here I am now, happy with my new family, children, homes and oh, some many responsibilities. The theater, the studio art work, the weaving, the art fairs, my Lithuanian friends here in Chicago, the Museum in Kedainiai, these are many of the things that defined my independence. Janina was the most independent person I have ever known – and she was my loving Mother. She thrived on her own ideas. She created things by just looking at an object and figuring out how it was made. If it did not look right to her there was nothing to stop her from saying why it was wrong or why it looked terrible. She confused you with her funny ways of critiquing things, was she serious, was it really that bad? Did she really like it? This trait was unsettling to many people who just met her, but it defined who she was, always confident to speak her mind and say what she thinks. That is what drew so many people to her. It always puzzled me why so many people loved her company and how she could always make new close friends even after my father passed away. She needed her family for the love and support that she shared with them but she also needed her own life to move forward and to keep her purpose of what defined Janina.
I have contemplated what will come after I pass. I don’t necessarily need to talk about it with anyone. I know I won’t live forever, but should I prepare for an ending or just keep doing what I do best. What happens if I tell them I’m not ready to go? I have just too much to do. I can’t just stop and plan for an end. Too many people expect me to keep on going, I can’t let them down. But my lungs, they don’t work that well anymore. It’s so much harder just to keep doing what I want to do. If someone can just help me part time, just to help me stay independent then I will be fine. The museum needs new ideas, it must continue to grow. I need to finish this tapestry that Nelson designed; I can’t let him down… Janina was a very healthy person in a body that was unfortunately failing her ability to stay alive. Her lungs were severely damaged from an early infection of Tuberculosis when she worked in the TB ward of a hospital while a refugee in Austria. She smoked just like all her friends did to stay thin and fashionable and she stopped when her children became more important than her pose. She remained incredibly healthy and active, never once “exercising or working out”. She didn’t need to. She would routinely walk about 5 miles a day in her apartment, back and forth between her art studio, going to her office to get something, to the kitchen to cook dinner, walking and walking, doing and doing. But time started to catch up with her body. She became tired just doing her normal routines. She could no longer spend her hours working in the yard in her Michiana home. She could not drive anymore. But she could still think and create and weave. With a little help from an oxygen tank, Janina defied all odds and kept on going, complaining not about her health or discomfort, but about how it was difficult to find something in the house or too just finish something or not enjoy eating the wonderful variety of foods she so loved. In this last week, Janina fought her hardest battle; her lungs and her heart were working against each other. She was hoping to just fix it so she could go to Florida this Friday. Everything was set, all the plans were made… But on Friday last week it became clear to her that her time had come. My family was with her at the hospital, taking different times to sit with her and to talk and encourage her to fight, there was just so much to do… But Janina was realistic and very much aware of what was going to happen… She faced her destiny with dignity, fear and pride. After her last difficult night being short of breath and lacking sleep, her Doctor asked her if she realized why we were all here with her in the room, and she miraculously rose her head up with a brimming smile and said, “yes, because I am the star of the show”… his was the Janina we all know… Mom, you were truly a special person… And that is why we loved you so much…
My name is Sigi Nagys. I am Janina’s oldest son from her first marriage. Janina was born in Lithuania in 1923. She started her love of the arts as a student by acting in school plays. She married my father, Martynas Nagys, in 1944. Shortly thereafter my father’s family fled from Lithuania to escape the Russian occupation. They ended up in Freiburg, Germany in the French administered displaced person’s camp. Janina went to Austria to continue her interrupted education in theatre and the arts. The war in Europe was over but turmoil was everywhere. In the midst of that turmoil I was born in Freiburg in 1947. Unable to return to Occupied Lithuania, the Nagys Family was able to take advantage of an opportunity to come to the United States in 1949 thanks to the Franciscan Fathers of Kennebunkport, Maine. The family had to work for the Fathers for about a year to help pay for their passage costs. They then migrated to Chicago where there was a very active Lithuanian community and the promise of jobs. In 1950, Janina and Martynas divorced for reasons that were unclear to this then three year old. I was raised at that time by my Grandparents (Martynas’ parents) in Chicago and then we moved to Lemont, Illinois. Janina would come and visit at least monthly. Martin was busy doing whatever. Janina married Ira Marks in 1953 and shortly thereafter I met him on one of mom’s visits to Lemont. After Danny was born in 1954, I was moved into Janina and Ira’s home at 5421 Cornell in Hyde Park. After brother Peter arrived, we all moved to 5490 which has been the family home ever since. When I went away to high school to Ira’s Alma matter, Western Military Academy, Janina took over my room in 5490 by eminent domain and dove back into her first love – her art. The rest of her life story most of you know as her book details her artistic life. My brothers; Danny, Peter and Paul will each say a few words next. We have asked Dalia, Janina’s Museum Director and niece to speak. We have asked Vida Marks, Danny’s wife, to translate Dalia’s speech for you. We have also asked Janina’s grand children to share a few thoughts with us. Dalia will follow me. We will then have a short musical interlude then Danny and Peter will speak. Then we will have more of mom’s favorite classical music. We will end with a few of Janina’s grandchildren and a few final words by the rabbi. Thank you for coming to share this moment with us. I want to leave you with a quote from the 20th century philosopher, Michael Philip Jaeger, “You can’t always get what you want, but, if you try, sometimes you might find, you get what you need.”
Mom’s art challenged the observer to provide their own interpretation. While looking at mom’s creations with her, if you asked, “What does that mean?” she would always reply “What does it mean to you?” She wanted to provoke thoughts of your own and not just see it her way. Like her husband Ira who worked for integration and social justice for all Chicagoans, Janina was proud to help weave together different threads of the artistic community. Before Janina, the Lithuanian artists in the area had a hard time assimilating into Chicago’s artistic community. Janina helped bridge that gap. My parents were all about inclusiveness, bringing different social ideas, political viewpoints and artistic backgrounds together. Many of my buddies can tell you a lot about the togetherness of Ira and Janina’s feasts on Michiana’s summer afternoons. My wife Dorothy and I have been fortunate to be able to travel. We always looked for yarn stores to bring home to mom some new weaving material. She was always appreciative but maybe not as enthusiastically as I expected. Quite often it was too thin or the wrong shade of color. This puzzled me a bit until I heard her brag about an old sweater she had brought for $0.50 at a second hand store. Mom was never happier than when she found a new old sweater. She would take them and carefully unwind the thread and create an inspirational artwork out of others discards. She revitalized and created a new life out of adversity. Perhaps that was an inspiration for Mom’s museum. Towards the end, mom’s vision wasn’t so good. She was frustrated that it was difficult to perceive the intricate designs she created. But on her last day in the hospital, I brought mom some Peruvian yarn that Dorothy and I had found in St. Helena and her fingers went to it naturally, like my dad handled diamond tweezers. Her eyes lit up as she felt the rich yarn. She was distracted by doctor’s questions but her incredible fingers continued working and kneading the yarn. Janina’s last tapestry remains on the loom, a design from her grandson Nelson. I know Janina is still somewhere kneading and working the yarn for her next masterpiece.
When we went to Michiana when I was little, all I wanted to do was weave like grandma. However, Janina was very particular about people touching her loom so my mom bought me my own mini loom. Grandma taught me to weave with the pieces or yarn that were too short for her to use. Having her too short yarn was like having a piece of her tapestry in my beginners weaving. Today I again hope to take a little bit of Janina with me in the form of her appreciation for art and I strive to emulate her astounding strength. From now on my motto is, WWJD – What would Janina do?