Skip To Content

Jewish Enviro-Artists Have the Whole World in Their Hands

Mierle Laderman Ukeles seemed overwhelmed. She had just returned from a month-long stay in Israel at the height of the horrors, and was now playing catch-up as the official, but unsalaried, artist-in-residence at the New York City Sanitation Department, a gig she has held since 1977.

As a longtime champion of the department, Ukeles has created many projects. Her best-known include a street sweeper ballet (involving 27 trucks) and “Touched Sanitation,” a performance piece that took close to a year to complete, during which time she met and shook the hand of every New York City sanitation worker, saying, “Thank you for keeping New York City alive.”

“Other municipal agencies should have artists in residence,” said the 74-year-old artist, clad in black and sporting a small white ponytail. She escorted me through her Beaver Street Sanitation Department offices — consisting of three large storage spaces housing her cartons, files, cabinets, desks and computers.

Ukeles, who has participated in exhibitions all over the world, is especially swamped at the moment with meetings, as “Landing,” her environmental public artwork, slated for the South Park in Staten Island’s Fresh Kills gets closer to a launch date following years of discussions.

Representing the collaborative efforts of the Sanitation, Parks and Cultural Affairs departments; engineers; ecologists; architects, and Ukeles, “Landing” demonstrates how a devastated landscape — including 150 million tons of garbage — can be transformed into an exquisite natural habitat, shaped into art, and serve as an ideal locale for the public to view the unpolluted natural past and an environmentally friendly future.

The work has three components, including a steel and concrete cantilevered overlook that seemingly floats above the earth, where viewers will have a clear view of the tidal inlet below as the waters flow in and out. It’s an affirmative work of art — “The sky is cathedral,” she said. “But as a byproduct during a storm, you will be able to witness the rising waters created by extreme weather.”

The plan is for “Landing” to be completed and open to the public in two years. However, Fresh Kills, the largest landfill in the world, which is now being converted into a public park (that will be three times the size of Central Park), may take decades to be finished, though the public will get a sneak peek on September 28.

Ukeles was responding to the environment through her art way before the term “global warming” or “climate change” or “extreme weather” had any currency. But she is not alone. Artists such as Helene Aylon, Alan Sonfist, Jackie Brookner, Linda Weintraub, Shai Zakai, and the seminal eco-artists Helen and Newton Harrison paved the way for all sorts of creators to make environmental topics accessible to the public.

What is particularly striking about the Eco-Art movement is the large number of Jews — Jewish women in particular — who are involved. Ukeles, for example, is the daughter of a rabbi. “The view of the natural world as sacred comes out of the Jewish belief system,” she said. “We have the power to transform — like the Creator, and that’s right out of the Book of Genesis — but also the responsibility to repair what is broken. Tikkun olam.”

Other artists cite the significance of nature in the Torah and such holidays as Shmita, the earthly sabbatical, and Sukkot, the yearly harvest festival, as fundamental to Jewish moral philosophy. Even the ancient Hebrew Goddess Asherah — an earth and sea deity — is noted as a figure who plays a role in the collective unconscious. Others point to social consciousness and political advocacy as central to the Jewish worldview.

Even artists who say that the Jewish community — outside of the world of artists — has not been as politically engaged on behalf of ecological concerns as it should be, acknowledge such major players in the movement as rabbis Arthur Waskow and Lawrence Troster as well as the contributions of Jewish organizations such as the Shalom Center in Philadelphia, Hazon, the Green Zionist Alliance and the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life.

Founded in 2010 by Patricia Eszter Margit, Art Kibbutz, an international Jewish artists’ colony that held its first pilot residency in Upstate New York, brings together artists to explore their Jewish heritage, while providing space to collaborate and create.

“In Western civilization, art and culture are viewed as above nature,” Margit said. “But as Jews, ultimately we are partners in creation and so we have to approach the natural world not as a dominating figure, but in a gentle, loving feminine way that inspires others.”

