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 Helen West Heller  (1872 - 1955)

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Lived/Active: New York/Illinois      Known for: figure, nature, illustrator, woodcuts

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Helen West Heller
An example of work by Helen West Heller
Artwork images are copyright of the artist or assignee
This biography from the Archives of AskART:
The following is from Scattergood-Moore, who after purchasing wood cuts by the artist, created in 1996 a Helen West Heller web site.

Helen West Heller was born in 1872 on a small farm in Rushville, Illinois.  From her father, a self-sustaining farmer also know as a decoy maker and builder of boats, Ms. Heller developed her own intense interest in nature motifs and her love for wood as an artistic material.

Poor health, which she suffered from throughout her life, made her school years difficult. Her formal art training was limited.  She attended art school for two terms in Illinois and later took art classes in New York and St. Louis.  Throughout her life ". . she was always engaged in some study, either of Chinese or European art . . she was always writing. ." and ". .copying notes from books, and collecting material for several others on theory and history of the arts." (Dr. Ernest Harms)

In 1892, she ran away to Chicago.  To support her artistic self-training in sculpture and painting, she became a professional model, took many menial jobs and wrote poetry which she sent to local magazines.  She lived an extremely isolated and destitute life. Hoping for a better life, she moved to New York City around 1902, where she attempted to make a living with embroidery and factory work, while concentrating on painting as her artistic medium, but with little artistic or financial success.

She left New York and for a number of years wandered over much of the East and Middle West.  "She felt herself an artistic and social rebel, unable to cope with life, and after a struggle with suicidal tendencies . ." she retired for five years to an Illinois farm.

In 1921, Ms. Heller returned to Chicago to start a new career as a painter.  In 1923 she cut her first real woodcut and attempted to create a woodcut magazine with a group of younger Chicago artists.  The public denounced her because the woodcuts were too abstract and unrealistic.  However, encouraged by her poetic success, Ms. Heller cut a set of wood blocks to illustrate a book of her poems, published under the title Migratory Urge.

During her ten years in Chicago Ms. Heller created a real novelty in the American graphic world and sold many of her prints.

In 1932, at age sixty, Helen West Heller returned to New York where she would create her most beautiful woodcuts.  She was active in artists' social and political affairs.  She was especially involved during the period of the WPA Federal Art Project creating murals, the largest being a set of of panels in a ward of the Neponsit Children's Hospital on Long Island.

In 1936 her woodcut Reforestation was exhibited by The American Artists' Congress and in 1947, Woodcuts U.S.A., a book containing 20 of her prints with quotes by American writers, was published by Oxford University Press, New York.  She became an Associate Member of the National Academy of Design in 1948.  To comply with a requirement associated with this honor she created the wood block Self Portrait, which combined epic motifs from her life.

She died in New York City during November of 1955.

According to Dr. Ernest Harms, who knew the artist and wrote an appreciation of her work in 1947 and of her life in 1957, which the information here is based on, Ms. Heller produced over 600 woodcuts during the last three decades of her life.  He wrote in 1957: "Far too little is known even among artists about this amazing woman."  If you have information on Helen West Heller, please contact the author of this article.  It would be greatly appreciated.

During the late 1960s I purchased a copy of Ms. Heller's "Woodcuts U.S.A." I have been in love with her woodcuts (collecting the few prints I could afford on an artists' income) ever since.

Special Awards and Exhibitions.
Helen West Heller exhibited throughout the mid 1920s-50s, at:
a. Art Institute of Chicago
b. Boston Museum
c. Salons of America
d. The Smithsonian, Washington, DC
e. The Walen Bookshop, Chicago
f. 38th Annual Exhibition of the Nebraska Art Association and School of
Fine Arts, 1928
g. The American Artists' Congress, NY, 1936
h. Library of Congress, 1945

Awards and Memberships:
Elected Associate Member of The National Academy of Design, 1948
Awarded First Purchase Prize, Library of Congress, 1949

Periodicals where referenced.
Print Collector's Quarterly, April 1942. Helen West Heller, The Woodcutter by Dr. Ernest Harms, page 3012

American Artist. November 1957, From Dark to Light, An appreciation by Dr. Ernest Harms, page 30

This biography from the Archives of AskART:

Some art reference sources cite a birth date of 1885. However, Dr. Larry Stanfel submitted the following information in May of 2006:

The paper records from the 1880 and 1890 Censuses show her birth year as 1872.  More on Helen may be found in my papers in The News Brief of the California Society of Printmakers, Fall 2005, p.7; and in The Journal of the Mid America Print Council 13, 1, 2005, pp 4-7. 

** If you discover credit omissions or have additional information to add, please let us know at
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