top of page

Helen West Heller (1872-1955)

Helen West Heller, Black Leopard.jpg
Helen West Heller - Baseball.jpg

By Larry Stanfel, Ph.D., with Editing and Contributions from Joel S. Dryer


Dizzy Dean was quoted as saying, “I may not ‘a been the greatest, but I was amongst ‘em.” One could paraphrase the pitching great and say the same of Helen West Heller. Some art critics thought her to be the finest American woodblock printmaker of her era.[1]


The eldest of four children, she was born Hellen S. Barnhart on October 9, 1872, in the rural farming land near Rushville, Illinois.[2] Her childhood and adolescence were passed on a 10-acre farm on the outskirts of Canton, Illinois, about 45 miles to the East. Parents Washington and Edith scrabbled to make a living to support their four children. Curiously, her father taught her to whittle.


Her first biographer, Ernst Harms, met Helen in 1937 but had little to say about her youth.[3] Reportedly she took to art at an early age: “at her fourth Christmas a box of water colors came among her presents…. In the evening she would mix her paints out of doors while it was still light, and after the household was asleep she would try to set down scenes that had struck her during the day”.[4]


The few adult photos present her as a very small, frail woman. She was not particularly social but was drawn to literary evenings at the home of her high school principal, who also tutored her. Her tuition at the St. Louis Academy of Fine Arts came through the generosity of a family friend. She attended the Academy as Helena Barnhart in 1888 and 1889-90.[5]


In 1890 she was awarded the Wayman Crow Medal for the “Most Satisfactory Progress” of an art student.[6] The Canton school district shows no records of her attending high school there, but Helen herself wrote that she graduated and that at some period worked in a local box factory.[7] As Canton had a booming cigar industry, several factories manufactured cigar boxes.[8]


Around 1892 Helen moved 180 miles north to Chicago. According to Harms, “the twenty-year-old girl went to Chicago,” which would have been between 1892 and 1893, which coincidentally was around the time of the World’s Columbian Exposition.[9] Without any specific target in mind, she aspired to a career in the arts. Dr. Harms said she was leading a “starving life” there, and this situation appears throughout her life with disconcerting frequency in Helen’s correspondence.


She had a poem and illustration published in June 1899 by the literary magazine Criterion.[10] Likely the two-stanza poem is autobiographical in that the narrator, a man, repines over the unrewarded, fatiguing struggles in the city and declares himself on the verge of yielding to the fight. She wrote of seeking to work herself through college during this period, but the nearest she came to the art world was an attempt to work as a life model for some art classes.[11] Census data shows that by 1900 Helen had returned to Canton.[12]


She then made her way to New York City and married Herbert Warren West,[13] an interior decorator/wallpaper hanger, in the Bronx, on October 5, 1901. Now Helena Barnhart-West, she participated in the 1902 New York Architectural League annual juried exhibition.[14]


Little-known paintings from 1905, 1906, and 1909 attest to her continuing artistic activity. Census records show that she was still married to West and residing with him in 1905,[15] but that they had separated by 1910.[16] In that same year, Helen enrolled in basic classes at the Art Students League of New York and listed her address in Harlem at 28 W. 127th Street.[17]


Not later than the winter of 1911-12 she enrolled at the Ferrer Center and Modern School, a New York Anarchist institution. The attraction of the school was inexpensive art instruction offered by noted American Ashcan School artists Robert Henri (1865-1929), with whom she studied, and George Bellows (1882-1925).[18] Helen’s fellow students included Rockwell Kent (1882-1971), Emmanuel Radnitzky (1890-1976), later known as Man Ray, and Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky (1879-1940).[19]


At the school Helen met Roger Paul Heller, a 1909 Lehigh University electrical engineering honors graduate. Sixteen years her junior, he was from an upper middle-class family in Bethlehem, PA.[20] A zealous reformer, his views may have upset his employers, as he lost a succession of jobs in New York. Helen said he was panhandling at the Ferrer Center where he then became an instructor of the Esperanto language.[21]


In 1913 the couple eloped to Allentown, PA. The pair later made national headlines when they were arrested there for the boarding house theft of a watch. She was jailed and he was put into a hospital for the mentally ill.[22] The arrest was possibly orchestrated by his family to dissolve the liaison. However, the couple gained their release by promising to separate once freed, whereupon they entered the Lehigh County Clerk office and were legally wed in March 1914.[23] They then moved to her family’s farm in Canton, IL.[24] Helen quickly became disgruntled as Roger shared little of the farm chores, which fell upon her, describing herself as cruelly overworked. During her free time, however, she illustrated books of poetry.[25] She also enjoyed writing poetry, and her work was printed in several literary journals.[26] Roger conducted what he told her was linguistic research, and after seven frustrating years in Canton, Helen presented Roger with an ultimatum: develop his work into something remunerative or prepare for a life alone without her. In November 1921 she abandoned him and departed for Chicago.[27]


In 1921 her modernist artwork was rejected by the conservative jury for the Art Institute’s Annual Exhibition of Chicago and Vicinity Artists. Many of the rejected artists banded together and created their own show, the Salon de Refuses.[28] Henceforth, she became a fixture among Chicago’s independent-minded, modern artists, who were led primarily by Rudolph Weisenborn (1881-1974).


The Chicago No-Jury Society of Artists was an outgrowth of the 1921 show and held its first exhibition in October 1922. Critic Clarence J. Bulliet credited Helen with creating the group’s name.[29] In the catalogue, she had several entries and was listed as a member of the “Committee,” the same as being a director of the Society. She was credited with helping to make the show a success.[30]


Helen’s circumference of acquaintance included more than the artistic community. The city was a hotbed for radical and Bohemian artists, writers, poets, and playwrights, and Helen’s friends included the multi-talented Ben Hecht (1894-1964); poet and novelist Maxwell Bodenheim (1892-1954), and Pulitzer Prize-winning poet and playwright Edna St. Vincent Millay (1892-1950).[31]


Her first solo exhibition was at Chicago’s Walden Book Store in 1922 and Hi Simon, who authored a small biography, had this to say:[32]


Her art is significant because it is “radical.” As in the contemporary economic situation there are two factions, so in the arts today there is a fundamental cleavage between those who believe that art is the conventional representation of nature and those who believe it is expression, a function of imagination…. Mrs. Heller belongs to the latter group…. A distinct personality. She belongs to no “school” of modernism. Her own images, her own concepts, her unborrowed and unaffected moods, go into her work. She is subjective rather than abstract. There are exquisite tonal relations and passages of vivid accord and cacophony in her color-arrangements…. She might be called a poets’ painter if she were not also distinctly a musicians’ painter. But then, too, she is a painter for all who believe in the Free Life of Beauty. Such will find joy in her works and will want them to live with.

The Chicago art establishment was inhospitable to Modernist painters. Years later, Helen recounted that any success required the Art Institute’s stamp of approval.[33] There were very few collectors of Modernist artists, as collectors favored well-establish Europeans.


In 1923, under the tutelage of Will Ransom (1878-1955), a printer, graphic designer, letterer, and typeface designer, Helen completed her first woodcut.[34] She had recently turned fifty-one. In just two years, twelve of her woodcuts would be published in The Woodcut Annual for 1925.[35] While future collectors would esteem her work in woodcuts, she considered herself foremost a painter.[36]


In a 1923 cartoon she was depicted as a thin, shouting woman, holding a lighted bomb in an upraised hand. The cartoon was penned by Chicago artist Emil Armin (1883-1971), who labeled her “HELLen West HELLer!!”[37] The tag “uncompromising soul,” given her by Chicago literary newspaperman, Llewellyn Jones, may be the explanation.[38] While she was not selling much artwork, she was earning a meager living as an illustrator.


Clarence J. Bulliet, art editor of the Chicago Evening Post, and later of the Chicago Daily News, was an ardent supporter of Modernist artists and skirmished for years with the conservative Chicago art establishment. He particularly championed female artists such as Helen, and others including Salcia Bahnc (1898-1976), Macena Barton (1901-1986), and Rifka Angel (18991988).[39]


[1] References and additions to this article that are courtesy of the Illinois Historical Art Project are denoted “IHAP”. For a complete list of her exhibitions and solo shows see this author’s book, Uncompromising Souls, (N. Charleston, SC: Createspace Independent Publishing Platform, 2015).

[2] “Hellen S. Barnhart, Age 7,” 1880 Census. 6/22,23/ 1880, p.49, Spvr’s Dist. 3, Enum. Dist. 35. The exact date comes from a diary entry in the Onya La Tour Papers, Reels 802, 803, Archives of American Art (AAA), on 10/9/1940. These papers contain, among other items, a scrapbook of sketches by artist friends, mostly by Helen West Heller, and material relating to the Onya La Tour Gallery. References to the diary entries are hereinafter referred to as within the “La Tour Papers.”

