Thursday, December 17, 2015

Z. Vanessa Helder: Early Northwest Modernist

Z. Vanessa Helder (Paterson)
Zama Vanessa Helder was an American watercolor painter who gained national attention in the 1930s and 40s, primarily for her scenes in Eastern Washington. She painted with a bold, Precisionist style not commonly associated with watercolor, rendering landscapes, industrial scenes, and houses with a Magic Realist touch (an American style with Surrealist overtones) that gave the pieces a forlorn, isolated quality, somewhat in the manner of Charles Sheeler and Edward Hopper. I love her dynamic style!
For a number of years,  Helder's work was out of vogue and largely forgotten by the public, but the power of her artwork has gradually been rediscovered, particularly in the Pacific Northwest. The Tacoma Art Museum held an exhibition of her work in 2013, and the Northwest Museum of Art and Culture in Spokane has her twenty-two piece series relating to the construction of the Grand Coulee Dam - generally considered her masterwork - in its permanent collection.
Born in the town of Lynden near Bellingham, Washington, her somewhat eccentric family had an artistic bent whose interests included music, theosophy and astrology, Helder was an unconventional figure often found strolling Seattle's streets dressed in her finest attire with "Sniffy," her pet skunk in tow. She kept an unorthodox array of pets throughout her life (at one time making inquiries with various state agencies to find out if she could legally own a flying squirrel). 
Portrait of Blanche Luzader Morgan (Losey)
Z. Vanessa Helder
ca. 1939
Oil on masonite
Private collection
Her mother, passionate about art, gave Helder her first painting lessons at a young age and, eventually, she studied at the University of Washington. After graduation, Helder established herself as a well-known local watercolorist in the area. In 1934, she received a scholarship to the Art Students League in New York and studied with artist/educators Frank Vincent DuMond, George Picken, and Robert Brackman. During this time, Helder's work became more refined and she began to experiment with other mediums such as oil and lithogrpahy. In 1935, Helder was elected to the National Association of Women Painters and Sculptors club and in 1937, received a solo exhibition at the Grant Studios in New York. In addition, she won membership in the American Watercolor Society in 1943. 
Sand and Gravel Works Z. Vanessa Helder
ca. 1939-1941
After she moved back to the Pacific Northwest after her studies in New York, Helder became a member of the Women Painters of Washington (WPW) an organization created to provide an opportunity for women to network and overcome obstacles faced by women artists in the male-dominated art world. WPW is still active and lively-information about the organization, membership, and exhibitions can be found at 
Hallett House, Medical Lake Z. Vanessa Helder
ca. n.d.
When the Federal Art Projects began in 1933, members of the WPW became involved. The projects continued under the Works Progress Administration, established by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1939. Helder created a striking series of watercolors depicting the construction of the Grand Coulee Dam executed between 1939 and 1940.
Grand Coulee Dam Z. Vanessa Helder
ca. 1940
After relocating back to Seattle in 1941, Helder married industrial architect Robert J.S. "Jack" Paterson. Following the attack on Pearl Harbor, she joined the Washington State Artists Council for Defense. Helder continued exhibiting locally and nationally, and in 1943, reached a high point in her career when several of her works were selected for inclusion in American Realists and Magic Realists, a major exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York. 
Sea Shells - Blue and Gold Z. Vanessa Helder
ca. 1942
In 1943, Helder followed her husband, Robert Paterson, to Los Angeles as he pursued professional opportunities and joined the board of the California Watercolor Society while she continued to exhibit old and new works in California, Washington, and New York,. She also maintained an active involvement in the Los Angeles art associations that were the primary exhibitors of California artists at that time. Of course, art evolves and tastes change. While Helder made an attempt to keep pace with the post-war developments happening in the art world, she was squeezed out of the New York galleries by Abstract Expressionism which began to take precedence in painting while watercolor fell out of favor. 
Near San Jacinto Z. Vanessa Helder
ca. n.d.
Helder lived in Los Angeles for 25 years and worked as an instructor at the Los Angeles Art Institute from 1952-1955. Over time, Helder exhibited less regularly and as a result of poor health, she passed away on May 1, 1968, just one week after her husband's death.
Her art estate was bequeathed to the Westside Jewish Community Center in Los Angeles, a puzzling decision since she herself was not Jewish. The center sold the remaining works from her estate in several sales over the ensuing years, unfortunately with no record of the buyers. Of the hundreds of artworks Helder made over her lifetime, the majority remain missing -- to this day. 
Museum of Modern Art, the Whitney Museum, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Denver Art Art Museum, Seattle Art Museum, collections at the National Museum of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, the Newark Museum, the High Museum of Art, the Portland Art Museum, Portalnd Oregon, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the St. Louis Art Museum, the Academy of Arts and letters, Washington State University, I.B.M Corporation, the Northwest Museum of Arts and Culture, and the Whatcom Museum of History & Art.
  1. An Enduring Legacy: Women Painters of Washington, 1930-2005, Whatcom Museum of History & Art, Bellingham Washington, University of Washington Press, Seattle, 2005, pp 74-77.
  2. George Stern Fine Arts, Z. Vanessa Helder, retrieved December 17, 2015.
  3., Women Painters of Washington, Essay 7644,, retrieved December 17, 2015.
  4. Independent Spirits: Women Painters of the American West, 1890-1945, ed. Patricia Trenton, University of California Press, Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1995, p. 120.
  5. An Encyclopedia of Women Artists of the American West, Phil Kovinick and Marian Yoshiki-Kovinick, University of Texas Press, Austin, 1998, p. 135.