In one of the more striking pieces made at the camp — marrying sculpture and spontaneous street theater — artists Nikki Green and Asherah Cinnamon pulled together twigs to create a giant shin, the first letter of Sh’ma, the Jewish prayer of unity that evokes humanity’s connection to God and, by extension, the earth. Because it was cumbersome to carry — 12 feet long and 4 feet wide — a group effort was needed simply to get it out the studio door. About 25 artists and staff members among others teamed up to hoist the piece onto their shoulders and tote it to the lake, where it was hurled into the water. In their march toward the lake the group sang Hebrew songs of devotion. “It was unplanned, quite wonderful and moving to see people’s desire and enthusiasm to be part of the project and their sense of community in it,” Cinnamon said.

Though most of the artists I spoke with do not incorporate Jewish themes into their eco-art directly, they say their cultural DNA is inevitably present.

Ukeles, who was initially an expressionist painter, says her art evolved when she became a feminist and a mother and grew increasingly aware that the society around her had no appreciation for the repetition and tedium involved just to maintain the baby’s life. “Western culture doesn’t value the necessity of caring or serving, and that [by extension] is a degradation of the earth,” she said “It’s half a system. We’ve built an industrial society. We now have to build in the art of serving and an appreciation for it.”

Over the years, she developed a deep respect for laborers in general — and sanitation men in particular, especially Hurricane Sandy struck. In the wake of the hurricane, she participated in a group show, “Maintenance Required,” at The Kitchen, a gallery in Chelsea, a neighborhood hard hit by the disaster. Ukeles and four curators served lunch to local sanitation workers in a two-hour participatory performance art piece titled “Serving.”

“This was a performance without an audience, and everybody walked away with a greater appreciation of what sanitation workers do, but also a deeper understanding of the personal cost of extreme weather,” she said.

For some Jewish eco-artists, the use of organic — biodegradable and sustainable — materials is key. For others, the art’s viewpoint — subtle or blatant — takes precedence. Not all are convinced that the art need be permanent. Indeed, its transient nature may be precisely the point. Most contend it should be attractive in some way in order to draw in the viewer, though they quibble on the definition of beauty. More than a few suggest that what is grotesque and distorted may in fact have an inherent beauty and function as a catalyst to new awareness if not action. But regardless, the work is conceived to reflect a new vision about our relationship to the planet while broadening the definition of what constitutes art.

Linda Weintraub, an educator, curator, critic and author of books about contemporary art, says the most compelling issue of the day is the environment. In her book “To Life! Eco Art in Pursuit of a Sustainable Planet” (University of California Press, 2012), she describes the burgeoning eco-art movement, presenting a panorama of artistic responses to ecological issues. For Weintraub the practical, problem-solving aspect of art is pivotal. “Metaphor is far removed,” she said, adding that the artist’s job is to embody the correct core values and in so doing raise consciousness.

Artists who use the soot and contaminants in the air to create pencils with which they draw are a perfect example, she says. “The marks may not be visibly different from those made by ordinary pencils, but knowing that the air quality has been improved because contaminants were removed factors a great deal in the viewer’s response,” she said. “The viewer suddenly pays attention to the materiality of the line instead of the image.”

She also admires how some artists use invasive species to either make paper or create pigments for paint. For other artists, she says, the most artistic act may be giving up painting altogether when they realize that paints, preservatives, packaging and storage are harmful to the environment. Instead of applying paint to canvas, they may move into gardening, raising animals and cooking with a new consciousness. “Yes, that’s art,”

Though Israeli pioneer eco-artist Shai Zakai says that her art also emerges from ecological consciousness — and that living ecologically is the centerpiece of her existence — she distances herself from artists who make a big point of the organic or recycled materials they use. “That is the direction in the eco-art world,” she said. “Many artists who live in the kibbutzim make art out of recycled materials not because of politics or ecological awareness, but because it’s available and cheap. Their art doesn’t tell the public anything. And often what they’re producing is mediocre art or not art at all.” She is equally troubled by the notion of using invasive species as art materials. “Invasive species should get another look,” she said. “I believe we should get to know them before we kill them.”

Perhaps Zakai’s best-known piece was “Concrete Creek,” a Valley of Elah creek that had been badly polluted thanks to trucks and vehicles that dumped garbage and concrete. The concrete hardened and killed all the vegetation underneath. Zakai decided to do a major clean-up of the creek, but chose to leave some of the concrete and garbage where it was — as a constant reminder to the viewer.