[3] Ernst (Ernest) Harms (1895‐1974) earned a Ph. D. in Psychology from The University of Wurzburg. He wrote about, among other topics, the psychology of art. The two met in 1937. Ernst Harms Papers, Brooklyn College Library, Brooklyn, NY. (Hereinafter “Harms Papers”). See also, Ernst Harms, “Helen West Heller – the Woodcutter,” Print Collector’s Quarterly, April 1942, Vol 29, No. 2, pp.250‐271, and Ernst Harms, “From Dark to Light: An Appreciation of the Life Work of Helen West Heller, 1872–1955,” American Artist, Nov. 1957, pp.30‐34, 67‐68.

[4] “Modernist at Sixty: Mrs. Heller Achieves Her First Success Among Ultra‐Independents,” New York Evening Post, 4/19/1933, p.19.

[5] Sonya McDonald, Washington University, St. Louis, Private Communication with the author, May 2005, and April 2009.

[6] Wayman Crow (1808‐1885) was a founder of the school.

[7] “Modernist at Sixty,” New York Evening Post, 4/19/1933. Helen West Heller (hereinafter “HWH”), “Artists’ Equity questionnaire for artists’ employment,” mailed 8/14/1949. Located in the Albert Reese Letters, 1946‐1949, AAA, reels 1393‐94, p.7.

[8] Edward R. Lewis Jr., Reflections of Canton, unpublished, 1962, pp.30, 34, 70‐76.

[9] Op. cit., Harms, Print Collector’s Quarterly, April 1942, pp 255‐256. The fair opened May 1, 1893, and over twenty-seven million people attended.

[10] HWH, “To a Child Carrying Blossoms,” Criterion, 6/10/1899, p.15.

[11] HWH letter to Ethel Davenport, 7/2/1945, Leonard Davenport private papers.

[12] “Helena S. Barnhart, Artist Oil painting,” “Months Not Employed 10” Twelfth Census of the United States Supervisor’s District of Enumeration, District 7 sheet no. 12, 6/14/1900, Canton Township, Canton City, Fulton County, IL. She was possibly there as early as the summer of 1899.

[13] New York, NY, Marriage Index 1866‐1937,, Provo, UT.

[14] “Barnhart‐West, Helena, #224 Bookbinding and Illuminating,” Catalog of the Seventeenth Annual Exhibition of the Architectural League of New York, 1917, p.31.

[15] “Election District A.D. 23 E.D. 32; Manhattan; New York,” State Population Census Schedules, 1905; p.30.

[16] The 1910 Hackensack, NJ census for Ward 4, Bergen County shows that he was living with his sister and brother-in‐law. The 1910 census for Manhattan for Ward 21 lists Helen as a boarder at 45 E 34th St.

[17] Art Students League matriculation record #461, 10/24/1910. IHAP.

[18] Paul Avrich, The Modern School Movement, (Oakland, CA: AK Press, 2006). Anarchists Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman helped found the school; they were later deported to Russia in 1919. The school was frequented by a steady stream of prominent radicals. The Modern School, Winter 1912‐13, in the Modern School Collection, Rutgers University, Rutgers, NJ. Manuel Komroff, “Art Transfusion,” The Modern School, Spring 1913, pp.12‐15, where Komroff refers to Helen’s paintings. Komroff (1890‐1974) “…was an engineering student at Yale but left in 1912 without a degree to start his writing career as an art critic for The New York Call. He was a Socialist at the time, and when the first Russian revolution took place he went to Petrograd and became the editor in chief of The Russian Daily News, published in English.” Taken from “Manuel Komroff Is Dead at 84; Author of 45 Novels Was Editor,” New York Times, 12/11/1974, p.48.

[19] Allan Antliff, “Carl Zigrosser and the Modern School: Nietzsche, Art, and Anarchism,” Archives of American Art Journal, Vol 34, No. 4, p.19. Also op. cit., Avrich, The Modern school Movement, pp.150‐151., accessed 2/1/2021.

[20] 1909 Class Book, (Bethlehem, PA: Lehigh University, 1909). His fellow students predicted he would enjoy professional success.

[21] Secretary, Southern district, New York State Esperanto Society, December 1910. Esperanto is a synthetic language, constructed on various European tongues developed by Ludwik Lazarus Zamenhof (1859‐1917). It was envisioned as a universal means of communication. Roger became an officer of the regional Esperanto organization, and a delegate to an International Congress in Washington, DC. “Delegate and Chairman of Engineering Committee,” International Congress, Washington, D.C., August 1910. Also, HWH letter to Carl Zigrosser, 1/17/1920, Carl Zigrosser Papers, Reel 4669, AAA, and Op. cit., Bulliet, Chicago Daily News, 6/8/1935, p.9. Bulliet commented on Roger’s pursuit of language.

[22]“Case Against Woman Fails,” The Allentown Democrat, 12/14/1914, p.4.

[23] HWH letter to Fay Gold, 10/18/1955, Fay Gold Papers, AAA. (Hereinafter “Fay Gold Papers). Brooklyn–born Fay Helfand Gold (1907‐1998) was an artist who exhibited with the Society of Independent artists, among other groups. She may have married more than once but is known as an artist by this name. A good deal of the biographical information about HWH is derived from a handful of letters written by her to Fay. The two may have met at the Bombshell Artists’ Group, which staged an exhibition in January 1943, where both women had works on display. In the Garlinghouse private papers (see below) is a typed exhibition list of artists, “BOMBSHELL ARTISTS GROUP,” SECOND ANNUAL EXHIBITION, JANUARY 5‐16, 1943.” Also, Roger P. Heller letter to Lehigh University Alumni Office, 4/22/1971, courtesy of that office, and “Couple Wed Themselves By Mutual Consent,” Allentown Morning Call, 3/21/1914, p.5. During her time in Allentown HWH completed several works that are now in the collection of Constance Borgini. HWH met Garlinghouse (previously Voss Blinck) in 1935. The Garlinghouse papers are privately held by her son, Kent Garlinghouse, Red Hook, NY. All references to letters and other materials involving Voss Blinck/Garlinghouse are from the “Garlinghouse papers.”

[24] Op. cit., HWH letter to Fay Gold, 10/18/1955. Harms wrote that her flight was preceded by a period of suicidal tendencies. The younger of her two sisters was hospitalized for insanity and died in an asylum.

[25] Madison Cawein, Let Us Do the Best That We Can, (Joliet, IL: P. F. Volland Company, 1915). W. Nesbit, Yesterdays With You, (Joliet, IL: P. F. Volland Company, 1915). Edwin O. Grover, Dinna Forget, (Chicago: P.F. Volland, 1924).

[26] Between 1919‐1922, see for example, The Little Review; The Measure: A Journal Of Poetry; The Midland, and The Pagan. These publications were listed in the introduction to her one‐artist show pamphlet at the Walden Book Shop in 1922. IHAP. Also, The complete poetry of Helen West Heller: with illustrations selected from her art, (North Charleston, SC: CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2015).

[27] Op. cit., HWH letter to Fay Gold, 10/18/55.

[28] Salon des Refusés of 1921, (Chicago: Rothschild & Company, Galleries – Eighth Floor, 1921). She submitted three works as catalog items #s 101‐103, entitled Awakening, The Philologist, and Countess. IHAP.

[29] C. J. Bulliet, “Artists of Chicago Past and Present,” Chicago Daily News, 6/8/1935, Art, Antiques and The Artists section, p.9. Weisenborn came to Chicago in 1913 and became a pioneer of modern art in the city. He rebelled against traditional art education and sought to promote modernism through various organizations and ideas. See the essay on him at

[30] First Annual Exhibition of the Chicago No‐Jury Society of Artists, (Chicago: No‐Jury Society of Artists, 1922). IHAP. “No‐Jury Exhibit is Nation‐Wide, Chicago Evening Post, 10/3/1922, p.9. Earlier that year she participated in the Pageant of Progress art exhibition and was mentioned as having “a large and satisfying canvas on view.” Eleanor Jewett, “Art and Artists,” Chicago Tribune, 8/20/1922, p.E10.

[31] Harvey Warren Zorbaugh, The Gold Coast and the Slum: A Sociological Study of Chicago's Near North Side, (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1929), p.89.

[32] Paintings by Helen West Heller, (Chicago: The Walden Book Shop, 1922). IHAP.

[33] Op. cit., HWH letter to Fay Gold, 10/18/1955.

[34] Op. cit., Bulliet, Chicago Daily News, 6/8/1935, p.9.

[35] Alfred Fowler, ed., The Woodcut Annual for 1925, Kansas City, MO, 1925.