Friday, December 4, 2015

Kathleen Blackshear: Treating her subjects with Humility and Grace

Kathleen Blackshear
Unknown Photographer
Kathleen Blackshear was born in the Texas cotton belt. She grew up spending summers on the nearby cotton plantations of both her maternal and paternal families close to Navasota, a town founded by her grandfather. It was there that she became friends with the children of the African Americans who picked cotton for her family-an experience that would have great significance in her later career, both as an artist and teacher. She began to study art at age 12. The first woman in her town to wear trousers, Blackshear bucked convention her whole life. She earned a bachelor’s degree in modern languages from Baylor University in Waco in 1917 and studied at the Art Students League in New York, where her teachers included Solon Borglum, George Bridgeman, and Frank Vincent DuMond. In 1918, she left New York and spent the next six years travelling and exploring career options in Los Angeles, where she got a job creating posters for films. She also found work in Culver City coloring films in the days before Technicolor, and when every transparency had to be hand-colored under a magnifying glass. Blackshear also explored New Orleans, Europe, and Mexico, continuing to produce photographs, prints, paintings, and sculpture.
Blackshear moved to Chicago in 1924, where she attended the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC) to study painting and graphic arts. She was inspired by the art history class taught by Helen Gardner in which she enrolled in 1925. Gardner became mentor and inspiration to Blackshear, and they formed a close relationship which lasted until Gardner's death in 1946. Blackshear began teaching art history in 1926, continuing until her retirement in 1961. Like Gardner—whose widely used textbooks, Art Through the Ages (1926) and Understanding the Arts (1932) which she illustrated—Blackshear introduced modernist ideas in her courses. She did not teach the standard history of classical through Renaissance art, but included a wide variety of non-western, pre-Renaissance, and progressive, twentieth-century art in her classes as well. She sent students to explore not just the galleries of the Art Institute, but the Field Museum of Natural History, the Shedd Aquarium, the Oriental Institute, and the Bronx Zoo for inspiration. In this way, Blackshear influenced generations of students at SAIC to discover idiosyncratic sources and connections with cultures other than their own, laying the groundwork for later Chicago artists of the Monster Roster and Imagist movement. Blackshear was particularly influential in inspiring and supporting the careers of the African American students in her classes, such as Margaret Burroughs. She also made two dioramas for the 1933 Century of Progress Exposition in Chicago, and illustrated Art Has Many Faces by Katherine Kuh. Blackshear emphasized the aesthetic over the historical in teaching art history.
Kathleen Blackshear
Untitled (Woman Mopping)
ca 1930s
