Jill A. Lion, a Baltimore sculptor, dies

Jill A. Lion, a Baltimore sculptor whose work in stone and clay carried themes including breast cancer and animals, died Sept. 18 of complications from brain surgery at her Fallstaff home. She was 76.

“She was explosive and fantastic. She was fire in a bottle,” said Michael Guarrnieri, who lives in the city’s Tuscany-Canterbury neighborhood with his wife, Dr. Susan Guarnieri, former Baltimore city health commissioner and a collector of Ms. Lion’s work.

“My wife purchased our first piece for $800 or $900 at an auction, and Jill delivered it to our Bolton Hill home, where we were living at the time,” he said. “Not only was it underpriced, it was explosive and a lovely piece of stone carving.”

Jill Altschul, the daughter of Herbert Bernard Altschul, owner of Altschul’s department store, and Rachelle Goldberg Altschul, a teacher, was born and raised in Norfolk, Va., where she graduated in 1959 from Granby High School.

She earned a bachelor’s degree in Russian in 1963 from George Washington University and a master’s degree in 1965 in Russian studies from the State University of New York, Albany.

Fluent in Russian, Ms. Lion moved to Boston, where she worked for Arthur D. Little, an international management consulting firm, and later the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, studying Russian railroad systems.

In 1963, she had married Dr. John R. Lion, a psychiatrist, and in 1971 they moved their family to Baltimore.

Ms. Lion worked as a transportation planner from 1975 to 1977 for Baltimore County and later was director of energy savings for the state Department of Natural Resources.

“Her interest in art developed kind of late in life, when she was studying welding and sculpture at Notre Dame of Maryland University and she fell under the sway of it,” her husband said.

“It was a nun that unleashed what Jill had to do,” Dr. Guarnieri said.

She also studied working with clay at the Edward A. Myerberg Senior Center.

Ms. Lion began working as a stone sculptor in 1980 and established a studio in the Mill Centre in Hampden, where she worked until the mid-1990s, when she relocated the studio to her Northwest Baltimore home.

“Sculptor Jill Lion has always used art to work out the things that are bothering her. Bouts of depression inspired two of her early carvings, ‘Recovery’ and ‘Fear of Recurrence.’ And her mother’s grave illnesses and ultimate death were the occasion of two morbid parental portraits,” according to a 1996 profile in The Washington Post.

“Thus it is no surprise that the loss of both of the artist’s breasts in 1992 would impel her into the studio.”

After undergoing a needle biopsy in 1990, Ms. Lion had to wait a week before knowing whether she had cancer. The results proved to be negative.

“But her ordeal was not over,” reported The Baltimore Sun in 1996. “There were more biopsies for Lion and ultimately a double mastectomy. But even as she experienced the traumas of breast cancer, Lion continued giving expression to her feelings through sculpting.”

Working with clay, she converted her worries into four works she called “Cancer Fears,” which she converted into four soapstone sculptures that were collectively called “Reckoning in Stone: Jill Lion on Breast Cancer.”

She later added a fifth work in white alabaster she titled “Before and After Surgery,” depicting a breast on one side and its absence on the other, “replaced by elliptical scars,” reported The Sun.

“As time wore on, these other questions were coming up, especially: ‘Was I still a woman if I didn’t have breasts,’ ” she told The Sun.

“Those considerations led to the last piece, a harsh-looking sculpture resembling a tree trunk with its limbs sheared off. It is titled ‘Double Mastectomy,’ ” the newspaper reported.

“That was my sense of it, that it was all much more internal than I had expected,” Ms. Lion said.

In the Post interview, she said her creative effort was a “definite release,” which helped her with her life and confront mortality.

“What happens to the demons? I guess I’m still carrying them in a little pouch on my back,” she said. “But when i finish this kind of work, it just feels better. I’m saying: ‘I saw it. I was there. This is what happened. I lived.’ ”

In a 2001 review of Ms. Lion’s “How a Double Mastectomy Feels,” a Sun art critic wrote that she “chose her material well: Like a woman’s body, the dark soapstone is strong, feels powder-soft to the touch and is easily scarred.”

The sculptures have been widely exhibited at the National Museum of Health & Medicine in Washington, George Washington University and other venues.

“It was her angry period. She was angry at how she had been treated with her breast cancer, and some of those pieces of sculpture are the angriest I’ve seen. They’re shocking,” Dr. Guarnieri said.

In 2003, in recognition of National Domestic Violence Awareness Month, the University of Maryland School of Law exhibited a series of six of Ms. Lion’s soapstone sculptures that depicted the 2001 murder of a Baltimore woman, a co-worker, and her 15-year-old daughter by the husband and stepfather.

Arranged in chronological order they were titled “Family Portrait,” “After Arguments, He Grabs the Bat, “ “Fight, part 1,” “Fight, part 2,” “Double Funeral,” and “Three Who Remain.”

“It’s my interpretation of what happened,” she told The Daily Record. “You don’t need a gun to commit murder.”

Not all of Ms. Lion’s work was confined to crime or serious medical issues, as she also carved whimsical animals and birdbaths.

“They’re happy,” she told The Post.

A collection of her animal sculptures were donated by the Guarnieris to Stevenson University for the Guarnieri Sculpture Garden in the Knott Hall Courtyard at the school’s Greenspring campus.

“”They were sweet, whimsical sculptures of bears, dogs and even an alligator,” said Dr. Guarnieri. “You look at them and you go, ‘Wow.’ ”

Ms. Lion’s work was the subject of Siobhan Pagnelli’s “In Stone: Jill Lion Sculptures,” which was published in 2009.

“She was still working in clay at her death,” her husband said.

Ms. Lion donated her body to the Maryland Anatomy Board, and at her request there will be no services.

In addition to her husband of 54 years, she is survived by a son, David Lion of Seattle; a daughter, Trina Lion of Towson; two sisters, Beth Hurwich of Oakland, Calif., and Deborah Resnick of Virginia; and four grandchildren

fred.rasmussen@baltsun.com

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