Barbara Shilo (1923-2015) was born in Fulda, Germany just before the Nazi regime came to power. As the grip of the Third Reich in Germany intensified, her family escaped first to Czechoslovakia in 1933, but knew they needed to find safety elsewhere after her father was arrested at the Czech border. In 1938, Shilo and her family then moved to Brooklyn, New York where her mother’s family was living. There they were able to find relief from the devastation in Europe and Shilo began to pursue her passion in the arts studying acting, writing, and painting at New York University and the Arts Student League. In 1956, she went on to study psychology at the New School for Social Research while establishing herself as a painter by exhibiting at galleries and universities throughout New York State and the country. Painting would remain a constant thread throughout her life, sustaining and enriching her many other endeavors.
Shilo also found great success in her other professional endeavors, navigating her career as a painter while running a family business. After her second marriage, in the 1970s, Shilo relocated to Sonoma County, where she would remain for the rest of her life, and ran a winery with her late husband. With no experience in the business, their wine won several awards and was even served at the White House. She was also the recipient of many awards over the span of her long career as a painter including the Award of Merit from the National League of American Penwomen in 1995 and the Grand Prize at the Cooperstown National that same year.
While Shilo’s career and life is often associated with her escape from Germany during the Holocaust, it wasn’t until the late 1990s that she developed the courage to publicly explore and integrate the realities of the Nazi genocide into her work. Silent Voices Speak: Remembering the Holocaust, her most widely known exhibition, was the result of breaking a 50-year-long silence on the matter and acknowledging a deep guilt she felt for surviving. Inspired by a dream in which she saw that the Holocaust had not been depicted in life-like color images, the 2001 exhibition is a display of 14 mixed media works derived from black-and-white documentary photographs from the archives of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum taken in Europe between 1933 and 1945. Despite her fear of not being able to do it justice because she had not experienced it firsthand, Shilo brings a richly evocative life to these haunting images, adding color and a sense of empathy to them.
Her more recent paintings continued to delve into her humanitarian concern with social justice. They are sharply rendered, sometimes depicting authority figures of world history and defiant harbingers of global events alongside of each other. Shilo’s figurative paintings are often paired with modernist geometric shapes and are perhaps influenced by German expressionism. They evoke a pointed and pensive tone that illuminate the past and the trauma associated with anti-Semitism in her childhood.