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 Helen Farnsworth (Nellie) Mears  (1873 - 1916)

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Lived/Active: New York/Wisconsin      Known for: bas relief sculpture and portrait painting

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Helen Farnsworth Mears
from Auction House Records.
IDEAL HEAD
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This biography from the Archives of AskART:
Biography of Helen Farnsworth Mears
by Mary Hiles

Helen Farnsworth Mears was born in Oshkosh in 1871 and went on to gain national recognition.  Her works are in the Smithsonian (bust of medical pioneer Dr. William Morton), New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art (bas-relief of composer Edward MacDowell) and other national and state collections. Her nine-foot statue of temperance leader Frances Willard is the only sculpture of a woman by a woman in the Hall of Statuary in the nation's capitol. "The Fountain of Life", the musical which celebrates her life, is also the title of one of Mears's major works.

Mears was the youngest of three daughters born to John and Mary Elizabeth Mears. (The latter was a poet, author and Wisconsin's first native playwright. In 1858, she wrote a play based on the life of the Indian Chief Blackhawk, which played in Madison to great acclaim.) Helen was closest in age and in temperament to her sister, Mary. Like her mother, Mary pursued a career as a writer. She wrote four novels and numerous articles and short stories, many published in national magazines. In addition to pursuing her own craft, Mary devoted herself to her younger sister's career as a sculptor, and after Helen's death in 1916, Mary spent her life working to ensure that her sister's artistic legacy would live on.

Helen's talent developed early. As a toddler she is said to have sculpted human and animal forms from pieces of bread. During her teens her Aunt Helen Farnsworth left her a legacy to pursue her artistic studies. To honor her aunt, Helen, who had been christened "Nellie," took her aunt's name. The money allowed both Helen and Mary to go to Chicago, where Helen studied at the Art Institute. At the age of 21 Mears was given her first commission, by the state of Wisconsin, to create "an heroic figure" to be exhibited at the Columbian Exposition of 1893 in Chicago. Mears sculpted a dramatic full-sized female figure draped in a flag with her hand cradling the neck of an eagle. She was awarded a $500 prize by the Wisconsin Federation of Women's Clubs for the work, which she titled "Genius of Wisconsin." (The Wisconsin Federation of Women's Clubs have remained staunch supporters of Mears. Since 1926 the organization has presented annual Helen Farnsworth Mears Art Awards to 7th and 8th grade art students throughout the state.)

Mears's "Genius of Wisconsin" brought her to the attention of Augustus Saint-Gaudens, the most famous and respected sculptor of the time. Mears went on to become Saint-Gaudens first female assistant. She studied and worked with him in New York, and later in Paris. Helen and Mary were part of the Cornish Colony-the group of artists, writers and musicians who frequented Aspet, Saint-Gaudens' home in Cornish, N.H. Mears's bas-relief portrait of Saint-Gaudens is displayed at Aspet-now a national historic site. After this apprenticeship, Mears decided to make her way independently--a revolutionary decision for a female sculptor at that time. She and Mary, returned to Oshkosh, then moved again to New York, where the two worked side-by-side as artist and author.

Helen's work brought her awards and recognition but not great financial reward. She died in New York in 1916, reportedly in part as a result of malnutrition. However, more than 125 years after her birth, she remains one of Wisconsin's premier sculptors, and her life and work continues to be an inspiration.

In Oshkosh, work by Mears is in the collection of the Oshkosh Public Museum ("Dawn and Labor" and "The Joy Boy") and the Paine Art Center, which has the largest collection of Mears's works including a model commissioned by the State of Wisconsin for its capitol dome.


This biography from the Archives of AskART:
The website  http://www.fountainoflifemusical.com has the musical about Helen Farnsworth's life, which premiered fall, 2003 in Oshkosh, Wisconsin. At the suggestion of Mary Hiles, writer of the book on which the musical is based, the following biography of the artist is below and is the same one as the one on the website:

"New Musical Explores Sculptor's Life and Art as Part of Oshkosh Sesquicentennial Celebration"

WORLD PREMIER at Oshkosh's restored historic Grand Opera House Oct. 31-Nov. 2 and Nov. 7-9, 2003.

"The Fountain of Life", a new musical featuring 17 original songs and seven major production numbers, is based on the life of nationally acclaimed sculptor Helen Farnsworth Mears (1873-1916), a native of Oshkosh, Wisconsin.

A Local Production: Oshkosh author wrote the book, lyrics, and some melodies for "The Fountain of Life". UW-Oshkosh music professor James Chaudoir oversaw the orchestration and arrangements done by two of Chaudoir's former students-Jay Thomas and Erik Helm . Chaudoir and Thomas also composed some of the music. Herb Berendsen and Jennifer Henselin are directing the production, performed by public and private high school student actors.

Unprecedented community-wide participation: Related events include a lecture series and exhibit of Mears's originals and exhibit of the winners of the state-wide Helen Farnsworth Mears's Art Award at the Oshkosh Public Museum and Mears's exhibits at the Oshkosh Public Library and UW-Oshkosh and Mears's originals on display at the Grand Opera House during the performances.

Reproductions of Mears's sculptures: "The Fountain of Life" features four reproductions of Mears's sculptures including a full-sized figure "Genius of Wisconsin", done by UW Oshkosh sculpture graduates Charis Congail and David Barnhill.

Production benefits school art program: All proceeds go to Project S.O.A.R. (Special Opportunities for Artists in Residency), which brings artists-in-residence to Oshkosh area schools.


Biography from The Parrish House Museum:
Born in Oshkosh, Wisconsin.  Her first exhibit was at the age of ten when she exhibited a head of Apollo in the Winnebago Country Fair in Oshkosh which she had baked in her mother’s oven.  She attended the Art Institute of Chicago and later the Arts Students League in New York where she studied under Augustus Saint-Gaudens.

She is credited as being his first woman assistant and executed a bust of Saint-Gaudens. Mears belonged to the National Society of Sculptors and was one of the Cornish Colony women who exhibited in the Women’s Hall at the Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893 where she was awarded a medal.  She also exhibited and was awarded a medal in the St. Louis Exposition in 1904 and in the San Francisco Exposition in 1914.  Helen Mears created the statue of suffragist Frances Willard for the U. S. Capitol in 1900.

Many of her works are in the permanent collection of the Paine Art Museum in Oshkosh, WI and in the Metropolitan Museum of Art.  Unfortunately, she was not able to handle commissions and money well and died destitute of a combination of malnutrition and influenza.

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Helen Mears is also mentioned in these AskART essays:
Cornish Colony
San Francisco Panama-Pacific Exhibition 1915

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