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  • Writer's pictureWilliamsburg Funeral Home

Avital Sagalyn

Updated: May 28, 2020

Avital Sagalyn, an artist and longtime resident of Amherst, Mass., passed away on May 11, 2020.

Avital was born to Russian parents in what was then Palestine, before the state of Israel was created. When Avital was two years old, her family moved to Brussels, where she spent most of her youth. In 1940, the Schwartz family fled the Nazi invasion. After a yearlong journey through France, Spain and Portugal, they settled in New York City. 

In high school, a teacher identified Avital as a gifted art student. She was selected to study at the Museum of Modern Art. She earned a college degree in fine arts from The Cooper Union in 1946, and was one of the first women to win a Fulbright Scholarship to study painting in Paris, France, in 1949. There she befriended modern-art luminaries Manuel Ángeles Ortiz, Pablo Picasso and Constantin Brâncuși, among many others.

Avital returned to a male-dominated “New York School” art scene in the 1950s, where she painted alongside friends including Reuben Tam, Carl Nesjar, Willem de Kooning and Richard Pousette-Dart, whose works are now held by museums around the world. Gallery owners in Paris and New York were interested  in offering Avital exhibitions, but she declined, seeking to avoid commercialization. 

The MacDowell Colony made Avital an artist-in-residence in 1952. Later, in the 1950s and ’60s, Avital married off-Broadway producer and actor Robert Sagalyn, started a family, and taught painting and sculpture for children at New York’s Museum of Modern Art.

In 1968, Avital moved with her young family to Amherst, where she served on panels to hire the first director of the University of Massachusetts Gallery of Contemporary Art and select art for its collection. She continued to sketch and paint throughout much of her life. Her charismatic spouse, Bobby, enthusiastically supported Avital’s passion and independence as an artist. He memorably remarked that upon return home from work each evening, he preferred the smell of her turpentine to that of soup. He passed away in 1985.

Until just a few years ago, Avital’s children were unaware that she had hidden away a trove of museum-quality artworks she’d created before they were born. Beginning in 2017, Avital worked with her family to build a website, tell her life story and display dozens of her artworks online. Her new aim was to begin exhibiting her paintings, drawings, sculptures, lithographs and textile designs for public view. 

The University Museum of Contemporary Artin Amherst held Avital’s first solo retrospective exhibition October through December 2019, curated by a team of art history students with faculty guidance. 

Avital was later diagnosed with cancer, and she passed away at home, surrounded by her loving family.

Avital’s artistic legacy will live on. Dozens of her original artworks reside at the PULP Gallery in Holyoke, Mass. Plans are in the works to hold a solo PULP exhibition in 2021, among other public venues in the coming years. There is also much of Avital’s life story and artwork to explore on her website at

Contributions in Avital’s memory may be made to help restore her finest paintings and drawings, many of which are at risk of decay decades after they were created. Donations are accepted online and deeply appreciated at this GoFundMe LINK : (

Avital is survived by daughter Michelle Sagalyn and grandsons Robert Sagalyn Pederson and Noah Sagalyn Pederson; daughter Adine Sagalyn, son-in-law Denis Hirson, and grandchildren Anna Hirson Sagalyn and Jeremy Hirson Sagalyn; and son Daniel Sagalyn and daughter-in-law Elaine Grossman Sagalyn.

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