To help her, she brought in quarry workers, bridge builders, cement-mixer drivers, foreign workers, Palestinians, Bedouins and moshav members — anyone who was interested in participating in the artistic expression while cleaning up the environment in the process.

The many Israeli scientists and scholars who are knowledgeable about global warming and other environment issues impressed Zakai, but she still feels they have a long way to travel. “They are still not bonding with the art, culture and spiritual worlds. It’s a big dichotomy,” she said.

Perhaps the United States is somewhat more advanced in that regard where, for example, Newton and Helen Harrison —known as “The Harrisons” — have worked for almost 40 years with biologists, ecologists, architects, urban planners and other artists to uncover ideas and solutions that support biodiversity and community development.

The Harrisons’ work, which focuses on geographical areas at high risk, often includes mammoth murals, maps, texts, poetry, performance and installations. Their projects are meditations on current ecology, while offering proposals for an environmentally clean future.

“The Lagoon Cycle” (1974–1984)” and the ongoing Force Majeure series are among their best-known projects. The Center for the Study of Force Majeure Studies at the University of California, Santa Cruz has been established to address the earth’s largest ecosystems and their current stresses, and will bring together art-making and the sciences as practiced by the Harrisons to support an evolving art/science hybrid form.

Other eco-artists have not yet had as significant of an impact either politically or artistically, but at least the Harrisons are no longer the only artists winning sizable commissions for ecologically minded art. Bio-sculptural artist Jacki Brookner recently received a $450,000 grant from ArtPlace America for her ongoing Fargo Project, which is designed to transform an 18-acre stormwater basin into a multifunctional neighborhood park. The thrust of her work is the remediation and restoration of water — in wetlands, rivers and lagoons from North Dakota to Finland to Germany and beyond. Her bio-sculptures, frequently in the shape of hands or other body parts, are often water filtration systems utilizing various plants and micro-organisms to do the job. She says there is no greater manifestation of climate change than the extreme flooding and the death of many fish in some waters.

But the major crisis of our time — from which everything else is spawned — is our lack of connection to the natural world, she added. We view ourselves as separate entities as opposed to acknowledging our interdependence and similarity to other life forms. The bulk of our body is made up of water, and contrary to the media-promoted image of our bodies as prettified, self-contained and antiseptic, we are constantly in a state of recycling food and water that exists in our body in the form of bacterial decay. Brookner insists we need a radically revised understanding of who we are in relationship to the earth and ourselves. “We also need to find a new archetypical meaning to death. It’s the Shamanic task of our age,” she said. adding that our refusal to accept death is deeply connected to our abuse of the environment. “In our collective infantile fury about our mortality, we lash out at mother, matter, earth,” she said.

Alan Sonfist, a granddaddy of eco-art, also feels that civilization needs to rethink its understanding of the physical world. Best known for his 1965 “Time Landscape,” a mini-forest of pre-colonial indigenous plants at the corner of LaGuardia Place and West Houston Street in New York City, Sonfist was a committed eco-artist (though the term didn’t exist back then) from the time he was a child growing up in the South Bronx and enchanted by the Hemlock Forest that thrived in the midst of a devastated neighborhood.

“For me the forest was sacred ground and a positive symbol in my life,” he said. “Early on, my mission was to re-create my forest.” That impulse was fueled by his “magical” vacations with relatives who had a small farm in the Catskills, and by childhood memories of collecting money for the reforestation of Israel. “That and Israel’s ability to transform itself environmentally had a strong impact,” he said.

Sonfist is not interested in decorative landscape design or parks, because, he said, “they are idealized landscapes whereas an original forest has an intrinsic aesthetic built in. It’s the aesthetic of nature. The standard idea in landscaping is that the plants need to be 15 feet apart. But in nature there are clusters of plants, one tree growing next to another. Nature is about contradictions.”

Still, Sonfist is careful to select those plants that will survive and adapt in a world in the midst of global warming. In Los Angeles, where he is currently designing a “Secret Garden” — which will be housed by a circular wall representing the invisible geological formation beneath the surface — he will find indigenous plants that need little water because of the current drought. “Anything I plant would have been there at one point,” he said. Sonfist wants to demonstrate how beautiful indigenous plants can be, suggesting that one reason they disappeared is that they were not viewed as beautiful and so they were removed from the commercial market.

