NEEDHAM — Artist Helen Meyrowitz retired before she was ready. Her husband, Sidney, had Alzheimer’s, and in 2002, the couple moved from Long Island to North Hill, a continuous care facility near their daughter in Newton.
Meyrowitz left behind a dynamic career in New York, showing at galleries in SoHo, on Madison Avenue, and in the Hamptons. She’d worked at the Museum of Natural History. She had studied with Robert Rauschenberg, exhibited and hobnobbed with the de Koonings, marched with the Guerrilla Girls, and chaired the National Drawing Association.
A retirement community in Needham just didn’t have the same artistic pulse.
“I had two choices,” said Meyrowitz, now 92. “I could put my head in the oven or pick myself up and help create the kind of things I need, and help lift others up.”
Sidney died in 2009. Meyrowitz got involved at the Danforth Art Museum (now affiliated with Framingham State University) and plugged into the local art community. In 2012, she petitioned North Hill to start an art gallery. Today, thanks to her, North Hill has a rotating exhibition schedule and a significant collection of work by local artists.
“There is nothing like it in any other continuous care retirement community I know of,” said Ted Owens, North Hill’s CEO, “because there’s no one like Helen.”
“My dream — and we’re working with the Danforth on this — is to have all the walls filled with Danforth art,” Meyrowitz said. “A live-in museum.”
Jessica Roscio, director and curator of the Danforth, said the museum’s collaboration with North Hill solidified in 2016. The Danforth was homeless at the time, and North Hill opened space to show works from the permanent collection. The Danforth reopened in 2019.
“Helen steered the way, and now we’re trying to establish a more formal relationship with North Hill and Framingham State University,” Roscio said.
This fall, Meyrowitz marks her retirement as director of the Art Gallery at North Hill with its first exhibition of her drawings: “The Art of Helen Meyrowitz.” (See it on Instagram; North Hill is closed to the public due to COVID-19 restrictions).
The artist came of age with the abstract expressionists. Her drawings share their spontaneous gesture and emotional fluidity. Still, at her essence, she is a renderer of the figure, and the plight of what it is to be human.
“Oh my God, as an artist, her draftsmanship is just incredible,” said Roscio. “Her work is so emotional, and she conveys so much with so few lines.”
The daughter of Hungarian immigrants, Meyrowitz grew up in Brooklyn. She wanted to go to art school, but her mother balked. (North Hill recently established a scholarship in the artist’s name at Needham High School for a student who wants to study art in college.)
So, at 18, she married Sidney Meyrowitz, to escape her mother’s sway. Sidney was nine years older and a World War II veteran. She got pregnant almost immediately.
“Out of the frying pan into the fire,” she said. “I went into a deep funk.”
But Sidney stepped in. “I just hit the jackpot,” Meyrowitz said of her husband. “He said, if you don’t follow your dream, you’ll never be happy.”
Each day, he came home from work, she served dinner, and he took over childcare so Meyrowitz could study art. Ultimately, she got a master’s degree in art history, focusing on mythology. Her most recent drawing, about COVID, features Greek mythology’s Three Fates. Selections from her “Armchair Mythology” series are also on view in the exhibition.
“The Greeks created images of the Gods that were all too human,” she said. “Just as nasty and mean, and full of vengeance, envy, anger, and the ability to be kind.”
Meyrowitz draws to excavate the mysteries of her own soul. After the move to North Hill, as Sidney’s dementia worsened, she struggled with caring for him.
“He used to get up at night and say, ‘Time for breakfast,’ and I’d show him it’s still dark out. We’d have cereal and go back to bed,” she said. “One night I woke hearing the song ‘Wind Beneath My Wings.’ I realized if I was an eagle, I’d fly away.”
Instead, she went to her studio and began to draw birds — a screaming shrike, a caring owl. The series became an exhibition, “Helen Meyrowitz: The Wind Beneath My Wings: Baskin Suite.” Originally shown at the Alzheimer’s Association’s regional chapter in Watertown in 2009, it traveled to three other venues.
And the fleeing eagle?
“That was just self-pity. I had to work through that to the last part,” she said. “I understand what it is like to be there for someone when he truly needs you.”
Meyrowitz’s drawings express the tenderness and the extremities of the human condition. To share them — and any worthy art — with North Hill’s residents and visitors is her gift, and her mission. She may be 92, but she isn’t finished yet.
THE ART OF HELEN MEYROWITZ
Through December. www.instagram.com/theartgalleryatnorthhill/