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Gilah Hirsch: Artist, Paint Thyself
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Caption BulletGilah Hirsch, professor of art, teaches young cancer patients about the healing powers of art; photo by Joanie Harmon

Gilah Hirsch: Artist, Paint Thyself

When 10-year-old Gilah Yelin wanted to know if there was a God, she went straight to the top for her answer. She wrote to the reigning genius of the day, Albert Einstein. On a wall in her Venice bungalow hangs his response:

Dear Gilah,

Thank you for your letter. Try to form your opinion always according to your own judgment. You have shown in your letter that you are able to do so.

With kind regards,
Albert Einstein

As a professor of art at California State University, Dominguez Hills and an internationally recognized artist, Gilah Yelin Hirsch has built her life and career by doing exactly what the doctor ordered. Her paintings, which channel her Jewish heritage, interest in metaphysics and a commitment to seeking and facilitating global harmony, are often purchased by hospitals and medical facilities for their healing qualities.

“Using art can change lives and change communities,” Hirsch says. “It can change futures, with not only physical healing, but sociological and psychological healing.”

In March, Hirsch held a workshop in healing art for the Los Angeles branch of the Sunshine Kids, a nonprofit dedicated to pediatric cancer patients. The young artists were instructed to draw their bodies on a large sheet of paper and then depict their afflicted areas — and their hopes for recovery. Positive feedback on the workshop from the young participants and their parents prompted Amy Cortina, activities coordinator of the Sunshine Kids western region, to request more workshops from Hirsch, as well as training for a staff member to present similar activities.

“It is gratifying to do something that is powerfully relevant with people who need it,” says Hirsch of the experience. “People have to take responsibility for their own bodies and what happens to their bodies. [In] Western culture and many other cultures, we give responsibility for the healing of our bodies to other people. It’s very rare that someone else will take responsibility for what’s in our [own] body and how we can change it.”

Hirsch believes young people should be given stewardship of their bodies instead of living in ignorance of them and fear of disease. She hopes that the knowledge will also ensure their respect for the physical well-being of others.

“Little children should be shown the interiors of bodies in anatomy books... skeletons and all the different systems, so that if they punch each other, they know why it turns red and why it starts bleeding,” she notes. “Once they have an awareness of what’s going on in their bodies, they may be less likely to want to cause that kind of damage. And on another road to awareness — I hate to be so broad in this generalization — maybe at the farther end of the continuum, war would be less of an option.”

Hirsch has experienced her own healing through art, having survived numerous brushes with death — no pun intended — including a near-fatal car accident, being frozen, and asphyxiation from a propane leak. Having painted her way through recovery from these incidents and other illnesses has bolstered the artist’s lack of fear of death — and her appreciation for living.

“I think that since I’ve died, literally, a number of times, I always feel like I have one foot on the other side,” she says. “It makes living all the more urgent. More important than that, it makes what I do while I’m alive all the more important, [such as] things that are useful for other people, things that are useful in the world. And learning is at the top of that list because it opens up all the other options.”

Last month, Hirsch presented “The Artist as Medium: Spirit into Form” at the Yale School of Divinity Anthropology of Consciousness Conference and attended the Council Grove Conference of the Center for Energy and Energy Medicine in Council Grove, Kan. She has also taken on another project that combines healing with art, working with 15 of her students who have volunteered their own time to paint murals for the pediatric ward and obstetrics and gynecology area at the Watts Health Center in South Los Angeles. Recently, Hirsch and the students viewed and measured the facilities in order to start creating their murals. After discussing the imagery to be used with the center’s doctors, the group decided to portray visuals of education, success and positive interactions with adults in the pediatric area, and depictions of the reproductive cycle and healthy motherhood in the obstetrics and gynecology area.

The murals will be created on the Dominguez Hills campus and installed at the Watts Health Center in the coming months.

In preparation for the murals, Hirsch was advised by a homicide detective in Watts against using certain colors in the students’ work because they could incite violence. It was a chilling reminder of the stronghold gangs have on a community, even on its youngest members.

“He said, ‘Make sure that you don’t use blue, red, or purple in any of your images, because these are gang colors,’” recalls Hirsch. “Children as young as babies have been shot because their mothers inadvertently had the wrong color ribbon or shoelace on them. It is so heartbreaking to know that within a few minutes of us, we are in a war [zone] and we have to be careful about what colors we use as artists. This [fact] brings an awareness of how needy our community is to be healed on all kinds of levels.”

She is currently at work on a film, “Reading the Landscape,” which focuses on the relationship between forms in nature and the alphabets of the world.

“More and more, as I travel around the world, the cultures that I meet are being disintegrated or destroyed as we speak,” Hirsch says. “This is becoming another of my missions, to preserve as much as possible whatever we can of [world] cultures, from languages, alphabets, to customs, anything that we can.”

The filming of “Reading the Landscape” began in 2006. The concept for the film evolved from requests for a children’s version of her 1995 film, “Cosmography: The Writing of the Universe.” By illustrating the same 20 words in more than 25 languages through a series of vignettes, “Reading the Landscape” portrays everyday life in countries around the globe. Hirsch’s travels of the last 10 years have contributed to the project, with footage from Nunavut at the North Pole, the Navajo Nation in New Mexico, Kenya, Israel, Egypt, the Yucatan peninsula, and Mexico. Scenes with local participants are shot in a green screen studio at Hirsch’s home to complete the story of children and adults discovering parallels between the world’s alphabets and forms in nature.

Hirsch involves students and colleagues from CSU Dominguez Hills in the film’s production and has garnered support from industry professionals, including Panavision and Grammy-winning film composer Michael Silversher, who have donated equipment, funding or time for the project. Additional supporters of the film are the CLASS (Cindy Lindsay And Steve Sheafor) Foundation, the CSU Dominguez Hills Foundation, the Mountain Recreation Conservation Authority, the Takahashi Foundation, the California Community Foundation, and the Wosk Foundation.

“The more we understand that we are more alike than we are different and the more we appreciate our differences, that this is a road to peace, a small road, but a significant one. And if you get enough young people to understand these very simple but important contexts, they will grow into [more tolerant] adults.”

Next month, Hirsch’s work will be featured in the fourth annual “Incognito” show at the Santa Monica Museum in Santa Monica. She is also preparing for exhibitions this coming fall, including shows in Budapest and the triannual faculty art show at CSU Dominguez Hills this fall. Hirsch’s 1904 Craftsman bungalow, a space which she has been putting her artistic stamp upon for the last three decades, will be featured in upcoming books by Rizzoli and Chronicle Books.

Although it has been many years since Hirsch received Einstein’s advice about following her own judgment, his words have not been forgotten. In 1985, while presenting her theory on the origin of alphabet at Princeton, she had the opportunity to visit Einstein’s home and see the desk upon which he answered her letter.

“It was such a moving moment for me in my life, it was a wonderful round circle,” she recalls. “If I trust my judgment and I understand the difference between taking risks and being reckless – that’s very important – that is very important to teach other people.

“As a 10-year-old, it wasn’t the answer I was looking for, but as I grew into the answer, it was the only answer and the wisest of all.”

To view Hirsch’s paintings and video, click here.

- Joanie Harmon

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Last updated Thursday, April 24, 2008, 12:34 p.m., by Joanie Harmon