[36] HWH letter to Edythe Ferris, 10/24/1953, H. Bella Schaeffer Papers, AAA (Hereinafter “Schaeffer Papers”).

[37] Emil Armin, “The Parade of the Chicago Artists,” Chicago Literary Times, September 1933.

[38] Helen West Heller, Migratory Urge: Wood‐Cut Poems By Helen West Heller, (Chicago: Hogarth Press, 1928), forward.

[39] Sue Ann Kendall (Prince), “Regional Reports,” in L. Kirwin, R. Brown, et al, Archives of American Art Journal, Vol.24, No. 2, 1984, pp.31‐40. See for example, Clarence J. Bulliet, “Mrs. Heller Symbolist of Real Genius,” Chicago Evening Post, 10/20/1931, Art Section, p.8.


In April 1925, the first of her “Tanka” poems was published in the Chicago Evening Post, entitled “Sandzen’s Lithographs.”[1] An article in the same issue documented her recent meeting with Birger Sandzen (1871-1954) at Bethany College, where her work was part of the spring exhibition. Between 1925 and 1927 Sandzen and Helen corresponded, exchanged prints, and exhibited at shows in Chicago and Kansas City.[2] Today, Bethany has an admirable collection of her work, now administered by the Birger Sandzen Memorial Gallery.[3]


In Bulliet’s review of a 1925 Chicago Society of Artists show he called Helen “a modernist of great promise.”[4] While she never had a solo exhibition at the Art Institute, her work was exhibited in group shows there between 1923 and 1930, but this was only after the juries were expanded to accommodate artists painting in the Modern mode.[5]


In 1925, Chicago hosted the Woman’s World Fair, which included a fine arts exhibition. A Chicago Evening Post reviewer mentioned that Helen “…[would] probably deny any humorous intent in her own intense and vivid impression, in ‘Hooves’ but she cannot deny a sense of humor in the artist who painted it.”[6] Her submissions to the show, along with those of Peggy Bacon (1895-1987) and Lillian Westcott Hale (1880-1963), were described as meaning a great deal to the exhibition.”[7]


Commenting on the 1925 Chicago No-Jury Society of Artists exhibition at Marshall Field, the resourceful Bulliet fired a clever shot at Chicago’s art establishment. He quoted another critic’s observation about an exhibition that features “five or six lunatics, one of whom is a woman.” Then he revealed the joke by disclosing that the “… lunatics are not Emil Armin, Rudolph Weisenborn… nor is the woman Helen West Heller.” He had abstracted a scorching indictment of Monet, Sisley, Renoir, Degas, and Morisot from fifty years earlier. Bulliet also commented that the fifty-two year old Helen was included in the “younger band of Chicago artists,” who were “swimming perilously along in the angrily swollen art currents of the time.”[8]


The humorous comparison to French artists proved a forecast of sorts, as the Chicago Evening Post later noted that the French journal Revue du Vrai et du Beau had reproduced her woodcut Indian Summer, and the journal La Revue Moderne had devoted even greater space to Black Leopards. The Chicago Evening Post article termed Black Leopards as “already nationally famous and now on its way to international renown.”[9] The La Revue critic called Black Leopards one of the most appreciated works and lauded its similarity to Japanese prints and to its great originality and said she was “Equally a poet and a musician.”[10] Critic C. J. Bulliet described Black Leopards as a “work of positive genius.” He noted that this work and her other prints had already been purchased by local collectors and were gaining wide attention. Throughout her career, cats figured conspicuously, and Bulliet said “she has interpreted with uncanny insight the feline soul.”[11]


Chicago Tribune critic Eleanor Jewett, no friend of Modernism, praised Hooves, which appeared in an Arts Club of Chicago show, as “… a stirring effect of running horses.” Jewett went on to say that “Mrs. Heller has an abrupt, dramatic way of presenting her conceptions, which is good theatre and extremely effective.”[12]


In a clipping from an unidentified source, probably between December 1925 and 1926, the artist stated: “My aim in verse-composition is to put over a given group of emotions or words … chiefly thru certain subtle psychological effects of sound-combinations – just as in musical composition…. The same aim dominates the paintings – there the message is conveyed less by naturalistic representation than by the emotional power of color – arrangement and abstract relationships of forms. Those new art developments are in an experimental field, a science in its infancy.”[13]


In response to a reader, who was having difficulty understanding Helen’s works, she authored a piece on Modern art in the Chicago Evening Post.[14] Critic C. J. Bulliet prefaced the reply by saying she was “one of the most talented and most intelligent of Chicago modernists.” It was reported in the same edition that she was among eleven Chicago artists exhibiting paintings at the State Historical Museum in nearby Madison, WI.[15] The following month she authored a memorial to Hamilton Easter Field (1873-1922),[16] a champion of modern art and no-jury exhibitions, and who had admired her work, a few years earlier, at the Society of Independent Artists: “[HWH] has no god so far as I can see but her individual caprice. How individual her work is! Her things hit you as paragraphs from an intimate autobiography. She is sensitive to the beauty of head and hands, sensitive to the expression of things.”[17] In May of that same year, Helen joined the Board of Directors of the Chicago Society of Artists, whose remaining members, after the conservative artists formed the Association of Chicago Painters and Sculptors, were artists with modern proclivities.[18] That same year Rudolph Weisenborn formed Neo-Arlimusc (art, literature, science, music).[19] The group was designed to foster interchanges between all types of creative practice. A painter, printmaker, poet, and musician. Helen was an archetypal member; her own view of aspects of painting were quite scientific.[20]


In 1927 The Chicago Commission for the Encouragement of Local Art purchased her large watercolor, noted as a “fantastic composition,” Horses on a Drive.[21] Later in the year, a critic presented an overview of her output: “For those to whom art presents a fascinating labyrinth…Helen West Heller offers a delightfully strange guide…amazing lack of subjectivity….Like Leonardo, she seems more interested in the scene from a scientific standpoint than from a humane.” The commentator continued to highlight the magnetic power of the artist to evoke questions from a viewer’s mind: “What is that strange, pale light in the distance? What makes the rabbit sit back affrighted…? …in oils, or woodblock, or watercolor, she is one of the most interesting expressors I have ever met….The mystery with which Helen Heller could impregnate a superficially mundane scene is a talent that sets her apart and above contemporary practitioners of equal technical skill.”[22] That same year, C. J. Bulliet published his important book on modern art, Apples and Madonnas and had this to say about her work: “…another of the Chicago Expressionists, draws quickly and spontaneously, with a good sense of character. She is an inveterate theorist, however, a mystic, with a great love for Redon.”[23]


During the month of March 1928, her work Hooves was displayed at the Ninth Annual International Print Makers Exhibition in Los Angeles.[24] It was then included in the Philadelphia Print Club show that traveled to the Brooklyn Museum, where it found a buyer,[25] and later illustrated in the Chicago press.[26] A month later it was shown at the Illinois Academy of Fine Arts in Springfield. It was reported that three hundred of seven hundred submissions were approved, and one of these, her oil on Masonite, Borzoi, is now in the collection of the Indianapolis Museum of Art.[27] The Illinois State Museum received her the print from as a gift from Mr. Henry J. Patton.[28]


More good news came from France. A group of her woodcuts was on display at the Derepas Gallery in Paris and a number had been sold. Collectors referred to her as “a modern of the moderns.”[29] She also illustrated a book of poems using woodcuts for both the pictures and text.[30] Why the arduous method of producing text? Helen said: “neither of us could well pay for typography.”[31] To publish the book, Helen solicited a collector friend, Franklin J. Meine, (1876-1968), who produced it via the Hogarth Press in Chicago.[32] At $7.50 per copy, it was expensive for its day, and only 109 copies were printed. Helen signed and numbered each book.[33] One critic thought her woodblock prints a “most satisfying medium,” and that “close study of her work discloses…nothing more nor less than the results of the rare genius of independence.”[34]


In 1930, Helen had a one-artist show with an unusual midnight opening at Chicago’s Cinema Theater.[35] One critic described her, at age 57, as a “virile young artist” and said of her work that it held “interesting powers of expression,” and noted that these included lithographs, woodcuts, oil paintings, watercolors. The reviewer continued that the works showed “cruel freedom, almost amounting to brutality,” were “forceful to the point of ugliness,” and that they were “so individual …as though…catching a glimpse of another’s soul.” A picture entitled Intersections, in other media Intersection of Three Streets, had been executed in four different media.[36] Critic Eleanor Jewett said: “Helen West Heller always has ranked high among Chicago mystics. Her paintings frequently are symbolic in character… radical interpreter of the grotesque, a passion for inspiring horror and repugnant fright in the bosom of her audience.”[37]


Other critics felt similarly to critic Eleanor Jewett. Peggy Wolf penned: “Woman Painter Sees Life as an Evil, Sinister Force.” She stated: “Her painting is the expression of a tortured mind…. She strips life of its conventional prettiness…much adverse criticism is directed against her work.” The reviewer credited the artist with having “made a profound study of the psychology of color,” then used that to return to the attack and debited her with obtaining something “painful to look at because it expresses all that is bitter and sinister in life.”[38] Another critic opined: “Helen West Heller’s slogan undoubtedly is ‘no compromise’…. [The pictures] are no accidents, they are the perfected results of an infinity of study. The layman who likes pretty pictures will have no use for them. They are cerebral, they appeal most to a specialized intellect.…”[39] Chicago’s art buying patrons were not going to warm up to this type of imagery, and Helen was selling very little of her work at the time. Fortunately, she garnered an illustrating job for a French textbook.[40] While she didn’t speak the language, she said: “I got everything just right.”[41]


[1] “Tanka,” Chicago Evening Post, Art World Magazine, 4/14/1925, p.4. IHAP. “Tanka” refers to a particular Japanese form. Her Tanka poems were published regularly in Art World Magazine through 1927. These poems, along with all her other known poems were collected and each matched with a relevant work of hers in op. cit., Stanfel, The Complete Poetry…, 2015.

