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.

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