Bay Area artist drew on illness for artistic expression

She enrolled as a graduate student at the California College of Arts and Crafts in Oakland, and began searching for her artistic voice.

It didn't take long before she found it. Unfortunately, it came shortly after she was diagnosed with liver cancer. The creativity that was going to restore her to the world as an artist became the vehicle through which Fortgang confronted her own disease process. From this came "Bone Deep," a series of charcoal drawings.

Fortgang died in 1992 at the age of 54.

Twelve drawings from the "Bone Deep" series are on display through Dec. 23 at the Mills College Art Gallery in Oakland.

The drawings are dark, dense and full of the artist's struggle with her body. Some of the drawings melt away into blackness, while others bear a large black hole that seems to sear through the page. It is powerful, and its nature is unclear.

However, we find that Fortgang's fear of the dark is a recurring theme in the biographical statement portion of her thesis, "Stepping Stones of My Creativity: Where I Came From and What Came with Me (My Life History in 36 Steps)." These black holes or spots seem to embody all the menace and horror of the dark.

Most of the drawings are only of the torso and resemble medical X-rays. Bones, the spine and organs are easily recognizable. Other details such as the date, surgical clips and identifying labels are represented, as all the drawings retain some X-ray quality.

In spite of this, the drawings are not depressing — although they are painful at times. There is a humanity to them that speaks of emotional turmoil. They also represent a journey.

In April 1991, when she finished the "Bone Deep" series, Fortgang wrote, "My work is about my life. I am drawing from my life's experiences about my life's experiences. This work is about being in my body and speaking from a deep inner place. Each finished drawing is a surprise to me."

Later in the statement, Fortgang discusses finding her artistic voice and its integration with her illness.

"They are a statement from an experience that has transformed me," she wrote. "The transformation has re-opened creative impulses, voices, within me that yearn to be heard. They speak from that place in me that knows great joy and great sadness in life. These drawings are evidence of the miracle that I am still here."

The 36-step autobiography, which is distributed at the show, is brief, poignant and leaves the reader wanting more. It tells of growing up in the Bronx and later moving to Queens, N.Y., and attending the High School of Music and Art. Fortgang also talks of her experiences while attending Bennington College in Vermont.

"The art poured out of me at Bennington," the autobiography recalls. "No one ever thought I would stop making art."

But she did. Love, marriage and children may not have caused Fortgang to entirely "stop making art." But they did redirect her career energy for many years toward teaching and being an art director at Marin Country Day School, the Headlands Art Center and the M.H. de Young Museum.

Helaine and her husband Arnon, an Israeli surgeon, moved cross-country to San Francisco shortly after their marriage. They had three children in 4-1/2 years: Ilana, now 34; Ron, 32; and Tamar, 30.

In 1976, Arnon Fortgang died.

According to longtime friend Dr. Phyllis Kempner, Fortgang was always involved in creative projects such as making puppets and a puppet stage for a Passover show. She also made masks that were exhibited at the Palace of Fine Arts in 1983.

Daughter Tamar agrees that although her mother's career took a detour, she brought her artistic nature to everything she did.

"She happened to have an ability to create things beyond a piece of art, whether it was raising a family or bringing people together for Jewish holidays," Tamar says.

"She lived her life as an artist. She really was an incredible woman."

According to Tamar, her mother — who was also a dancer and gourmet cook — had the gift of acting as a mentor to others.

"Being an artist, she was able to ignite people to find their own creativity," says Tamar, referring to her mother's role in the founding and managing of the Jewish Community Museum.

As Fortgang reached the end of her autobiography, she wrote of a celebration of life and art.

"And now I am drawing. I am not afraid to be alone in the dark. My spirit soars and I just keep drawing."