[2] See for example: “Best Art Exhibition,” Bethany Messenger, 4/10/1926, p.2.

[3] The author photographed this material.

[4] C.J. Bulliet, “Modern Spirit in Chicago Artists’ Show,” Chicago Evening Post, Magazine of the Art World, 3/31/1925, p.3.

[5] Peter Hastings Falk, ed., Art Institute of Chicago, The Annual Exhibition Record, (Madison, CT: Sound View Press, 1990), p.426.

[6] R.A. Lennon, “Gayety in Exhibit by Women Artists,” Chicago Evening Post, 4/21/1925, p.2.

[7] Eleanor Jewett,” Art and Artists,” Chicago Tribune, 4/26/1925, p.E8.

[8] C. J. Bulliet, “Artless Comment: Lunatics Who Paint,” Chicago Evening Post Magazine of the Art World, 4/21/1925, p.10.

[9] “Paris Journals Praise Helen West Heller,” Chicago Evening Post Magazine of the Art World, 5/5/1925, p.3. The work had been illustrated in earlier in the 10/14/1924 issue, p.2.

[10] Clement Morro, translated by Marcela Jackson, La Revue Moderne des Arts et de la Vie, 3/30/1925, pp.18‐19.

[11] C. J. Bulliet, “Durer’s Medium Again Finds Noble Place,” Chicago Evening Post Magazine of the Art World, 7/14/1925, p.1.

[12] Eleanor Jewett, “Art and Artists,” Chicago Tribune, 5/24/1925, part 9, p.11. Jewett commented the following year that her work, A Design, was a “striking composition and … a bit breathless.” “Arts and Artists,” Chicago Tribune, 5/16/1926, p.G4.

[13] La Tour Papers.

[14] Helen West Heller, “Modern Art for the Sensitive Observer,” Chicago Evening Post, Magazine of the Art World, 3/9/1926, p.12.

[15] “Many Fine Art Exhibits Shown,” Wisconsin State Journal, Vol. 129, No. 90, 12/31/1926, p.2. [IHAP].

[16] “In Memory of the Late Hamilton Easter Field,” Chicago Evening Post, Magazine of the Art World, 4/6/1926, p.4. Field traveled to Europe in 1894 to study art, and when he returned, he commissioned Pablo Picasso to paint murals for his Brooklyn Heights home, next door to which was his own art gallery. Maurice Sterne, The Arts, January 1923, p.6.

[17] Hamilton E. Field, The Arts, February 1922, p.314, and “At the Independent,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, 3/19/1922, p.42.

[18] “Elect New Officers of Chicago Society,” Chicago Evening Post, 5/11/1926, p.3.

[19] For more information on the organization see,

[20] “The Science of Color a Modern Development,” (an essay), Labor Day, 1937. Garlinghouse papers.

[21] “Art Commission Buys Heller Water Color,” Chicago Evening Post Magazine of the Art World, 6/7/1927, p.4.

[22] Ethel Freedson, “Life’s Subtle Phases in Mrs. Heller’s Art,” Chicago Evening Post, 11/22/1927, p.5.

[23] Clarence J. Bulliet, Apples & Madonnas: Emotional Expression in Modern Art, (New York: P. Covici, Inc., 1927), p.217.

[24] R. Wilson, Index of American Print Exhibitions, 1882‐1940, (Metuchen, NJ and London: Scarecrow Press, Inc., 1988), p.268.

[25] “Random Notes About Art and Artists,” The Chicago Evening Post Magazine of the Art World, 6/12/1928, p.3. IHAP

[26] The Chicago Evening Post Magazine of the Art World, 5/7/1929, p.8. The work was being shown at the University of Chicago bookstore. IHAP.

[27] “Juries Select Show of Illinois Academy,” Chicago Evening Post Magazine of the Art World, 4/3/1928, p.4.

[28] In the collection today are: Cotton Picking; Reforestation; Corn Husking; Intersection of Three Streets; Hooves, and Nude With Tree. A. R. Crook, “State Museum,” State of Illinois Twelfth Administrative Report of the Directors Department Under the Civil Administrative Code, For the year July 1, 1928 to June 30, 1929, Vol. 12, p.1062. “State Provides Purchase Fund For Illinois Art,” The Chicago Evening Post Magazine of the Art World, 7/3/1928, p.3. IHAP.

[29] “Helen West Heller’s Work Sold in Paris,” Chicago Evening Post, Magazine of the Art World, 9/11/1928, p.5. One of the prints was an abstract depiction a baseball game, which may have baffled French viewers, but is remarkable for projecting important aspects of the sport.

[30] C.J. Bulliet, “Helen West Heller’s Work in Book Form,” Chicago Evening Post, Magazine of the Art World, 12/4/1928, p.7. Bulliet said, “She knows how to give the impression of immensity in space less than the size of a post card.”

[31] Op. cit., HWH letter to Fay Gold, 10/18/1954.

[32] Many decades later Meine posted a note saying he couldn’t remember anything about the printing at Hogarth Press in “November 1928” asking readers to enlighten him if anyone knew anything about it. “A Lost Printer,” Chicago Tribune, 4/5/1959, part 4, p.15.

[33] Meine was president of the Society of Midland Authors, and who, with a neighbor, assembled the largest collection of Helen’s works ever formed.

[34] N. Matsoukas,“The Art of Helen West Heller,” The Forge: A Journal of Verse, Spring 1929, pp.70‐73. Irwin Tucker, Chicago Evening Post, 12/10/ 1929, p.3 said: “In the little basement studio on Wisconsin Avenue she is fighting along a new line, pioneering in the direction of an abstract expression of pictorial truth. It is sometimes a little hard to follow, but it is fascinating to watch.”

[35] Eleanor Jewett, “Art Show at U. of C.; Various Other Displays as the Week Opens,” Chicago Tribune, 2/3/1930, p.23.

[36] Marion Tibbits, “Futuristic Art Exhibition at the Little Theatre,” No source, no date New York Public Library artist file H235/C2. IHAP. The address is given in Eleanor Jewett, “Chicago Artist’s Show at Institute,” Chicago Tribune, 2/9/1930, part 8, p.9. IHAP.

[37] Eleanor Jewett, “These Two Artists Mingle Mystic Ideas with Their Pigments,” Chicago Tribune, 2/5/1930, p.31. IHAP. Jewett made similar comments in reviewing the 1930 No‐Jury Society of Artists show. Eleanor Jewett, “No Jury Exhibit Turns Conservative,” Chicago Tribune, 1/19/ 1931, part 8, p.6. IHAP. Some critics thought her work genius, but they were not the ones buying her art. See for example K. Krueger, “Malerei und Plastik,” Sonntagpost (Chicago), 2/9/1930, p.8: “concentrated life in all her works, gripping in its depiction and marvelous in its execution …lithographs, woodcuts, pastels … an experience of stirring effort, as if one had looked into the innermost depths of the soul of a struggling artist.” (Translated by Claudia Frosch, May 2007). Also, another critic said she was: “a distinguished, modernist painter…follows her own ways, not caring about trends or tendencies…. She has humor, which, however, borders on satire …bestows the highest values upon her paintings. K. Krueger, “Malerei und Plastik,” Sonntagpost, 8/10/1930, p.8. (Translated by Claudia Micelli March 2012). See also: Tom Vickerman, “Tigress Tactics of Mrs. Heller Offset,” Chicago Evening Post Magazine of the Art World, 7/22/1930, p.3.

[38] Peggy Wolf, Chicago Evening Post, 7/1/1930, p.3.

[39] Dated “July 1930”, no source, New York Public Library artist file H235/C2.

