Deep family pride was on display earlier this month in Washington, DC when Jewish artist/activist Helene Aylon, 85, became one of four artists to receive a lifetime achievement award from the Women’s Caucus for Art.
On hand, right there in the front row, for applause, hugs and selfies, were a good dozen of Aylon’s far flung family including her son, a professor of plasma physics at Princeton University, a sister from Los Angeles, one from Jerusalem, a cousin from Sweden, a grandson in the JAG corps and based in Norfolk, Virginia, and a bevy of nieces and nephews, including some great ones, from the Maryland suburbs.
Aylon, a self-described “visual, conceptual, installation, performance artist and eco-feminist,” began her career soon after her rabbi husband died in 1961 of cancer at age 35. Her first installation was a mural for a youth employment center in Bedford Stuyvesant and her work has since been displayed throughout the world including the Jewish chapel library at Kennedy Airport, the Whitney Museum, MOMA, the San Francisco Museum of Modern art and the Jewish Museum in New York City. She is the author of “Whatever Is Contained Must Be Released: My Jewish Orthodox Girlhood, My Life As A Jewish Feminist.”
Aylon says her work is divided into five areas of exploration: Body, Earth, G-d, Foremothers and Civilization. Among her most famous works: in the 1980s, Aylon drove an “Earth Ambulance” across the country stopping at Strategic Air Command sites to pick up earth that was then brought to the United Nations. Another well-known series is called The Breakings—the medium used was oil poured onto canvas and allowed to form a membrane. When the paintings were lifted and tilted, the oil broke free and took on new forms.
Judaism explicitly figures in much of Aylon’s work. One installment in a series called The G-d Project, which took two decades to complete, is “My Notebooks” a collection of 54 blank notebooks that form a group of columns. The work is "Dedicated to Mrs. Rashi and Mrs. Maimonides, the wives of two of Judaism’s most revered commentators, “for surely they have something to say.” Writing in the program guide for the awards ceremony, Rachel Federman, an assistant curator at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art calls Aylon’s work “not a simple condemnation [of God] but an informed negotiation.”
“I think I always knew I wanted to be an artist,” Aylon told The Jewish Week. “I didn’t know what form it would take and even to this day I don’t know what form it will take, it’s the issue of the day, and any way I can express it.”
Aylon says she hopes “I would be remembered in a loving way because I’m not trying to defame Judaism but I wanted to tell the truth about it to see what we can do about it.”
Francesca Lunzer Kritz is a freelance writer in Silver Spring, Maryland.