AMHERST, Mass. (AP) – The French call it “art brut,” which translates as “raw art” or “rough art.” The English equivalent is “outsider art” – artwork that’s made outside the conventions of the academy, often by people with little or no formal training.
Nathan Hilu certainly meets the latter definition. The elderly New York artist spent a good part of his working life in the army, which he joined during World War II, at age 18. But for years now, Hilu has been chronicling his own story and examples of Jewish life in energetic, vivid illustrations that have begun to attract the notice of critics and Jewish cultural centers.
Selected parts of that work are now on display through September at the Yiddish Book Center in Amherst in “Nathan Hilu’s Journals: Word, Image, Memory.” The title, exhibit curator Laura Kruger says, is an indication this isn’t a typical art exhibit – not surprising, she adds, because Hilu isn’t a typical artist.
“He uses his drawings to record his life and his beliefs,” Kruger said in a phone call from the Hebrew Union College museum in New York, where she serves as curator. “This is a man who does not stop drawing … he has been chronicling his life, his experiences, his neighborhood and his love of Judaism in a way that is quite unique.”
Hilu, who is in his late 80s or possibly 90 – there is uncertainty about his age – lives in subsidized housing on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, a historically Jewish neighborhood. Living on his army pension, the lifelong bachelor uses sharpies, crayons, and pastels and whatever “canvasses” he has at hand – like the cardboard liners from his dry cleaning – to fashion rough-hewn images.
His drawings are often full of text and sometimes take the form of collages, with stitched-on parts affixed with clear tape. Kruger notes that Hilu will sometimes find that his latest image is becoming too large to fit on his initial drawing surface, so he’ll simply continue the drawing onto another piece of cardboard backing and tape the pieces together.
But what’s most unique about Hilu’s work, which from a technical standpoint would not be out of place in a comic book or graphic novel, is his subject matter: It’s a wild kaleidoscope that merges memory, history, biblical stories and perhaps the artist’s own fantasies. Synagogues, famous religious figures, Nazi prisoners of war (Hilu once was a guard at the Nuremberg Trials), Lower East Side delis – they all have their place in Hilu’s universe.
It’s both art and autobiography – and a glimpse, Kruger notes, of Hilu’s vision of the bible.
“He’s not a fabulist,” she said. “He’s a very literal person, and these stories are very real to him. He has a sort of wide-eyed passion for Judaism – he reveres rabbis – and that comes through in his work.”
Kruger, who has curated previous shows at the Yiddish Book Center, says she came across Hilu’s art about five years ago during a group exhibit of senior citizens on the Lower East Side. “I was gobsmacked,” she said. “The colors, the vitality, the immediacy – it reminded me of (the work of Marc) Chagall.”
What she discovered about Hilu’s background was even more surprising. It turned out Hilu was the older brother of a longtime family friend, Sam Hilu, a New York textile and clothing dealer who during World War II had served as an aide-to-camp to Kruger’s uncle, a U.S. Army officer.
Kruger, thinking the name Hilu was pretty unusual, got on the phone to Sam Hilu and asked him if he knew a Nathan of the same name. “Sure, he’s my older brother,” she remembers him saying.
The brothers were the sons of Syrian Jews who had settled in New York in the early 20th century. Nathan Hilu, born on the Lower East Side sometime around 1925-26, moved with his family to Pittsburgh when he was a boy and then grew up predominantly in central Pennsylvania. He never had any formal art training, Kruger believes, but did develop an interest in drawing. His first language was apparently Arabic, his second English, and his third Yiddish.
Joining the army at 18 during World War II, Hilu has said he later became the only Jewish guard of Nazi war criminals at Nuremberg prison and then at the trials themselves, held from late 1945 to October 1946. There, he observed and also spoke with German kingpins like Hermann Goering, Rudolph Hess and Albert Speer.
In a Youtube interview that dates from 2011, Hilu talked of what it was like to learn about the Nuremberg prisoners and their deeds. “I myself, I didn’t know what they did, anyway. I was just 18 … then you find out how they made people into soap.”
His time at Nuremberg and his military experience, including service during the Korean War and Cold War era, have figured prominently in his artwork. The Yiddish Center exhibit includes a drawing/collage inscribed with the words “I served under Patton 1945” that depicts the famous U.S. general astride a snorting white horse; taped onto Patton’s waist is a holster with one of the ivory-handed revolvers that the general, a notorious military peacock, liked to display.
Hilu’s art also recalls seminal figures from World War II who played a part in saving or helping Jews. One drawing shows Archbishop Damaskinos Papandreou, of the Greek Orthodox church, who helped save Torahs from Greek synagogues during the Nazi occupation and also oversaw an effort to issue fake Christian baptismal certificates to Greek Jews.
Other artworks, like The Seven Plenteous Years and The City of Jericho Will Fall commemorate biblical stories, while Garden Cafeteria East Broadway celebrates the time Hilu met the acclaimed Yiddish writer Isaac Bashevis Singer in a Lower East Side eatery; Singer did two drawings of the writer, on one of which his text says “When I gave him my paintings he gave me his book on the Golem.”
Maureen Turner, the Yiddish Center’s communications coordinator, says she and other staff were struck by how much writing Hilu’s drawings contain; the annotations frequently run on both sides of the drawings. “It’s very unusual, and his pictures are like a serial of his life.”
“The text is an enforcement of the image, a way to give greater understanding to the viewer,” Kruger added.
Kruger notes that Hilu, some time after he left the military, worked for Bookazine, a New York distributor of books and magazines, for which he did some art displays. He’s also had a small but growing number of public exhibits in recent years, and the current show is slated to continue at additional locations as well. Some sales of his artwork, arranged through Hebrew Union College, have also helped the artist financially, she notes.
Not that Hilu seems to need public endorsement to inspire him. As the book center’s exhibition notes put it, Hilu is “as immersed in piety as in celebration of the totality of Jewish life and thought. It is clear from the works in this exhibition that he is the exemplar of the very modern and contemporary American Jewish artist.”
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