[40] D. Rowland, ed. Contes de Maupassant, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1930). Two years later she illustrated, E. Dodge and M. Viereck, Etwas Neues, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1932).

[41] HWH letter to Bella Schaeffer, 2/22/1954, Schaeffer Papers. The date of this letter is estimated.


One of the most important Chicago commentators on Modern art at the time was J. Z. Jacobson, who later published Art of Today Chicago 1933, highlighting fifty-two Chicago Modernist artists. He speculated as to how accurately, a person ignorant of Helen’s work, could adduce her personality. He found something “Chagallish” [Marc Chagall (1887-1985)] about Girl of the Night but said it was characteristically “Hellerish” and “distinctly American.” He continued, “… for all its expressionism is distinctly American…Mrs. Heller’s work is a satirical or ironical criticism of life – after the fashion, say, of Eugene O’Neill’s plays.… But her conscious efforts at humor in individual pieces are as such not eminently successful.”[1]


Commenting on Helen’s work at the Walden shop in the Palmolive Building, critic Eleanor Jewett said, “two of the most skillfully handled arrangements in the gallery.… the lines and planes weave into each other, resulting in a riddle that it is a task of sheer delight to unravel.” The critic added that the artist lived part of her time in a “land of pure fantasy.”[2] Later in 1930 Helen’s woodcut Jain was accepted by the jury for the Second Annual Exhibition of Lithographs and Wood Engravings at the Art Institute, with favorable comment by Jewett.[3] First prize was awarded to Claire Leighton (1898-1989), whom Helen later called “the excruciatingly rotten woodcut illustrator.”[4] A few months later her work was juried into the Brooklyn Museum’s American and European Water Color Exhibit. Her print, Horses Grazing at Night, was termed a “nice, fantastic flight.”[5]


She appears to have been without religion or faith. In one letter she commented that all days were “equally holy” to her, and, at Christmastime, she sent to some people “Solstice” greetings or gifts.[6] In another letter she complained about the spate of Jewish holidays.[7] In two oil paintings, Jacob’s Angel and Jacob and his Sheep, (Indianapolis Museum of Art), and in one small woodcut, Susannah and the Elders, she copied Old Testament themes. A favorable review of her entry in the Renaissance Society’s Festival of Religious Art: Religious Art By Artists of Chicago and Environs, stated “Helen West Heller’s designs for mosaics adopt the Byzantine method, but bring it to a spirit as far removed as the poles from the stereotyped, machine-like formulas of that old school.[8]


In October 1931 Knoedler’s of Chicago showed Helen’s art, and columnist Bulliet commented that “when Chicago and the world get round to a recognition of her genius, [she] will be rated among the significant mystics of paint, of all ages of the world and all lands.” He continued that she was, “easily the superior of Arthur B. Davies….” Again, there were references to mysticism and symbolism.[9] A German-language review stated: “As always Mrs. West Heller’s outstanding spirituality [perhaps ‘intellectuality;’ translator’s note] shows in all these paintings as well. She does not paint any reality, does not copy what she sees. … she magically brings her ideas onto the canvas … and knows how to capture the observer. … Predominantly featured … are major social problems.”[10] The show at Knoedler’s was to be her last in Chicago.


With little support from art buying patrons, she, like so many Chicago artists before her, moved to New York, and by March 1932, was living in Brooklyn.[11] A sympathetic farewell and tribute appeared in the Chicago Daily News, undoubtedly written by Bulliet:


“They say that Helen West Heller has left Chicago at last, gone east to see if people there will look at her pictures and understand them, as Chicagoans have never seemed to look or understand or even care very much about the work of the most devoted woman artist the city could claim. I hope she has. I hope that the east makes her at home. And I hope that when the next Chicagoan says what has been said so often, (‘Why do our good artists leave us? Why are there no more great artists in Chicago?’) someone will explain about Helen West Heller as the latest of many who have migrated because even artistic prophets starve to death in their own country.” [12]


A different sort of Bon Voyage appeared two months later:


By her departure for the supposedly more appropriate art center of New York, Helen West Heller has managed to stir up quite a rumpus in local art circles this winter. A devotee of hers on one of the evening papers [Bulliet] thinks The Chicagoan ought to do something about it, point out to the town, I suppose, how cruel we are to let her go – as if Miss Heller were our only genius for whose neglect, we are someday going to be sorry! … [She] did achieve some original and artistic effects in water color. That medium lent itself to her whimsical color sense. However, in her oils and block prints she seemed handicapped by an evident lack of training.[13]


By this time, some of her works had made their way to Europe. In a letter to Albert Reese, she mentioned exhibiting in the Hagenbund in Vienna, which often showed art rebels opposed to the local establishment. Her woodcut, Mother of Mankind, (Indianapolis Museum of Art), bears a marginal notation, “Vienna 1930.” Her lithograph, Two Nudes (Art Institute of Chicago) bears the same inscription. [14]


She arrived in New York City with a list of contacts given to her by husband Roger, but confessed later that “I was too starved and ill-dressed to contact them all.”[15] She did reconnect with former Ferrer Center friend, Carl Zigrosser (1891-1975).[16] He assembled a show entitled Fifty Modern Prints of 1932 and included Helen’s work entitled Jain.[17] A critic had this to say: “a pleasant–looking woman who might have been a small town grandmother…sat serenely amid the…long-haired young men…. Shabby, but meticulously neat …one of her woodcuts was the first thing sold.”[18]


It is possible that Helen moved to Brooklyn in the same year, 1932, that the Brooklyn Museum gave her a one-artist show. A reviewer described her as “essaying fantastic themes in oils,” and presenting “a set of three mosaic designs.”[19] The show was followed by another at the Grant Studios in Brooklyn Heights.[20] Several months after relocating, she wrote to critic Eleanor Jewett comparing New York and Chicago saying “There is an advantage here in that there is always one more place at which one may seek and be refused work; one doesn’t have to sit in his studio and starve. He can do his dying in the street.”[21]


Between November 1929 and July 1935, Helen’s woodcuts appeared in the literary Golden Book Magazine. It suffered during the Depression, however, and expensive illustrations eventually vanished. Some twenty years later she recounted the difficult times during the Great Depression. “I made a determined effort to find illustrating to do when I first returned east. That was [the] depth of the depression. The ONLY offer of work I received was to do some pornographic work.”[22]


In the summer of 1933, Columbia University hosted Helen’s one-artist show in Philosophy Hall.[23] One suspects the hand of Carl Zigrosser and early connections between Columbia and the Ferrer Center.[24] Robert Godsoe reviewed the exhibition and wrote, “It is quite likely that sometime, when her things are understood and properly appraised, this current exhibition will be considered one of the important art moments of our decade.”[25]


The 1933 American Art Annual listed Helen as a “painter, craftsman, writer, block printer, illustrator, lithographer, and a member of the Design League of Chicago.” Also, in 1933, she was listed in the Catalogue of the First Annual Exhibition of Contemporary Woodcuts published by the woodcut society of Kansas City. Her three works were The Barker, East Wind, and Plowman of India, all known today. The connection to Kansas City may have been a consequence of her 1920s association with artist Birger Sandzen at Lindsborg.


In 1934 she moved to an upstairs flat at 732 E. 6th Street in lower Manhattan, where she would live for the remainder of her life.[26] The quarters consisted of “two, tiny cold rooms,” that came to be filled from top to bottom with her artwork.[27] Around this time, Helen met Helen Voss Brinck, later Mrs. Garlinghouse, who was thirty-five years her junior. For the remainder of the artist’s life, Garlinghouse was a source of self-sacrificing support. She sold Helen’s prints from a home gallery, provided everyday comforts, volunteered for typing tasks, referred potential patrons, and arranged at least one exhibition. Helen taught her friend to make mosaics and kept up a copious correspondence, highly valuable in researching the artist’s life.


