A Life Revealed
The artwork of the late Hella Bailin reveals both the tragedies that haunted her youth and the grace she found later in life.
Through her art, Hella Bailin revealed some of the best and worst moments of her life. From the worst—her parents were killed in a concentration camp during the Holocaust—to joyful world travels, Bailin created her art as a way to embrace cultures, capture the essential goodness of people, and accept and express her extraordinary sorrow and loss.
Now, Hella’s daughter, Bobbi Bailin of Falmouth, has organized an exhibit of her late mother’s art for the Cultural Center of Cape Cod. Some of her work is heart wrenching, such as her drawing of Adolph Hitler, titled He Killed My Father and Mother. Other pieces are elegant renderings of her travels, such as Boats, a watercolor and casein image of a small Greek harbor. Together, the art forms an exhibit that is powerful in content, form, history, and emotion.
As a girl in Germany, Hella studied art until the Nazi regime put a stop to it. By the late 1920s, life itself was a dangerous proposition. “In Berlin, Hella saw more and more political attacks,” Bobbi says. “People were shot. Their house was searched. Nazi officers ransacked the house for books for a public burning.” By age 20, Hella couldn’t attend school or get a job in Germany. Her parents, Benno Loewenstein and Hulda Hoffman Loewenstein, in whose memory the Cultural Center exhibit is dedicated, sent Hella to the U.S., intending to follow her. Hella found out much later—in 1945, the year her daughter Bobbi was born—that her parents had died at the notorious concentration camp Theresienstadt, located in what is now the Czech Republic.
Hella Bailin, who died in 2006 at age 90, didn’t speak about the Holocaust until she was 72. When she did, the harrowing stories emerged. Her words were captured on video as part of the Holocaust Oral Testimonies Project housed at Yale University’s Sterling Library. Bobbi combined information from the video with photos of Hella’s life to create the booklet “Hella.” Bobbi now has produced a second booklet, “In Her Own Words,” which joins Hella’s thoughts about her artwork with reproductions of the pieces. The booklets will be on display at the exhibit.
Hella returned to art school when the family settled near Newark, New Jersey, and established a reputation as a prominent artist, winning many regional and national awards, while she taught and advocated for the arts. “My mother was an independent, free-thinking, free-wheeling, outspoken, inventive soul,” Bobbi says. Bobbi remembers that by the time she was eight years old, her mother was creating art using a variety of media: casein, pen and ink, watercolor, pastel, and oils. Later, she traveled extensively, searching and observing people, and finding inspiration in movement, light, and human interaction. “She called her work ‘expressionistic,’” Bobbi recalls. “It’s expressing yourself, not necessarily in a photographic way. It’s a way of simplifying things, seeing more of the important things and not going for the detail.”
Lauren Wolk, associate director at the Cultural Center of Cape Cod, says that while all artists leave traces of themselves behind when they die, Hella Bailin has left a legacy more complex than some. “There is a sadness in her work, juxtaposed with a celebration of the world and all its peoples, that serves as a reminder of both the Holocaust and her determination to seek out and capture every bit of joy and beauty that she could,” Wolk says. “Her paintings are both beautiful and serious, honest and hopeful.” It is especially significant, Wolk adds, that the exhibit will be taking place during both Holocaust Remembrance Day on May 1, and Mother’s Day on May 8.
Parts of the exhibit reflect Hella’s travels, including trips to Europe and the Caribbean, many of them when she was in her 80s. Bobbi says a trip to Haiti launched her mother’s travels. “She went somewhere every summer after that, until her late 80s,” Bobbi says.
One trip was deep with sorrow and personal difficulty. Accompanied by her son Michael, Hella traveled to her mother’s hometown in Germany in the late 1980s. Although by that time Hella had traveled throughout the world, she broke down when she got to her mother’s hometown, Bobbi recalls. “Although she could travel around the world, she couldn’t function,” she says. “She became like a child.”
Hella’s legacy is rooted in everything her art represents: a full life, an open embracing of cultures, a love of people. And then there is the array of art. “My mother was an artist,” Bobbi says. “That was her life.”
As a child, Bobbi Bailin didn’t know about the effects of the Holocaust on her mother, Hella Bailin, but Hella’s art was a constant in the Bailins’ New Jersey home. “Our dining room became her studio,” Bobbi says with a smile. “Every wall in the house was covered in art.”
Hella’s father, who was killed in the Holocaust with his wife, Hella’s mother, was a professional engineer who brought electricity to southern Spain, but his avocation was art. Bobbi, part of the third generation, is an artist herself, creating mixed-media collage art and bowls.
Crafted with layers of handmade paper, watercolor, and local plants, Bobbi Bailin’s pieces look more delicate than they are. “The different degree of transparency allows for varying depths of color,” she says. The bowls are coated with acrylic for strength.
Bobbi started making paper quilts when she was pregnant with her daughter, now 30. (Bailin also has a son, 21.) She moved to papermaking and found it had a softer edge than the paper quilts, which appealed to her. That led Bailin to fashioning her distinctive paper bowls and art pieces.
Bailin finds leaves, seaweed, and grasses on walks around her Falmouth home, gravitating to partially decomposed specimens, “leaves that are paperlike and translucent.” The soft colors of the bowls and art reflect the colors of Cape Cod. As Bailin says, “I’m inspired by the sand, sea, and sky.”
Mary Grauerholz is communications manager at the Cape Cod Foundation and a freelance writer.
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