Helène Aylon: Artist, Ecofeminist, Author
The room was filled with an open, excited energy. On my way in before I descended the stairs, I noticed a large painting, in the style of a Superman comic book with a woman in the background, her face in anguish, the man in the foreground, his face in defeat, a dialogue bubble in the middle of them with the statement: “I don’t understand your kind.” To whom was I to attribute the statement? At first I thought the woman, then possibly the man. And that was the point. I knew I was in the right place: A book launch and celebration presented by the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute (HBI) and co-sponsored by the Jewish Women’s Archive in honor of conceptual installation artist and ecofeminist Helène Aylon.
It was my turn last night at the Brandeis Rose Art Museum to “understand” this particular woman, this unique artist, who “broke through” her early Orthodox upbringing to become a leading figure in the feminist visual art scene. Instead of abandoning her Jewish upbringing and disowning the entire religion, she confronted the misogyny, the misappropriation, the absence of women (in the Torah and tradition) and a G-d whose depiction (by men) did not seem true.
During the presentation, Helène stood at the podium dressed in cascading cloth and a kind of feminine, Semitic turban and said, “I wanted to let a force beyond me make the work.” She was referring to both the Divine and to… gravity.
She is best known for her work with linseed oil. The process she uses involves pouring a large quantity of oil on a large canvas (positioned horizontally). Over the span of many months, Helène would continue to pour on the oil. As the oil dried after each pouring, a kind of “skin” formed. The “skin” created something of a sac and within the sac, the liquid oil would collect until… it was time to exhibit the work. Four people would turn the canvas so it was vertical, and a breakthrough, a "birthing" would occur. Appropriately, Helène would invite people to “midwife the image.”
When I “midwifed the image,” via a projection during the gathering at Brandeis, I was surprised by how involved I was. It was riveting. And I “got” it. Before I did any additional research, before I listened to Helène, now 81, describe her work from over 30 years ago, I was mesmerized; it was a kind of meditation. It felt so absolutely female to me. It looked gooey and warm and smooth, and…fertile.
The title of Helène’s memoir, Whatever Is Contained Must Be Released, published by the Feminist Press, now takes on additional meaning for me. The subtitle as well: My Jewish Orthodox Girlhood, My Life as a Feminist Artist. At the book launch, I remember Helène saying, almost as an aside, “Breaking is a messy thing.” Yes. Yes, it is.
Here is a short video that shows Helène working with linseed oil. Watch it. It’s an experience.
Helène is also known for combining activism and art. She once drove an “Earth Ambulance” across the country from California to the United Nations in New York City carrying… the Earth--sand from the Pacific Ocean. How do you explain to your Mother these efforts…efforts to save our Great Mother? Here on page 183 of Whatever Is Contained, I discovered an exchange between Helène and her mother:
“Please, Mom, come to the Pacific Ocean with me.”
“To gather sand.”
“But I don’t like sand.”
What I have yet to convey is Helène’s talent as a writer. She is an artist who knows how to write about her work, and she’s a woman who knows how to write about life—with beauty, meaning, humor.
Helène said, “All those years [of Yeshiva study] and never did I read words by a woman.” Let us be thankful that now we have an opportunity to read hers.
You can find out more about Helène Aylon and her "liberation of G-d" as part of the feminism exhibit on jwa.org. You can also read more about Helene Aylon in "Wrestling with G-d and the Jewish Tradition," one of our Go & Learn lesson plans. Also, check out Helène Aylon's website.