The next year, she met Onya La Tour (1896-1976), a flamboyant intimate of many artists, gallery owner, prodigious diarist, and, until she visited the Soviet Union, a Communist. In one diary entry it was La Tour’s opinion that Helen’s distress over articles in The Daily Worker were spoiling her painting and washing out her color.[28] One of two known artistic representations of Helen was executed in a studio shared by La Tour and Philip Ayer Sawyer (1877-1949), a Chicago artist living mainly in Paris and New York. (The drawing is the cover illustration of this author’s definitive biography of Helen.)[29] Early that summer, La Tour transported Helen’s painting Troupeau du Ciel to Paris for the Salone d’Automne.[30]


The autumn 1934 issue of the avant-garde magazine Latin Quarter-ly published two of Helen’s woodcuts. The issue also included a tribute to the artist and her pre-World War I connection to Greenwich Village. “Helen West Heller, who knew this Bohemian scene before some of us were summoned from nowhere…is showing her things around, not as much as she’d like to or should, but happily attracting some mild attention…. Her show at the Brooklyn Museum some years ago was a failure because the critics who came did not comprehend…. Two shows last summer still failed to arouse them….[31]


A Washington, D.C. newspaper mistakenly cited her as present at the Autumn Salon in Paris. Her painting, Troupeau du Ciel, was one of only two mentioned by title in the article and was described as “a symbolic composition,” leaving one to speculate on the nature of the work.[32]


Ever experimental, Helen exhibited frescos, a new medium for her, at Robert Godsoe’s Gallery Secession.[33] Her one-artist show was reviewed by Joseph Solman, who would later become her friend and a collector of her work. He wrote, “[In] the one-man exhibit…one finds an extraordinary sense of movement, whether confined to animals, men in action, or one drowsing…. While her sense of color is not always tasteful, she will always feel a certain rhythmic power and imagination. Her woodcuts… combine a meticulous technique with a receptivity to phantasy [sic].”[34]

A flyer for that show, presumably composed by Godsoe, stated:


…we puzzle over her, not comprehending that never-new principles combine with her new vision and an incalculable science to motivate her production. I think she can rest assured of her future recognition, a devout painter filled with aesthetic religiosity. She stands with the titans of her period, her acclaim very late, but her superb accomplishment complete and irrefutable.”[35]


The exhibition attracted several critics, one of whom mentioned her work with what appeared to be mural studies in egg tempera, likely precursors to her work with the Federal Art Project.[36] While participation in the Works Project Administration gave her some much-needed exposure, it gave her, like so many artists, much-needed income. Another reviewer said, facetiously, “Awed by Mr. Godsoe’s pronouncement that ‘she stands with the titans of her period,’ one approaches…with trepidations and ends by deciding to let it go at that until the greater light dawns – if it ever does.” [37] The reviewer said that many of the works were Federal Art Project studies for murals.[38] Helen would execute for the WPA paintings, prints, and murals.


[1] J.Z. Jacobson, “Art,” The Chicagoan, Vol. 9, No. 11, 8/16/1930, p.36. IHAP. In the same publication her mysticism was referred to once again. Phillip Nesbit, “Helen West Heller,” The Chicagoan, Vol. 9, No. 11, 8/16/1930, p.35. IHAP.

[2] Eleanor Jewett, “Gay Squirrels, Serious Minded Birds Art Show Features,” Chicago Tribune, 12/9/1930, p.23.

[3] Eleanor Jewett, “Art Institute,” Chicago Daily Tribune, 12/5/1930, p.26.

[4] Op. cit., HWH letter to Fay Gold, 10/18/1955.

[5] Parnassus, Vol.3, No.2, Feb 1931, p.42.

[6] Op. cit., HWH letter to Fay Gold, 10/15/1955.

[7] Op. cit., HWH letter to Bella Schaeffer, 2/22/1954.

[8] Exhibition Of Religious Art By Artists Of Chicago And Environs, (Chicago: Renaissance Society of the University of

Chicago, 1931). It would be many years later that she translated the designs into actual mosaics.

[9] C.J. Bulliet, “Helen West Heller Symbolist of Real Genius,” Chicago Evening Post Art World Magazine, 10/20/1931, Art Section, p.8.

[10] K. Krueger, “The Realm of Pictures,” Sonntagpost, undated, New York Public Library artist file H235/C2, translated by Claudia Micelli, March 2011.

[11] C. J. Bulliet, “Helen West Heller Moves to Brooklyn” in “Artless Comments,” Chicago Daily News, 3/22/1932. The unexpectedly cursory piece gave her new address, identified as the one‐time home of her maternal grandfather, and named dealer, John Becker, as her representative in New York. That name never again appeared in documents pertaining to her.

[12] The Previewer, “Helen West Heller Leaves to Seek Wider Public: Answer to Those Who Ask Why We Have No Great Artists,” Chicago Daily News, 2/25/1932, p.13.

[13] Marguerite Williams, The Chicagoan, April 1932, p.43.

[14] Albert Reese Letters, 1946‐1949, reels 1393‐94, p.7, AAA. Anne Newport, Victoria and Albert Museum, London, Private Communication, 2006.

[15] HWH letter to Bella Schaeffer, 3/10/1954, Schaeffer Papers.

[16] Carl Zigrosser (1891–1975) was an art dealer best known for running the New York Weyhe Gallery in the 1920s and 1930s, and as Curator of Prints and Drawings at the Philadelphia Museum of Art between 1940 and 1963. In the 1910s, he was active in New York’s anarchist movement. Quoted from accessed 2/2/2021.

[17] Op. cit. HWH letter to Bella Schaeffer, 3/10/1954. Zigrosser became Curator of Prints and Drawings at the Philadelphia Museum in 1941.

[18] Op. cit., New York Evening Post, 4/19/1933, p.19.

[19] Edward Alden Jewell, “Art In Review: Brooklyn Museum Will Open Four Exhibitions Today,” New York Times, 6/16/1932, p.19. There are several references to this exhibit including: “Three Horsemen,” Brooklyn Museum Quarterly, October 1932, New York Public Library artist file H235/C2; Rose Mary Fisk, “Chicago Art Reaches N. Y. Via Brooklyn, Chicago Evening Post, 7/5/1932, Art Section, p.7, and Eleanor Jewett, “Annual Summer Doldrums Now Being Experience by Artists, Chicago Galleries, and the Institute,” Chicago Tribune, 7/3/1932, part 6, p.4. IHAP.

[20]“Art Roster: Exhibitions Opened Recently Here,” New York Times, 9/11/1932, p.5X.

[21] Op. cit., Jewett, Chicago Tribune, 7/3/1932, part 6, p.4.

[22] Op. cit., HWH Letter to Bella Schaeffer, 2/20/1954.

[23] Weekly Bulletin, Columbia University, 7/24 to 7/30, 1933, p.2.

[24] Ferrer’s first Head, Bayard Boyesen, and Zigrosser, both came from Columbia.

[25] R. Godsoe, “The Arts Mart,” Whitestone Herald (Long Island), 7/13/ 1933, p.9.

[26] HWH observed that it was not a “healthy” destination late at night. HWH letter to Helen Voss Brink (Garlinghouse), 1/19/1936. She noted many years later that her “Mexican Indian” neighbors upstairs used their bathtub as a garbage receptacle and flooded her storage room. HWH letter to Helen Garlinghouse, 11/29 or 11/30/1952.

[27] Fay Gold letter to Lincoln Rothschild, 1/9/1955, Fay Gold Papers. For other information during this time see Richard Ederheimer Papers, 1892‐1959, AAA.

[28] From a diary entry on Thanksgiving Day 1937, we know Helen met her biographer Ernst Harms through La Tour. La Tour Papers. The largest public collection of Helen’s work was donated by Harms to the Metropolitan Museum in 1955. La Tour had a certain affection for Helen, writing in her diary around October 1938: “My acquaint, admiration and love for Helen West Heller is much to [sic] extensive to be outlined in this space.”

[29] L. Stanfel, Uncompromising Souls, (N. Charleston, SC: Create Space Independent Publishing Platform, 2015). The work was completed on 6/12/1934.

[30] Diary entry 6/28/1934. She opened the La Tour Gallery at 596 Riverside Drive on 10/22/1936. Helen signed the visitor log that date and was one of those featured at the opening. La Tour Papers.

[31] Latin Quarter-ly, Vol.1, No. 3, Autumn, 1934, p.167.

[32] Andre Vulliet, “Americans on the Continent,” Washington Post, 11/18/1934, p.S2.

[33] Robert Ulrich Godsoe was head of the exhibition division of the WPA Federal Art Project and director of the Uptown Gallery. Sometime in 1934 he opened his own gallery. accessed 12/1/2020.

[34] Joseph Solman, The Art News, Vol. 33, 12/22/1934, p.12. Solman was born in 1909 in Vitebsk, Russia, Chagall’s hometown and was active in New York up to his death. In a private interview with the author, 6/24/2006, he remembered her as pleasant, very modest, and never given to complaint, which latter assessment contrasts markedly with the tone of some of her letters. He remembered the Chicago journalist, C.J. Bulliet, and mentioned on several occasions that Helen made a big mistake returning to New York City; that she had been respected and successful in Chicago.

[35] New York Public Library artist file H235/C2, dated by the artist, January 1935.

[36] H. De Vree, New York Times, 12/23/1934, p.8X.

[37] No source, 12/27/1934, New York Public Library artist file H235/C2.

[38] For information on her WPA work see: “Records of the U.S. General Services Administration,” Francis O’Connor Papers, reel 1089, AAA. She was paid about $90 per month for some six years.