Sonfist says he also wants to create gardens in corporate lobbies to reflect what would have grown on that site “instead of tropical plants that look perfect and the dead leaves that are removed at night.”

In the end, all these earth artists are optimists. Some describe themselves as utopian. They are post-modernist and profoundly traditional. As Ukeles puts it: “Modernism doesn’t include ancient ecology as a value. We do.”

Like Ukeles, Helene Aylon has been on the scene for decades. Today, at 83, with a shock of shoulder length wild white hair and every bit the bohemian artist in appearance, the soft-spoken Aylon defines herself as Post-Orthodox, though still deeply Jewish. An Orthodox Jewish youngster, she grew up in Borough Park, Brooklyn, married an Orthodox rabbi when she was still a teenager and had two kids in short order. By the time she was 30 she was a widow. She has also been an arts activist on behalf of feminism, the anti-war movement, and ecology, all of which are interconnected she now believes. Her feminism, for example, had its roots in an earthy and nurturing view of women as opposed to Playboy’s image of hot to trot babes. In Aylon’s universe women are protectors of the land.

Throughout her 40-plus year career Aylon has been attempting to save the earth, at no time perhaps more vividly than in her protests against militarism in the 80s as she drove her “Earth Ambulance” across the country, “rescuing” the earth near missile sites. Hundreds of protestors met her at these Strategic Air Command (SAC) sites, bringing their own pillow cases — ’sacs’ — on which they scribbled their dreams/nightmares of nuclear war. They dug up earth at the sites emptying it into their pillowcases, which Aylon’s ambulance then carried to a mass rally for disarmament at the United Nations. The “Earth Ambulance” was used in other street theater rituals—e.g., being parked in front of hospitals to indicate the earth’s need for emergency care. It was ultimately exhibited in such art centers as Fort Mason in San Francisco and Creative Time at the Brooklyn Bridge Anchorage.

“The Hebrew word ‘Hatzalah,’ which we see on Jewish ambulances means to rescue,” Aylon says in her West Chelsea studio, stacked with canvases, notebooks, and other miscellany. “The idea ‘to rescue,’ that’s very Jewish. Let me show you something.”

Flicking on her computer she plays a video featuring two sacs of seeds floating to Hiroshima and Nagasaki on the waters of Japan she explains. Blending environmentalism and politics this 1995 video, commemorating the 50th anniversary of the atomic bombing of the two cities, was shown on the Sony Jumbotron in Times Square once every hour on Aug. 6 and Aug. 9.

Next year will mark the 70th anniversary of the bombings and Aylon is hopeful the two minute video meditation will be up again on the Jumbotron as an anti-war sentiment that has regrettably never ceased to be dated, but also as a subtle protest against the environmental threat to the planet, while simultaneously celebrating images of rebirth evoked by the seed sacs.

“The sack—in Yiddish the peckel—makes me think of the Wandering Jew,” she adds. “If we have to flee we carry our most important possessions in our sacks.”

Not all eco-artists create earth art. Some artists write theater pieces, paint, and forge sculptural works to express their views on the environment. Sensibilities and genres run the gamut, though all embody in varying degrees themes of celebration or protest or remediation or combinations thereof.

Lynne Feldman’s painting of a woman blowing a Shofar in a bucolic setting brings to life a gentle eco-feminism, while Peter Handler’s sculptural pieces are masculine and admonishing. His most striking work is a table evoking the precarious state of the Maldives. “They’re a series of islands in the Indian ocean with an average elevation of four feet that we know will disappear,” he explains. “The 300,000-400,000 people on the island are looking for another country to move to. The table is designed to suggest a canoe–a lifeboat—and it’s also a map of the principal islands that are carved below the surface.”

Diane Burko’s bold yet frightening landscape painting and photography center on imposing geological phenomenon, such as glaciers, that the viewer knows are under siege; in a quieter vein Robin Holland’s stark photos of giant uprooted trees that have fallen in the wake of devastating rains also reflect an intense environmental consciousness.

