A Woman on a Mission : Environment: Armed with pillowcases, an ‘ambulance’ and 10 other women, Helene Aylon traveled the nation to save ‘endangered Earth.’
It’s a twisty tale that spans two coasts and a dozen years, a massive mission involving an artist, an ambulance, 2,000 pillowcases, 12 U.S. military sites, mounds of dirt and no less lofty concepts than the endangered environment and peace on Earth.
The creator is native New Yorker Helene Aylon, a “multimedia eco-feminist,” who, while living in Berkeley, devised a performance piece that spoke to her concerns about the Cold War and possible extinction of the planet.
To protest the proliferation of Strategic Air Command (SAC) sites around the country, Aylon in 1982 created an “Earth Ambulance,” and with 10 other women drove it across the United States, stopping at SAC sites to meet other women to “rescue endangered Earth” by digging and placing earth into pillowcases--"another kind of sack.”
Upon reaching New York, the filled pillowcases--on which the women had scripted their “dreams and nightmares"--were carried via stretchers and emptied into boxes in front of the United Nations and later hung from nearby trees.
Aylon’s new quest: to find a permanent home for it all, preferably in California, where she recently traveled to scout for places to donate it.
“It’s the end of the Cold War and it’s accomplished its mission,” says Aylon, who has taught or lectured at more than 40 colleges. “It’s now an icon of the ‘80s, like the Statue of Liberty, like Anne Frank’s house. Is Anne Frank’s house a piece of real estate or is it something else?”
So why put it all in California? Says Aylon: “All the inspiration was in California. It started in California and has to go back there.”
Sitting at a window in her Greenwich Village loft overlooking the Hudson River, Aylon, 63, sips orange juice. Around her are strewn yellowed newspaper clips and dozens of photos, mementos of her life and times.
She was born and raised in Brooklyn, she says, and after living in Manhattan for several years moved to California in 1973, where she taught at San Francisco State University and pursued her craft.
“I didn’t want my art to be about color, composition or formal principles,” she recalls of her early days. “I wanted to learn something from the art rather than just do it. I saw myself as a vehicle for something larger than myself.”
In the ‘70s, she began working on “paintings that changed over time.”
“I was not going to make immutable, everlasting objects in a catapulting world that could disappear,” she says. “So these were abstracted landscapes done with linseed oil that seeped through the paper from the back side, altering the image.”
She then began pouring gallons of oil paint onto 6-by-8-foot panels that lay on the floor. Months later, after the top paint layer had hardened into a “skin,” the panels were lifted onto a wall, causing the still-liquid interior portions of paint to drop down and break through that skin.
Says Aylon: “The liquid first gets contained and eventually will burst, like our psychological states. It’s a metaphor, and these sacks became all the events that would follow.”
Her next endeavor, in the early ‘80s, involved sand. Collected by Aylon--together with pregnant women and women with draft-age sons--along the San Andreas fault, the sand was poured from high heights and the sounds of it falling were recorded.
Then, with her mounting fear of the Cold War, her focus shifted.
“I realized that soil had to be collected not from natural disaster spots but from man-made disaster spots, like nuclear weapon and manufacturing sites,” she says. “Now I wanted to listen to the Earth crying to be rescued.”
That’s when the idea of an Earth Ambulance was conceived.
“I put out a little notice to all these groups that I was making an Earth Ambulance and that whoever wants can go with me to all these terrible places where they’re making the bombs,” she says. “We’d take the rescued Earth to the United Nations disarmament talks on June 12, 1982.”
After seven months of planning, the Women’s Sac Caravan of 11 set out in May, starting the Earth collections from the Livermore and Vandenberg SAC sites in California and moving east, meeting dozens more people at each stop.
“These people were tired of carrying placards and hadn’t known what to do anymore,” says Aylon. “This gave them a new way to express themselves, so they were pretty buoyant. There was a lot of love, some singing and a lot of hard work.”
But the experience wasn’t all peace and love. There were, says Aylon, hassles. They had to do with the way the groups were received by military authorities.
“Each site was different,” she says. “For example, at Los Alamos, they were very patronizing, like we were some fringe peace group. That gave me the creeps. I preferred the suspicious and nervous reception we got at Bettis Atomic Lab (Ohio). And then at Picattiny in New Jersey, they were hysterical, wanting to call someone to get us out.”
She laughs. “I just tried to keep it very peaceful. Few people took us seriously, but I hoped the haunting image of what we were doing could penetrate their unconscious somewhere.”
Upon arriving in New York in June, the pillowcases were carried from the ambulance on old Army stretchers from the Vietnam and Korean wars and emptied into 12 large transparent boxes. The cases were hung from trees in a nearby plaza.
“There was this beautiful variety of color, texture and moisture content indigenous to the area each came from,” says Aylon. “Thus there were boxes of sand from near the Pacific Ocean, a box of clay-colored Earth from Los Alamos, New Mexico, and a box of umber Earth from Bettis Atomic Lab near Pittsburgh--altogether a geological record of the itinerary.”
Wanting to hang the pillowcases by the United Nations again the following year, Aylon decided to stay in New York. People from all over the country kept sending her pillowcases. “They needed to say something,” Aylon says. “They wanted to be heard.”
Then came a trip to Russia for a pillowcase exchange with Russian women and a trip to Japan to gather Earth from Hiroshima and Nagasaki with women there, floating it in sacks down the Kama River. There were also trips to Israel, where Arab and Jewish women together gathered stones into sacks.
The pillowcases--which when hung side by side extended about two miles, Aylon says--have since appeared in about a dozen shows and exhibitions, including the covering of the Seneca Army Depot’s main gate in Upstate New York three times. The Earth Ambulance--of which there were several versions--appeared five more times, including the 1984 Democratic National Convention in San Francisco.
On a cold and bleak December afternoon, Aylon stands in a SoHo mini-storage facility, pulling yards of knotted pillowcases out of boxes. In her arms is a pillowcase that reads: “I dream of being less fearful. I dream of the ocean. I wish I felt that there was more hope for realizing my dreams.”
She’s proud that she’s won more than 15 awards and grants, that her work has been acquired in places like the Whitney Museum, the Museum of Modern Art and MIT in Cambridge. She’s elated that her pillowcases will go to the University Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive of the University of California, Berkeley, to be hung in August for the 50th anniversary of the Nuclear Age, that several museums in Washington have also expressed interest in showing them soon.
But no facilities have yet spoken for the ambulance, now shrouded in plastic in a Brooklyn storage yard--and running up fees. And it’s the ambulance Aylon is worried about now.
The University Art Museum’s curator for 20th-Century art, Larry Rinder, says that while he admires the ambulance, his museum is not set up to exhibit or store it for security and aesthetic reasons.
“We’re hoping someone else can take that part on, and there are lots of possibilities,” he says, adding that he thinks Aylon is a woman of “tremendous energy, perseverance, courage and integrity, someone who has been unafraid to take on challenges, both personal and political.”
Two years ago, at the end of a three-month exhibit of the ambulance and pillowcases at the Brooklyn Bridge Anchorage, Aylon performed a closing ceremony to celebrate the Cold War’s end and the decade-long public art exhibit.
While pushing the earth off a balcony and unhooking the Russian pillowcases that were strung high above the flashing ambulance, which now held 20 tons of blue corn seeds from Pueblo lands, Aylon said: “In 1982, the ambulance rescued the Earth. In 1992, it carries the seed from Native American lands. Now is the time to begin anew.”