Blackshear frequently depicted African Americans, inspired by her summer visits to Texas and her childhood memories but also by her experiences in Chicago. Her lithograph,Untitled (Woman mopping) sympathetically depicts a sturdy washerwoman mopping, in a generalized style typical of the American Scene and regionalist styles of the Depression era. Blackshear renders her head at an unnatural angle as if to emphasize the backbreaking work, and her heavy, bulky form suggests that she has and will continue to spend hours performing this monotonous task. It exemplifies why critic C. J. Bulliet called her “Chicago’s most sympathetic, most understanding painter of the American Negro” in 1939. Bulliet continued: “Her Negroes in these slight but expert drawings live and breathe a happy, wholesome life,” though he was quick to qualify that she was not a Communist recruiter.
 From 1924 to 1940, Blackshear returned to Navasota to visit her mother at Christmas as during these visits, she often depicted the small-town Texas ritual of Saturday shopping. Her familiarity with her subjects enhanced her sensitivity and understanding of a "simpler world where eloquent compassion was adequate for commenting on racial issues and clean form was remarkably effective in communicating art values."
A Boy Named Alligator demonstrates her interest in storytelling found in much Regionalism of the time and the painting's interest lies not in the narrative, but in its bold, simplified forms and rhythmic patterns of the land.
Kathleen Blackshear
A Boy named Alligator
ca 1930
22 1/8 x 18 1/8 inches
Kathleen Blackshear
Ruby Lee and Loula May Washington
ca 1932
Oil on canvas
In her best works, Blackshear captures her subjects with simple grace and humanity without sentimentality or cliche. In her painting, Ruby Lee and Lula May Washington, she paints a dual portrait where the wood grain provides and intriguing visual backdrop.
Blackshear maintained a studio in Houston and spent many summers at her home in Navasota, After her retirement in 1961, Kathleen Blackshear returned to Navasota with her companion, Ethel Spears, and continued to lecture on art at museums and schools throughout Texas until the early 1970s. She received the title Professor Emeritus from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in 1968. She died on October 14, 1988 in Navasota where she is buried in Oakland Cemetery.
Blackshear’s work was exhibited at the Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago Society or Artists; Witte Memorial Museum, San Antonio, TX; Museum of Fine Arts, Houston; Museum of Fine Arts, Dallas; among others. Her works also are held in the Art Institute of Chicago.
Kathleen Blackshear
Title Unknown
ca 1930s
Oil on canvas

  1. Bulliet, C. J. “Artists of Chicago Past and Present: No. 97: Kathleen Blackshear.” Chicago Daily News, July 29, 1939.
  2. Illinois Women Artists Project,
  3. Kovinick, Phil, and Marian Yoshiki-Kovinick. An Encyclopedia of Women Artists of the American West. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1998.
  4. Landauer, Susan, and Becky Reese. “Lone Star Spirits.” In Patricia Trenton, ed. Independent Spirits: Women Painters of the American West, 1890–1945, 199–200. Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1995.
  5. Tormollan, Carole. A Tribute to Kathleen Blackshear. Chicago: School of the Art Institute of Chicago, 1990.
  6. Tormollan, Carole. “Kathleen Blackshear.” In Women Building Chicago: 1790-1990, edited by Rima Lunin Schultz and Adele Hast, 84–86. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2001.
  7. Weininger, Susan. “Kathleen Blackshear.” In Elizabeth Kennedy, ed. Chicago Modern, 1893–1945: Pursuit of the New, 92. Exh. cat. Chicago: Terra Foundation for the Arts, 2004.
  8. Yochim, Louise Dunn. Role and Impact: The Chicago Society of Artists, 222. Chicago: Chicago Society of Artists, 1979.