Tatana Kellner’s “Poisoned Well,” is one of the most clearly political pieces. The names of the 70 most toxic chemicals used in hydro fracking are printed onto a roll of water soluble paper suspended over a transparent tank of water. A slowly rotating motor lowers the paper into the water tank where the paper dissolves and the text, which does not dissolve, cascades to the bottom, accumulating into a pulpy poisonous residue.

Every aspect of Kellner’s life, including her intense reaction to fracking, has been informed by her experiences growing up in Czechoslovakia and as the child of Holocaust survivors. “Fear is part of my cultural upbringing and I’m suspicious of the powers that be,” she says. “I’m always wondering what the truth is and who is telling it.”

For Judith Helfand the destruction of the environment is also profoundly personal. Thanks to the DES her mother took during pregnancy Helfand contracted a rare cancer that rendered her infertile, bringing to the surface an array of feelings about mother-daughter relationships and legacy. Her sense of being a Jew is central to “notions of motherhood and what it meant to biologically carry one generation to the next,” she recalls. “And that got interrupted when I got cancer. I had personally experienced extinction.”

That traumatizing event led to her Peabody Award winning film “A Healthy Baby Girl” and later “Blue Vinyl” a darkly comic piece that traced the lifecycle of the toxic materials from manufacture to incineration. “Everything’s Cool” was Helfand’s first film that considered the effects of climate change and ironically enough, the day the film wrapped Hurricane Katrina struck. Helfand is now working on “Cooked,” which explores the devastating impact global warming has most intensely on the poor, elderly, and people of color. The film, which has received a post-production $120,000 MacArthur grant, broadens its lens to examine the politics of disaster, including poverty.

Expressing an almost unprecedented sense of urgency scientists extol visual artists, performers, and filmmakers to create works that engage the public and function as a clarion call to the dangers of global warming and new collaborations have been forged to address it. Check out “The Great Immensity,” a doomsday musical, which bowed at The Public this past spring and tackled the dire state of the planet, its polluted oceans, and waste of time climate change summits. The Civilians (the creative team behind the show) were commissioned to develop a play with a grant from the National Science Foundation, with which they traveled to Barro Colorado Island in the Panama Canal to conduct interviews with scientists and the indigenous population, recalls composer-lyricist Michael Friedman. The recorded transcripts of those meetings served as the basis for the script. In addition, The Civilians are so committed to environmental issues the theatrical company set up a website with links to scientists and news items about the ongoing collaboration between artists and scientists.

At the opposite end of the esthetic spectrum, [Meredith Monk’s}( “On Behalf of Nature,” will be making its New York debut at the Brooklyn Academy of Music this fall. The latter is a meditative piece on the interdependence among species and natural forces suggests Monk, an iconic figure in the experimental theater world, who is known for utilizing light, ritualized movement and especially sound in a unique and haunting style. “‘On Behalf of Nature,’ is about the essential energy of the non-human world and what we’re in danger of losing,” she says.

Operating in a non-verbal universe Monk, who has won more than 50 major awards—including the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur (“genius”) Fellowship Award–says all her pieces have explored nature in various ways and that as a Jew she is culturally programmed to be in tune “with the fragility and ephemeral nature of life.”

But “On Behalf of Nature,” was especially challenging. “How do you make an ecological piece in an ecological way,” she asks rhetorically and then explains precisely what she did. For starters, the actors’ own clothing was transformed into costumes; virtually no props are used, and the landscape, largely created by lights, is stripped down and abstract. To evoke a permeable and interconnected universe, musicians and singers flow back and forth across the stage, joining and becoming one with the community of performers. In a collage video that features killer hurricanes and devastated landscapes, a flower in bloom is also included. “It’s an elegy, but it’s also about continuity,” Monk says.

Creating theater that zeros in on environmental issues is not easy, Friedman concurs noting how daunting it was to write “The Great Immensity,” a musical based on data. “It’s also difficult because it’s an endless story with no real villains unless we’re all villains,” he remarks. “But then maybe we’re all victims or heroes or all of the above.”

