In Memoriam: Helen Mayer Harrison 

Helen Mayer Harrison
Helen and Newton Harrison
Helen Mayer Harrison, artist, educator, activist, and mentor to generations of artists and activists passed away peacefully in her home in Santa Cruz, CA on March 24, 2018, after a long battle with Alzheimer’s disease, surrounded by her family and loving husband of almost 65 years.

Helen’s long and productive career followed an unlikely path that reflected and eventually integrated her many interests. She was born on July 1, 1927 in Queens, New York and graduated from Forest Hills High School. A gifted student, Helen was awarded a full scholarship to Cornell University, studying psychology for two years before deciding ultimately to attend Queens College where she completed a Bachelor of Arts degree in English. From there she earned a masters degree in Philosophy of Education from New York University (NYU), and began her teaching career during the 1940s in the New York public school system. Helen would eventually pursue doctorates in both the Philosophy of Education at NYU and in Clinical Psychology at SDIU.

In the early 1950s, she met, fell in love and married a young artist, Newton Harrison. After moving to Florence in the 1950s with Newton and 2 young children, she co-founded a Montessori school, working closely with Mario Montessori, Maria’s nephew. Moving back to the Lower East Side of New York in the early 1960s with a family that now included four children and a well-traveled German shepherd, she threw herself into a cultural scene that merged the art world, the folk music world and the peace movement. She hosted concerts and Hootenannies to raise funds for the civil rights movement and other causes, befriending musicians ranging from the Clancy Brothers to Archie Shepp. She founded the Tompkins Square Peace Center. The group she helped put together included Dorothy Day of the Catholic Worker, Dave McReynolds of the War Resisters League, Judith Malina and Julian Beck of the Living Theater, David Dellinger of the Pacifist Anarchist Group, Robert Gilmore from the American Friends Service Committee. She was the first New York coordinator for the Women’s Strike for Peace, a major force in the anti-war movement and a critical organization behind the 1964 Nuclear Test Ban treaty.

After Newton completed his master’s degree at Yale in 1965, they both were offered teaching positions at the University of New Mexico where Helen taught literature. In a state with a large marginalized Native American population, Helen set up special classes for Native American children, who often had to leave school to assist their families with harvesting. Helen developed a range of creative curricula that accommodated their lives while respecting their culture.

Two years later, when Newton was offered a faculty position in the Visual Arts Department at UC San Diego, Helen was recruited to direct the UC Extension Division’s education programs, and found herself in line to become the first woman vice-chancellor in the history of the university.

In 1972 Helen resigned from UC Extension to pursue art full-time. The Harrisons eventually both secured faculty appointments in the Visual Arts Department at UC San Diego and subsequently emeriti faculty appointments in the Art Department at UC Santa Cruz.

Helen found her true calling when she joined her life partner Newton Harrison as an ecological artist. In turn she became a noted feminist, lecturer, teacher, and mentor to hundreds of emerging artists from her base at UCSD and later UC Santa Cruz. Her nearly 50-year creative collaboration (as the Harrisons or Helen Mayer and Newton Harrison) quickly focused on explorations of life and living systems, opening up a new movement in the arts, “eco-art.”

“What we have to be concerned about is what is happening to the entire planet,” said Helen of their work. “What we are concerned about is the survival of the people and all living things.”

Helen’s unbridled curiosity and ability to synthesize ideas across a broad range of disciplines was a critical aspect of their ability to engage ideas and systems at the highest level. In their master work, The Lagoon Cycle, which examines the power and function of estuarial lagoons from the laboratory to the great Pacific gyre, the narrative thread is an encounter between two characters, a ‘Lagoon Maker’ and a ‘Witness’, whose dialog establishes the philosophical basis for the ecological argument in many later works.

In her final years, Helen worked with Newton on Sagehen in the High Sierra: A Future Garden for The Center for the Study of the Force Majeure, a center they developed at UC Santa Cruz that brings together artists, scientists, engineers, planners, and visionaries to design ecosystem adaptation works in regions around the world that are nearing critical tipping points due to planetary warming.

The Harrisons’ deep interest in involving people of the Washoe Tribe, who for thousands of years have called the Sagehen area and beyond their ancestral home, was essential to the project. The relationship evolved from a public meeting at the Nevada Museum of Art, where Helen addressed the meeting and asked for help. Tribal elder Benny Fillmore notes that it was the first time he’d been asked by anyone outside the tribe to collaborate on an art project.

Laura Fillmore, who met Helen in the course of working on Sagehen, wrote recently, “Today is the 4th day since her passing and I feel such tenderness towards her circles of friends and artists and especially am grateful for the teachings that came from her collaboration with Newton, her life mate in the deepest sense of the respect one has for couples who really can ‘be one another’. She taught us about 'caring' because, she would say, it makes people shy when you talk about love. It will always be all about that love and her grace and elegance and eloquence as well.”

The Harrisons have been represented for the past 45 years by the Ronald Feldman Gallery in New York, joined recently by Various Small Fires in Los Angeles. Ron Feldman writes, “Helen's fierce dedication, compassion, and warmth is irreplaceable.” Their archives are housed at Stanford University.

Helen’s work lives on through Newton, who is actively continuing their work.

In addition to her husband, Helen is survived by their children, Steven (Cheryl) Harrison, Joshua (Laurie Stricks) Harrison, Gabriel (Maureen) Harrison, and Joy (Bryan Stubbs) Harrison, and grandchildren, Ashlee, Marshall, Joseph, Michael, Mackenzy, Ana Sofia, Julian, Silas and Ruby along with 4 great grandchildren and many nieces and nephews.

In lieu of flowers the family requests that people make donations to the Sierra Club in her name.