Marlene Aron, an artist whose roots in Youngstown run deep, was struck and killed by a truck while crossing the street in San Francisco. A show to celebrate her life and career will open May 20 at Youngstown State University. Image courtesy of YSU.

Story by Alyssa Schmitt

Marlene Aron’s art captures the timelessness of the earth through a palette of sawdust, beeswax, wood ash and dried leaves, among other natural materials. On canvas, she built up the material layer by layer to create a three-dimensional embodiment of her love of nature. In her installations, she meticulously sprinkled different shades of soils and sand around varying sizes of rocks, often in circular patterns that represented layers of memory and time.

Aron’s time, however, would be tragically cut short. On Sept. 20, 2018, the day before the Youngstown native’s latest exhibition, “Reflections,” opened at The Reclaimed Room in San Francisco, she was struck and killed by a truck while crossing the street. 

In celebration of her life and to preserve her memory, Youngstown State University’s Cliffe College of Creative Arts and Communication will host “Marlene Aron: An Artist’s Path” in Bliss Hall’s Judith Rae Solomon Gallery. The exhibition, on view from May 20 to July 13, was proposed by Stephanie Smith, a professor of art history at YSU who had known Aron for nearly 30 years. 

“She was someone who was very dedicated to her craft. She was a fine, fine artist … (and) this is a way those of us who are here (in Youngstown) can gather and recognize her and kind of remember her,” Smith says. “Keep in mind, she died on the West Coast. It was far away, but she was meaningful to a lot of people more locally.”

The exhibition will be a compilation of Aron’s work from The Butler Institute of American Art in Youngstown and private collections. The work will span different phases of her career, including her works on paper and the built-up works on canvas.

“Breathing Mound: Rite of Passage,” June-August 1998, Butler Institute of American Art, Howland, Ohio, 13 feet, 2 inches (diameter) x 9 inches (height). Image courtesy of The Reclaimed Room.

“She was very much interested in nature and natural material, and her painting would often reflect that interest in natural forms,” says Louis Zona, executive director of The Butler Institute. “The work was just impressive on many, many levels. She was a wonderful artist.”

Zona had known Aron since they attended YSU together in the 1960s. He remembered her excelling at school, foreshadowing her ability to make it as a professional artist. He says she embodied what it meant to be creative. In addition to her artwork, she wrote poetry. 

Her work was “quite significant” and was unlike anyone else’s art, he says. While she had her heroes, her art remained distinct from that of the people she admired. Reusing natural material certainly put her in a different stratum than others, Zona says, though she did use more conventional material, like chalk and paint. With each piece, her appreciation for nature shone through.  

Zona and Smith both noted Aron’s ability to make any stranger a friend instantly. She was always “on your side,” Zona recalled. 

“She fascinated me because Marlene was a real free spirit in many ways,” Smith says. “She committed herself so fully to the artistic endeavor. I never knew her to be someone who was looking to be a full-time faculty member at a university. She was someone who worked and recognized the value of working with young people, training them in their artistic careers. But she was so committed to her studio practice and she was willing to make a lot of sacrifices, financial sacrifices and things of that nature, to be able to devote as much of her time to making art.”

“Searching for Meaning in the Forest of Plenty,” mixed media, 2015, 24 x 24 x 2¾ inches. Image courtesy of The Reclaimed Room.

Even though Aron, 75, moved to California later in her life, her presence remained constant in Youngstown. The Butler Institute, which owns a number of her works, was a place she often felt at home. She referred to the pieces hanging on the walls as old friends. 

“She was very interested in what was happening here at The Butler Institute, always,” Zona says. “She grew up in the area and her love of art led her to the art museum, Butler Institute. From her childhood, she knew so many of the paintings and identified so much with the artists who are represented here.”

While “An Artist’s Path” will rightly pay tribute to an accomplished artist, Aron’s legacy in Youngstown has long been cemented.  

“She has work in (the Butler Institute’s) collection. That’s significant,” Smith says. “That’s the oldest museum of American art in the county, (and) it’s an important collection. It warms my heart that her work is included in that collection.” CV

On View

Youngstown State University

  • “Marlene Aron: An Artist’s Path” will be on view from May 20 through July 13 at the Judith Rae Solomon Gallery in Youngstown State University’s Bliss Hall, 1 University Plaza, Youngstown. A public reception will take place from 1 to 3 p.m. July 13.
  • The Spring Graduating BFA Exhibition and MFA Thesis Exhibition will both be on view from April 26 to May 11 at Youngstown State University’s McDonough Museum of Art, 525 Wick Ave., Youngstown. A public reception will be held from 5 to 7 p.m. April 26.
  • “Studio Conversations in Art Education” will be on view from June 8 through July 20 at the McDonough Museum of Art. Co-curated by Claudia Berlinski and Lillian Lewis, the exhibition features work by women working in art education at the higher education level who maintain studio practices. A public reception will be held from 5 to 7 p.m. June 8.