Clearly, all political theater or art raises the questions are you changing anyone’s mind or simply preaching to the choir and annoying everyone else? The artists I spoke with feel that political art has the potential to open a discussion, whether or not the viewer enjoys it. Further, art is supposed to be challenging. Still, creating good eco-art is a delicate balancing act between teaching on the one hand and not sounding preachy on the other. Mara Isaacs, creative producer of Octopus Theatricals, says there are relatively few theatre pieces addressing environmental concerns simply “because audiences don’t want to be harangued. That’s an inherent problem with language. In the art world, it’s much easier.” Nevertheless, she will be producing Phantom Limb’s “Memory Rings,” the company’s second piece in a trilogy on global warming that explores 5,000 years of humanity’s relationship to the environment from the viewpoint of the world’s oldest tree, utilizing movement, sound, and puppetry to tell its story.

So, what’s the next wave of artistic response? Perhaps, it’s “Don’t Go Through the Door: An Ecological Burlesque,” a work in progress by the heady artist Lenore Malen who adds a layer of farce, cartoon, and absurdity to the genre. Quoting Oscar Wilde she says, “‘If you want to tell people the truth make them laugh, otherwise, they’ll kill you.’”

Her piece, which will combine video installation and live performance, is inspired by a single frame from a late medieval manuscript painted by the 15th century artist Maître Francois that illustrated “a fantasyland Eden populated by two sets of Adam and Eve and six animals all emerging from the slime before humans gained dominion over every living thing on earth,” she says. “The idea that stewardship over the land and animals is a good thing is bullshit. There’s something prophetic in Genesis—in the origin myths of most religions—that anticipate expulsion from earth because of a transgression.”

Taking a provocative stance, Malen views Genesis as the ultimate metaphor for the devastation caused by climate change and describes her work “as a cautionary tale made newly relevant by the ticking clock of climate change, habitat loss and extinction.”

Back at her studio Aylon considers one large photograph hanging on the wall. It’s a striking shot featuring Aylon as a solo figure wrapped in a long robe and wandering about an almost primeval rocky landscape. The picture suggests an ancient, mythic scene. “I am looking for my foremothers. I look right, I look left,” she pauses. “I used to believe the answers were in a book. They’re not. They are in the land, the environment.” In her moving memoir, “Whatever is Contained Must be Released, My Jewish Orthodox Girlhood, My Life as a Feminist Artist” (Feminist Press, 2012) all the seemingly random elements are tied together in the book’s final image set in the artist’s apartment on a bleakly cold winter twilight. Outside her window ice chunks float down the Hudson River while inside she lights her late mother’s Shabbos candles.

Simi Horwitz received the 2014 New York Press Club Award (her second) and the Simon Rockower Award for her Forward piece, “It’s Not Easy Being a Jewish Artist in a Muslim Land.” She was also a finalist for the 2014 Deadline Club Award for her Forward story, “Meet the New Generation of Magicians.”

I hope you appreciated this article. Before you go, I’d like to ask you to please support the Forward’s award-winning, nonprofit journalism during this critical time.

Now more than ever, American Jews need independent news they can trust, with reporting driven by truth, not ideology. We serve you, not any ideological agenda.

At a time when other newsrooms are closing or cutting back, the Forward has removed its paywall and invested additional resources to report on the ground from Israel and around the U.S. on the impact of the war, rising antisemitism and the protests on college campuses.

Readers like you make it all possible. Support our work by becoming a Forward Member and connect with our journalism and your community.

Make a gift of any size and become a Forward member today. You’ll support our mission to tell the American Jewish story fully and fairly. 

— Rachel Fishman Feddersen, Publisher and CEO

Join our mission to tell the Jewish story fully and fairly.

Republish This Story

Please read before republishing

We’re happy to make this story available to republish for free, unless it originated with JTA, Haaretz or another publication (as indicated on the article) and as long as you follow our guidelines. You must credit the Forward, retain our pixel and preserve our canonical link in Google search.  See our full guidelines for more information, and this guide for detail about canonical URLs.

To republish, copy the HTML by clicking on the yellow button to the right; it includes our tracking pixel, all paragraph styles and hyperlinks, the author byline and credit to the Forward. It does not include images; to avoid copyright violations, you must add them manually, following our guidelines. Please email us at [email protected], subject line “republish,” with any questions or to let us know what stories you’re picking up.

We don't support Internet Explorer

Please use Chrome, Safari, Firefox, or Edge to view this site.