Clay Wisdom for the Soul JewClayica Gallery Helene’s Story
Helene Discovers Clay...
by Michael J. Rosen

When a person has endured much pain and suffering, yet can still be a source of compassion and love, it is truly amazing and inspiring. Such is the case with Helene E.R. Oppenheimer.

"Rescue" has been a recurrent theme in Helene's life.  Coming to America from Germany at age seven with her physically and sexually abusive father, and her developmentally disabled German-Jewish mother, Helene was eventually rescued by her grandmother and declared a ward of the California courts. She was then placed in many temporary foster homes. Throughout these difficult times, Helene would temporarily escaped into the world she sketched and colored.

At age 14, Helene was kidnapped, tortured, and eventually left abandoned in a parking lot. Her perpetrators were never caught. Unfortunately, no one was able to rescue young Helene from this excruciating experience, so she had to find her own way of dealing with the pain. She turned to drawing as a form of healing.

After her siblings grew up and moved out, Helene bought ten acres of Redwood Forest in northern California. She chose this location to rescue many beautiful Redwood trees from logging. She built her dream home there and eventually adopted several unwanted cats, providing them with a loving home. Each summer, Helene traveled the world and led student peace tours. By 1989, Helene had finally put her painful past behind her.

Then on November 3, 1990, there was another cruel twist of fate. Two cars rear-ended a vehicle in which Helene was a passenger, catapulting her into life with a permanent disability. She suffered severe back injury. No longer able to teach and in severe pain, Helene reached out to an old friend, her creative spirit.

As Helene explained, "Art and creativity helped me endure my painful childhood. I have had much practice turning difficult times into positive experiences. Making the best of hard times has been my main challenge in life. Like many other survivors, I have been guided by a creative spirit."

Helene added, "The accident devastated me because all I ever wanted was to be a teacher. People knew me as a good teacher and that was my whole identity. I had worked very hard to earn this reputation. With six herniated discs and chronic, acute pain, I was forced into sudden retirement. In my devastation and desperation, I turned to clay."

During her long, slow recuperation, Helene learned what it is like to have an "invisible disability." One cannot see the back pain she and many others like her endure everyday. Interestingly, this "invisible disability" wound up drawing Helene towards the Deaf community. Helene realized that many Deaf people are isolated and misunderstood, as deafness is also something you cannot see.

Helene returned to Germany to complete high school and matriculate at the University of Heidelberg. When she moved back to California, she rescued her sister and two younger brothers from the same abusive household that she had endured as a child, taking her siblings into her own home.

After earning her California teaching credential, Helene taught high school German and English.

Helene credits the positive reactions of the Disabled, Deaf, and African-American communities for inspiring her to create over 40 ASL sculptures  "ASL in Clay: A Sculpture Documentary with African-American Deaf Women." Her sculptures address issues such as breast cancer, amputation, Judaism, gay pride, age and size oppression, sexuality, war, Deaf hospice and spirituality ... all in a positive, uplifting, and beautiful manner. She has found that while her back can no longer serve, her hands can still teach and share with others. Helene's creative spirit has indeed rescued her.  To see Helene’s ASL in Clay website, visit

Helene's sculptures have won Best of Show, People's Choice, and Encouragement Awards at international competitions. She was named 1997 Most Accessible and Active Minnesota Disabled Artist. She was also a 1998 winning entry in their jurored Fine Arts Show and was a Featured Artist at the 1998 Minnesota State Fair, which over one million people attended.

Yes, I am amazed, but more than that, I am grateful for the spirit that kept her going until we could be together. Together, we can share the future: Helene and I and our creative spirits.

Photo: Warrior Women: ASL/Braille Study of Breast Cancer.  Helene is reading the Braille “I have the body of a warrior who does not kill.”

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Photo: “While supporting a friend through her struggle with cancer, which led to her entering Hospice, I contemplated how my Deaf friends would experience this journey. At the time only two hospice programs served deaf, hard-of-hearing and deafblind people: New York & Kentucky. Shortly after her death, I decided to sculpt my feelings - Relief, Grief, Guilt, Trust, Anger, Dying, Accept - into this series of Feelings from Loss (ASL, Braille and English) to support local efforts to create a third Minnesota Hospice for the Deaf.”

Helene recalls how her family of German-Jewish immigrants initially struggled with this new language and culture she had become fascinated with. Her Deaf friends are native-born Americans, yet they share similar trials and tribulations. With her one-of-a-kind ASL sculptures, Helene welcomes both Deaf and hearing to appreciate art and culture together, building a bridge between them.

Helene's most recent rescue centered on me. If she hadn't suffered the car accident and found the strength to express her passion through clay, she would still be isolated in her forest cabin and I would still be a 60-year old bachelor here in Minnesota. But fate (and a creative spirit!) decreed that we meet, even though separated by half the country. Her tragedy and pain opened my heart and my life to love and compassion.

On August 9, 1997, Helene and I married. I am now a proud husband and stepfather to her precious rescued cats. From a life of pain and isolation, Helene's creative spirit rose above and motivated her to create wonderfully inspiring sculptures. That others have been touched by her gifts is obvious in the praise she has received for her work. Helene represented Minnesota as a delegate at the 1999 International Art Festival for Artists with Disabilities in Los Angeles.

Michael is a former American Sign Language interpreter in St. Paul, MN.  He has written articles related to sign language interpreting for the Minnesota chapter of the Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf (MRID). He also wrote an article for the RID views about the creation of the sign language used in the movie, "The Piano."  Michael continues to interpret in CA.  

Sometimes, a touching moment or word of encouragement can change one's path in life. "In 1994, a Deaf friend came into my studio when I was sculpting “Inspiration,"  It was my first ASL sculpture. I remember his reactions ... the first was 'oh, that's lovely, a new sculpture.' But then he had a look of pride, smiling in sheer delight as he recognized that the sculpture was communicating in his language."

Helene also relates to the African-American culture of the women she has modeled in her sculptures, through her background as a German-Jew.  "German-Jews share many historical and cultural parallels with African-Americans," she remarks. "We have more in common than we have differences."

Not surprisingly, Helene came to identify with the Deaf world. She began to sculpt Deaf, African-American women signing American Sign Language (ASL). Through them, she was able to recapture some of her dignity and self-esteem, by sculpting strong, intelligent women emanating self-worth.