In 1935 Helen began work on a mural for the Children’s Ward at Neponsit Beach Hospital (Queens, NY). Consisting of over twenty-three panels, it was intended to show handicapped children engaging in everyday activities.[1] One description of the work stated, “…funds will be spent for the benefit of the crippled children…with murals designed to assist in the psychological readjustment of the young patients and to bring a little color and fun into their lives….”[2] At the end of that year, Helen’s new friend, Helen Voss Brinck, opened a part-time gallery in her basement, which she called “Gallery Innovation.” Her first show featured the Helen’s work.[3]


The Artists’ Union of New York, then a left-wing organization, wrote of Helen’s painting stating: “While the religious mysticism of German Expressionism is alien to us, its activism is a vehicle suited to American vitality…. not possible to predict what forms American Expressionism may take, but we already have a few painters working in Expressionist form…. Helen West Heller’s painting is a link between that older Expressionism and the present…”[4] Her enigmatic woodcut, Reforestation, had been exhibited by the American Artists’ Congress and was one of a hundred prints selected for a book. While it appears to have some mild distortion, it would not be considered Abstract Expressionism by today’s standards.[5]


In December 1936, it was announced that the government would cut back on its funding for artists suffering from the Depression. A large body of artists, including Helen, rioted, with almost daily disturbances.[6] Some weeks later Helen wrote “…our terrifically huge demonstration is safely over; the manners of the police were impeccable.”[7] However, in a union publication it was stated, likely to sensationalize the events, that there was “wholesale clubbing and eviction of 219 artists.”[8] Another writer reported that “…Helen West Heller… [and others] were brutally beaten.”[9]


Early in 1939, the hospital mural, already shown several times in various stages of completion, received final approval from the New York Art Commission.[10] One of the panels was illustrated in the press, and an unveiling reception was held in June.[11] However, Helen later wrote: “There was no preceding publicity; only a handful of people attended…. There was an enormous quantity of these invitations in the office after the event. It is probable that only a few were mailed out…. I was asked to deliver an address and prepared a brief talk which Diller prevented me from delivering.”[12] The small controversy was apparently because the administrators wanted to close the federal program.


Early in 1940, La Tour inaugurated a most ambitious project. She acquired 118 acres in Brown County, Indiana, to be used for her new Indiana Museum for Modern Art.[13] The initial exhibition opened on June 1 and was dedicated to four of La Tour’s artist friends, including Helen, whose art comprised a large portion of La Tour’s collection.[14]


As the United States was about to enter World War II, there was a second call for an American Artists’ Congress in 1941 and Helen was among those who signed a petition addressing the sufferings of artists as well as denouncing fascism.[15] The following year, David Seltzer (1904-1994), who wrote for assorted leftist Jewish publications, published Bronzviler gezang (Brownsville chant), for which Helen executed all but one of the woodcut illustrations. Written in Yiddish, it was meant to depict life in the Jewish Brooklyn section of Brownsville.[16]


In 1944 Helen won a third purchase prize at the Library of Congress National Exhibition of Prints for Blind Color Grinders.[17] In 1947 she won a purchase prize there for her woodcut of Negro heads entitled Shouts to the Night.[18] And in 1949 she was one of three artists to win an award in the same annual exhibition, for her work Nocturne, illustrated in the frontice of the catalog.[19] Between 1945 and 1953 (except 1947) her woodblock prints were also accepted at the National Academy of Design annual exhibitions, where she became an Associate Academician in 1948.[20]


In 1947 the Oxford University Press published Helen’s second book, Woodcuts, U.S.A., designed and produced by her good friend and fellow artist, John Begg (1903-1974). There were two versions, one with sixteen woodcuts and the other with twenty, each representing an activity or occupation typical in the United States. Each print was faced by a page with a short passage from poets such as of T.S. Eliot, Carl Sandburg, and Robert Frost. A feature of the little book is the laudatory foreword by printmaker John Taylor Arms (1887-1953): “My eye was caught by a series. of woodcuts that by their brilliance of execution. claimed instant attention.”[21] It is possible that sale of the book in New York was handled by Dauber & Pine, a book dealer on Fifth Avenue.[22]


The Smithsonian Institute showed thirty-five of her prints in a solo exhibition in 1949. While she asked that the museum purchase a group, they purchased only one print. In a generous recognition of the exhibit, she donated eight titles, now housed in the Graphic Arts Collection.[23] In a letter to Remington Kellogg, its Director, she explained her process of using graving tools in wood to create detail, and the use of hand-pressed paper to create unique impressions.[24] That year she donated two works, Saint Francis Singing, and Creation, to the New York Public Library in honor of the opening of the “New Gallery” there.[25]


In 1951 her woodblock print was part of a show contributed by the Library of Congress to the Berlin Cultural Festival, featuring the first group of American art in post-war Germany.[26] That year she lamented unsuccessful entries in various group exhibitions: “I’m consistently rejected by all juries [for] paintings, prints, probably will do no more painting.” She said she had been excluded from a recent Library of Congress show because “The juries are all made up of teachers, who swap favors and fill all exhibitions with pupils’ work. This has become a national racket.”[27]


In 1952 she returned to color prints creating a series of eleven, heavy with symbolism and zodiacal relationships.[28] By this time, she had stored many of her works with friends for safekeeping.[29] However, it’s likely, save for a few pieces here and there, these works were destroyed through the years by her friends and their descendants.


In 1953 the Carl Schurz Memorial Foundation sent questionnaires to artists of German descent.[30] A letter from Helen to Edythe Ferris at the foundation thanks her arranging a mention in the Philadelphia Enquirer, with the additional information that: “It has been a long time since I have had a line of publicity…. And will you believe it has been years since I have sold an engraving? 1951 and ’52 I devoted to color prints…. These are selling. After this divergence I returned to my major interest, painting…. On March first I set about putting my Engravings in order. There are just short of 400 items.” [31]


On Independence Day, 1954, Helen, a member of Artists Equity Association, wrote a pitiable letter an officer of the organization, Henri Bella Schaeffer: “At [the Museum of Modern Art] Mr. Andrew C. Ritchie was a new man last autumn. He is the man to contact in any effort to persuade [them] to buy a complete line of my engravings…or do anything for me. I wish Mr. Walker would come to my shop and look at my paintings. I suppose they both have cars?”[32]


In January the following year, Helen sent a depressing message to Fay Gold, who had been her friend for some ten years: “…It breaks my heart to see everything recognizable abolished – and endless rows of topless towers shutting out the sun and the stars…. I am really growing old, and my heart is broken and my courage weakening. I was always hungry in Chicago and I have until recently starved even worse in New – York…. Could you come to see me?... This last year has been very sad.”[33]


In 1955, her print Alabama Biochemist (George Washington Carver) was illustrated in The Making of the Modern World. In a way, this was late recognition of Helen’s genius as a printmaker; included in a book alongside of world-recognized modern artists.[34] It is not clear when, but Helen had become friends with Fanny Ress, referring to her as someone she could trust. It was evident from a letter that Fanny had replaced Mrs. Garlinghouse as the artist’s principal friend and “charge d ’affairs.”[35]


In Helen’s last known letter, she invited Fay Gold to come for a visit to see a half-dozen new, small oil paintings also mentioning that an autobiography was underway and that she would send installments.[36] On November 19, 1955 Helen passed quietly at Bellevue Hospital after having arrived a day earlier. It is unknown if she was taken by a friend or an ambulance.


Among the Garlinghouse papers is a small slip headed “Information given to me at the time of H.W.H death.” It contains details such as the date and place of burial, that a memorial was or should be “created” at the National Academy of Design, that Helen’s artwork was removed from her apartment by the New York City Police, and that a public sale of her works might be conducted.[37] A large body of her work has never been located, so it is likely that he works were discarded after her death.


Ten days after death, a newspaper item noted that her unclaimed body remained in the morgue and that she had been living on “city relief,” obviously dying virtually penniless. Funeral arrangements were made by Artists Equity and the city welfare department.[38] Her husband Roger, estranged for at least thirty-four years, had been contacted and set out for New York, but didn’t reach the city until after she was interred.[39] He died twenty years later in Bethlehem, PA.[40]


Helen’s biographer and friend, Ernst Harms, had intended to work with Roger to collect material for a book and possibly an exhibition writing that he would finance the operation himself. However, he ran into significant resistance from Fanny Ress and her husband who threatened legal action, for reasons unknown.[41]


Shortly after her death a memorial exhibition was organized by the Society of American Graphic Artists in 1956, although one newspaper noted only that her work, along with two other recently deceased printmakers was “characteristic” and shown in a “small memorial section.”[42] Three years later the Montclair Art Museum in New Jersey held an exhibition of Helen’s work, without much acclaim other than several weekly notices in the local newspaper.[43] For some fifty years, this highly innovative artist, who had much acclaim during her lifetime, faded off into the realm of those long forgotten.


