Submitted by the Hirshfield family
Pearl Hirshfield used her talent in mixed media to address universal concerns for justice, peace and the environment at local, national and international levels. Her artwork documented contemporary and historic events and political situations with insight and unrelenting passion. Equally important, her art raised awareness for humanitarian issues in more than 100 exhibits, including museum collections.
Chicago icon and Pulitzer Prize-winning author, historian and broadcaster Studs Terkel wrote a forward to her exhibit and Leon Golub reviewed Hirshfield’s art, such as American Dream, The Thought Controllers, Mad[e] in U.S.A., and Third World Police Torture – Chicago Style. He found that the breadth of her studies “indicate … the range of her work but don’t begin to indicate the probing and analytic force of her art. … Hirshfield’s art speaks to our times with powerful integrity and experimental directness.”
According to her daughters, their mother died Thursday, April 13, at Aperion Care Evanston. She had been a patient of Unity Hospice and Palliative Care.
Hirshfield was born Pearl Belly on July 5, 1922, to Louis (Laib) Benjamin Belly and Helena (Anna) Nissenson, immigrants from Ukraine and Poland.
She grew up on Chicago’s West Side. From her earliest days, Hirshfield viewed creating art as a lifelong ambition. By the time she was a teenager, Hirshfield had sold her watercolors through Woolworths, a retail five-and-dime store, under the pseudonym Pearli.
Hirshfield pursued art at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, where she received her bachelor’s in fine arts, as well as art and theater at Northwestern University and Columbia College. Through the years, she created prints, drawings, sculptures and museum-sized installations. She exhibited her art nationwide and in Japan, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Kenya, Hungary, China, Switzerland and Belgium. These exhibits garnered more than a dozen awards and fellowships.
The common theme threaded throughout Hirshfield’s projects remained social justice. Stephen C. Feinstein, co-curator of Hirshfield’s 1995 Witness and Legacy exhibit at the University of Wisconsin–River Falls, said, “A quick glance at her extensive past political actions reveals her involvement, both as artist and political activist on issues pertaining to the peace movement, nuclear disarmament, fighting racism, and supporting rights for women.”
Hirshfield confirmed that “my art centers on the outrage I feel when confronted with the inequities and injustices of society, whether local, national, or global.”
In 1972, she created a portfolio titled Conspiracy, the Artist as Witness to raise funds for the Chicago Seven, the group that protested the war in Vietnam at the Chicago Democratic National Convention. Conspiracy contained 150 limited-edition prints from 13 artists that she later turned into a companion book with proceeds going to the Center for Constitutional Rights. To promote the book, composer and conductor Leonard Bernstein hosted a book release party in his New York home.
Through the years, she arranged for other well-known entertainers to highlight fundraisers for different causes. Singers Joan Baez and Odessa sang at the Hirshfield house. Each showcased the depth of Hirshfield’s commitment to a cause and attracted like-minded people to promote some aspect of peace.
Hirshfield helped organize annual Peace and World Affairs backyard fairs to raise money for peace abroad and civil rights in America. “Civil rights marches generated First Amendment issues of the right to protest,” Hirshfield said of her advocacy. “Police and guards committed unlawful acts, but the pursuit of civil liberties bound people together. Anger overpowered our feelings of fear.”
Many of these efforts enraged those against peace work. Racist hate groups telephoned threats to the women involved in marching and raising funds and awareness, including Hirshfield. “Peace was a dirty word back then,” she said. Still, she persisted.
Hirshfield co-founded the Evanston Peace Center and assisted in creation of the Chicago Peace Museum. In addition to peace work, she marched for civil rights and women’s rights, helping to organize Chicago’s 1983 Mother’s Day Peace March and Woman Made Gallery, one of the first women-owned art galleries in the nation. In 2010, she received the Women’s Caucus for the Arts Excellence in Art Award.
While working to grow a more peaceful and equitable world, Hirshfield cared for her growing family. She met and married Dr. Hyman J. Hirshfield in 1944. Their marriage thrived for 66 years until his death in 2010. The couple had four daughters, Jo-Anne (deceased), Leslie, Laura and, Deborah; a grandson Justin Samuel Hirshfield Garrick; and a great-granddaughter.
More recently, Hirshfield turned her artistic talent to environmental issues. Two outdoor sculptures in Evanston, on Main Street and the Clark Street Beach, attest to her concern. As educator Golub wrote of Hirshfield’s wide-ranging art, “It’s surprising, if not shocking, that after [all these] years, her work is not better known to national and international audiences. Hirshfield’s art speaks to our times with powerful integrity and experimental directness.”
In keeping with this integrity, Hirshfield requested that her body be donated to science. Donations may be sent to the Jo-Anne Hirshfield Memorial Poetry Fund, c/o Evanston Public Library, 1703 Orrington Ave., Evanston, IL 60201; Community Health, c/o Development, 2611 W. Chicago Ave., Chicago, IL 60622; or Woman Made Gallery, 32150 S. Canalport Ave., 4A-3, Chicago, IL 60608.
She was a great lady and I am glad to have not only known her but to love her as well. She will never be forgotten.