ILLINOIS HISTORICAL ART PROJECT
No. 16 Helen West Heller
To Helen West Heller belongs the honor of having suggested the name for the “No-Jury” Society of Chicago artists, which, on Oct. 2, 1922, in the galleries of Marshall Field & Co., presented the first organized front of our “rebel” artists against the “academy” embodied in the Art Institute and all its works of evil and darkness. After a decade, the rebels and the academicians were so fraternizing that any job of unscrambling them was hopeless.
But in 1922 “No-Jury” was a “cause” to be fought and died for — figuratively.
Helen West Heller, besides being one of the most substantial of the rebel artists, was the poet of the movement. I doubt if the revolt of the artists anywhere in the world and at any time in the last century has had the services of a soul more fervid.
With the fervor is mingled tragedy — bits of autobiographical material she has supplied me from time to time are tinged with the bitterness of the commonplace you find in the Russian and Balkan novels.
“For seven years of the war and the ‘reconstruction’,” I find her writing, for instance, “three persons — a man, a woman, and a horse — slaved all day and most of the night on a ten-acre farm in central Illinois and won by their labors corn and fodder for the horse, and for the man and woman a little food, a few garments, and some books … The man delved into one language after another searching for sounds and their changing symbols; he always had a book in his coat pocket, even when climbing cherry trees; he made endless notes on discoveries, never promulgated, for books that were never written. Later he went about with a pocket of organ reeds, listening, testing, noting down the dialects of nature. The woman composed poems while she cleaned the stable, painted a few small pictures by light of a smoky lamp, and at long last built the packing boxes which conveyed the pictures to Chicago. To Chicago! She would better have dropped them down the unused well. … The Spanish-American war took my first lover and never returned him to me; the World War took the years of my idle life, which should have been my best working years; it took my faith in humanity; it caused the destruction of my one great love.”
The jury for the annual autumn exhibition at the Art Institute of Chicago in 1921 rejected paintings that had arrived from the Illinois farm in their rude packing cases. Helen West Heller, along with scores of other indignant artists, received a circular inviting her to participate in a “Salon des Refuses” to be staged at the Rothschild department store (now the Davis store). She accepted the invitation and it was there at the opening day reception that the little, gaunt farmwoman, with burning eyes, met Rudolph Weisenborn and the other organizers of the “salon” — and became a part of the art life of Chicago.
“I had come to Chicago,” Mrs. Heller writes me, “with the scheme of founding here a local society for exhibition of un-juried work and broached the idea to Mr. Weisenborn. He and others,” she hastens to add with becoming modesty, “had doubtless been cogitating the same scheme, and presently the organizing meeting took place and our dreams were coordinated in the first secessionist art society outside of New York.”
It was at this “organizing meeting” that she suggested the name “No-Jury,” which was accepted after some little debate.
“No-Jury” made plenty of noise from the outset, but most of the visitors went for diversion — to join in the howls of derision — and not to buy. “The following two years in Chicago were days of darkness” for the ex-farmerette.
Luneta Cooper, however, gave her a one-man show only a few weeks after her arrival in the now historic Walden Bookshop in Plymouth Court. Bookshops have been kind to Helen West Heller unto this day. It was another Chicago book dealer, Franklin Meine, who in 1928 brought out her book of poems and woodblocks, “Migratory Urge,” now a collector’s item. IT was the first “xylographic” book published in America, Mrs. Heller working from January to October in her basement studio in Lincoln Park West, cutting the woodblocks for both the illustrations and the text.
But Helen West Heller had come to Chicago to be a painter — and a painter she is still striving to be in Brooklyn, where she went to reside about the time the Great Depression began to gather momentum.
She had a sentimental feeling for Brooklyn dating back to her dream days (too often nightmares) on the Illinois farm. Hamilton Easter Field lived there all his career until his death in 1922. Field was founder of The Arts, a magazine devoted intelligently to the advancement of “modernism” in America. The Arts was Helen West Heller’s bible. She wrote notes of admiration and enthusiasm occasionally to Field, and he answered. Then in 1922, the year of Chicago’s first “No-Jury,” Helen West Heller submitted pictures also to the exhibition of the New York independents.
“Mr. Field, against prohibition of doctors, insisted upon writing on his sickbed a review of this exhibition, a review he was unable to finish; the last paragraph put down was a beautiful appreciation of my paintings.”
Brooklyn has been kind enough to her since she went there to reside, to give her a one-man show in the Brooklyn Museum, to hang a group of her gouaches in the museum’s most recent watercolor international, and to acquire some of her work for its permanent collection. The New York Public Library has bought a small group of her lithographs and woodcuts. An oil shown in the last Salon d’Automne, Paris, was sold to a collector in Puerto Rico. Watercolor abstractions were exhibited in Vienna in 1931. And recently, December-January this season of 1934-35, there was launched in lower Manhattan a little gallery secession built mainly around her paintings and operated by Robert Ulrich Godsoe. The little gray farmwife from Illinois, while not yet getting rich, is gradually emerging from obscurity.
Helen West Heller was born in Rushville, Ill., Oct. 12, 1872. Her father’s name was Barnhart, and he was of a family who had emigrated from Bavaria about 1730 to Pennsylvania. They were all skilled woodworkers, makers chiefly of wagons but also of furniture. Helen West Heller’s most prized possession, until a fire of a year ago, was a black walnut bookcase her father built.
Her earliest art contacts were Cruikshank’s illustrations in a set of Dickens’ novels. There were also colored lithographs of gentlemen and ladies cut from Godeys Magazine. On the walls were a few Currier and Ives prints, in “rustic” frames cut by the woodworkers in long evenings around the fires after the day’s work on the wagons.
In April 1923, when Helen West Heller wasn’t getting anywhere financially with her paintings, she bethought herself of her woodcutting ancestors. She got herself a jackknife and some other tools and went to work carving out a woodblock. Will Ransom, artist, helped her with suggestions, and Steen Hinrichsen, who operated a print shop, encouraged her. By 1925, she had become so proficient that she cut out her masterpiece in this medium, “Black Leopards,” a block of startling size. She took her place definitely among woodcutters, nationally as well as locally.
Whatever her rather abundant success, however, in black and while, Helen West Heller craves first consideration as a painter. She has given profound study, amazing in scope, to color and what color will do. She has experimented in strange and fantastic combinations and has devised gamuts of her own, sometimes difficult to follow. In color as well as in the subject matter of her painting, she is a mystic, too often obscure in symbolisms that mean much to herself but little to the uninitiated onlooker, but usually suggesting — even if vaguely — strange power. Her paintings are generally of people crushed under the mountainous woes of fate — people protesting, sometimes violently, sometimes passively, always in vain. The psychology may be that of herself, struggling against the obtuse indifference of her contemporaries to the genius she is convinced she is. Her hope is in posterity.