The most comprehensive posthumous show of her art, organized and co-curated by this author, wasn’t until 2016 at the Birger Sandzen Memorial Gallery, Lindsborg, KS.[44] The exhibition included woodblock prints and a selection of books and magazines where her works were illustrated. Today, her works are held by many museums including among others the: National Gallery of Art;[45] Metropolitan Museum of Art; Whitney Museum of American Art; Brooklyn Museum; Library of Congress; The British Museum; Yale University Art Gallery; Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, and the Indianapolis Museum of Art.


[1] The commission was announced in, “Murals Approved of 5 WPA Artists,” New York Times, 10/23/1935, p.17.

One of the panels was illustrated in “For Children In The Hospital,” New York Times, 5/7/1939, p.8D. IHAP. One panel was illustrated in “Ellen P. O’Bryan,” Hygeia, Vol. 17, No. 3, May 1939, p.408.

[2] “WPA Art to Cheer Crippled Children,” New York Times, 11/18/1935, p.19. In 1938, Helen and other artists created designs for the Columbus Circle subway station, which were mounted in large station models and shown at the Museum of Modern Art, the Transportation Workers Union, and the National Society of Mural Painters. Due to funding, the commission never came to fruition. “Subway Art,” New Masses, 2/22/1938. This work was illustrated in “Here’s A Preview of Art That May Grace Subway,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, 2/9/1939, p.5. [IHAP].

[3] An announcement card for the exhibition is found in the Garlinghouse papers.

[4] Charmion Von Wiegand, “Expressionism and Social Change,” Art Front, Vol. 2, No. 10, 1936, pp.10‐13.

[5] America Today, Equinox Cooperative Press, New York, 1936, plate 63.

[6] “Relief Riots,” Art Digest, 12/15/1936, p.13.

[7] HWH letter to Helen Voss Brinck, 1/9/1937.

[8] M. Neuwirth, “219,” Art Front, January 1937, p.4

[9] Alejandro Anreus et. al., ed., The Social and the Real: Political Art of the 1930s in the Western Hemisphere, (Penn State University Press, 2006), p.193.

[10] “Other Shows,” New York Times, 1/15/1939, p.10X.

[11] Catherine MacKenzie, “Children and Parents,” New York Times, 5/7/1939, p.8D. IHAP. A photograph of the reception, in the author’s collection, is annotated in the artist’s hand, “June 1939.” Also, unidentified clipping, New York Public Library Print Room File on Helen West Heller specifies “Last Thursday” as the date of the reception; 6/29/1939 was a Thursday.

[12] 1941‐1974 section concerning HWH, no date, n.p., c.1954, Schaeffer Papers. Burgoyne Diller (1906-1965) was an abstract painter and Director of the New York Federal Art Gallery.

[13] A. Scherer, “Our Town,” Indianapolis Times, no date, n.p. La Tour Papers.

[14] Eleanor Jewett, Hoosier Salon Opens Its 16th Annual Exhibit,” Chicago Tribune, 1/28/1940, part 8, p.5. [IHAP]. “Modern Art and Artists,” La Tour Papers. Seventy‐six of five hundred works were by Helen. Also, among the La Tour Papers is a typed note, dated 1969, prefacing a partial catalog. The note states that the group of Helen’s works then was about half its original size, because some had been sold and others had been lost to a fire in 1962.

[15] Matthew Baigell and Julia Williams, eds., Artists against War and Fascism: Papers of the First American Artists’ Congress, (Rutgers University Press, 1986), p.3.

[16] Stephen Spielberg Digital Yiddish Library, National Yiddish Book Center, Amherst, MA. See also:‐seltser‐david‐seltzer.html accessed 11/22/2020. Their collaboration was featured in a synagogue press issue: Martin Cohen, “Migratory Urge: Bessarabia, Brownsville, and Canton, Illinois,” Tikvah Times, Vol. 10, Issue 7, March 2018, New Hyde Park, NY, p.14. Her illustrations also appeared two years later in his second book, Di Oysgebenkte Sho (The Longed‐for Hour). Her illustrations had appeared in Yiddish language publications such as Morgen Freiheit and its monthly magazine Der Hammer (The Hammer), and Funken. The New York city‐based Morgen Freiheit (Morning Freedom) was a daily newspaper affiliated with the Communist Party founded in 1922. Funken was a Socialist magazine published between 1933 and 1936, by the National Executive Committee of the Jewish Workers Clubs of America. accessed 11/25/2020.

[17]Catalog of the 2nd National Exhibition of Prints Made During the Current Year, (Washington: The Library of Congress, 5/1/1944), p.2. IHAP.

[18]Catalog of the Sixth National Exhibition of Prints Made During the Current Year, (Washington: The Library of Congress, 5/15/1948), p.9.

[19]Catalog of the Seventh National Exhibition of Prints Made During the Current Year, (Washington: The Library of Congress, 5/1/1949), frontice, n.p. IHAP.

[20] Catalogs of the NAD, New York Public Library, New York, NY. Dr. Ernest Harms, “From Dark to Light: An appreciation of the life work of Helen West Heller, 1872‐1955,” American Artist, November 1957, p.30.

[21] Helen West Heller, Woodcuts U.S.A., (NY: Oxford University Press, 1947). The book is a simple pamphlet bound by heavy paper and stapled together. John Taylor Arms was a President of the Society of American Graphic Artists, and one of the country’s foremost printmakers.

[22]They are listed as her care of address in Who’s Who in American Art, Vol. IV, (The American Federation of Arts), 1947, p.219. IHAP.

[23] “Gallery Notes,” Washington Post, 4/10/ 1949, p.L3.‐west‐heller accessed 11/22/2020.

[24] HWH letter to Remington Kellogg, 4/9/1949, Schaeffer Papers. Many her works were illustrated during this time in the leftist magazine Masses and Mainstream.

[25] “News of the Month: Gifts: Art,” Bulletin of the New York Public Library, Vol. 53, 1949, p.196. IHAP. Previously eight prints had been gifted in 1933 by Cronyn and Lowndes Galleries in New York. Bulletin of the New York Public Library, Vol. 37, 1933, p.950.

[26] Foreign Service Dispatch, ICOG Berlin element to the Dept. of State, Washington, D.C., 9/26/1951, AAA.

[27] HWH letter to Garlinghouse, 12/20/1951.

[28] HWH letter to Garlinghouse, 5/26/1952.

[29] HWH letter to Garlinghouse, 7/16/1952, lists names and addresses where works were stored.

[30] Questionare dated 9/23/1953, Schaeffer Papers. She made a gift of eight wood engravings to the foundation, including some of her best‐known works. D. Haugaard, Director of Research Services at the foundation, confirmed to the author, in a letter dated July 2001, that her works were no longer there.

[31] HWH letter to Edythe Ferris, Schurz Foundation, 9/7/1954, Schaeffer Papers.

[32] HWH letter to Bella Schaeffer 7/4/1954, Schaeffer Papers. Andrew Carnduff Ritchie (1907‐1978) became Director of the Painting and Sculpture Department at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1949. Hudson Walker (1908‐1976) was the founding Executive Secretary of Artists’ Equity in New York.

[33] HWH letter to Fay Gold, 1/9/1955.

[34] Rirchard Munthie Brace, The Making of the Modern World, (New York: Rinehart, 1955), p.765.

[35] HWH letter to Garlinghouse, 5/9/1955.

[36] HWH letter to Fay Gold 10/21/1955.

[37] Garlinghouse papers.

[38] “Body of Artist, 83, Unclaimed 10 Days,” New York Times, 11/30/1955, p.36. IHAP.

[39] “Helen West Heller Dies,” Painter, Print Maker, New York Herald Tribune, 11/30/1955. New York Public Library artist file H235/C2. Burial was December 2, grave 100, section 70, Rosehill Cemetery, Linden, NJ.

[40]‐paul‐heller, accessed 11/22/2020. Roger was later institutionalized at age 70 and passed on October 10, 1975 at the age of 87.

[41] Ernst Harms letter to S(amuel) Michael Ress, 5/17/1956, Schaeffer Papers.

[42] Howard DeVree, “Progress in Prints,” New York Times, 4/15/1956, section x, p.9. See also In Honor of Helen West Heller Artist and Poet 1872-1955, (New York: Architectural League, 4/13/1956).

[43] “Museum Notes,” Montclair Times, 1/15/1959, p.4. [IHAP].

[44] Cori S. North, “The Art of a Prairie Child: Helen West Heller, 1872‐1955,” Traditional Fine Arts Organization, accessed 11/23/2020.

[45]‐info.25873.html accessed 12/1/2020.

bottom of page