Early Northwest Modernist Z. Vanessa Helder
William A. Karges Fine Art
|Z. Vanessa Helder "Palouse Barnyard" 15 x 22 inches|
Born to an artistic and somewhat eccentric family whose interests included music, theosophy, and astrology, Z. Vanessa Helder was an unconventional figure often found strolling Seattle’s streets dressed in her finest with her pet skunk in tow. Her mother was passionate about art and gave Helder her first painting lessons at a young age, eventually leading the prolific young artist to study art at the University of Washington. She kept an unorthodox school of pets throughout her life (at one time she made several inquiries with various state agencies only to find out it was illegal to own a flying squirrel) and an active social life amongst artists, architects, and bon vivants. Undertaking considerable work both teaching and supporting professional artists through the art associations that sustained Seattle and California’s vibrant art scenes before galleries and museums, Helder’s art and social life were intertwined.
|Z. Vanessa Helder "Brattleboro Street"|
In 1934 Helder moved East with a scholarship to the Art Students League of New York where her artistic style picked up precisionist influences under a number of artists including Robert Brackman, George Picken, and Frank Vincent. There she also joined the National Association of Women Painters and Sculptors as well as winning membership in the American Watercolor Society in 1943. Attracting the attention of prominent gallerists of the time such as Maynard Walker and especially Macbeth Gallery, Helder’s characteristic style and Northwestern subject matter brought her attention in exhibits at the Whitney and aforementioned MOMA while simultaneously raising interest in her friends and fellow artists such as Robert O. Engard and Blanche Morgan back home.
|Z. Vanessa Helder "Cows and Barn"|
Moving back to Washington, Helder became a member of the Women Painters of Washington (WPW), was employed by the local branch of the federal Works ProgressAdministration (WPA) art programs creating murals, lithographs, and paintings, and spent two years teaching at the Spokane Art Center. It was around this period that Helder created one of her most well known works, a series of watercolors for the Bureau of LandReclamation depicting the Coulee Dam during its construction, exhibited at the Seattle Art Museum in 1939.
Developing a distinct precisionist style that defied watercolor’s usual billowy brushstrokes, Helder’s tight yet airy compositions were rendered in an elegant, tempera-like finish. Her subject-matter focused mostly on winterscapes, portraits contrasting collections of natural and manufactured objects, and angular architectural structures framed by rural scenes.
|Z. Vanessa Helder "Sea Shells - Blue and Gold"|
Watercolor, 15 x 19
She enjoyed the influence of Washington artist Elizabeth Colborne, whose watercolor and woodblock prints left an impression of simple composition; her contemporaries and teachers on the East Coast, whose early modern precisionism trained her eye to industrial subjects; her husband John “Jack” Patterson, whose work as an architect gave her a special perspective; and a love of Chinese painting. Assimilating her interests into her natural talent, Helder fluidly expressed her subjects in a striking, technical style that retained a sense of atmospheric lightness on canvas.
In 1943 she followed her husband to Los Angeles as he pursued professional opportunities. There she found success, joining the board of the California Watercolor Society while continuing to exhibit old and new works in California, Washington, and New York. In addition, she maintained active involvement in the Los Angeles art associations that were the primary exhibitors of California artists at the time. However, as more abstract styles began to take precedence in painting, the watercolor master’s work fell out of favor and she exhibited less regularly before her death on May 1, 1968. Helder’s works were then donated to the Westside Jewish Community Center where they were slowly sold off over the years, leaving hundreds of works unaccounted for to this day.
|Z. Vanessa Helder "Near San Jacincto" 15 x 20|
Z. Vanessa Helder has been exhibited at museum’s including the Museum of Modern Art, the Whitney Museum, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Denver Art Museum, and the Seattle Art Museum and is included in collections at the National Museum of American Art, the Smithsonian Institution, the Newark Museum, the High Museum of Art, the Portland Art Museum, Portland, 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 & Culture and the Whatcom Museum of History & Art.