August 21, 2012

Helen West Heller

        I recently heard from a colleague of mine, one of my fellow art teachers pre-kids.  He's the champion of block print artist Helen West Heller, so hearing from him has inspired me to bump Heller to the top of the list of artists I've been meaning to feature.  Scattergood-Moore is the man who knows all there is to know about Heller, so be sure to visit his web site about her to learn lots more about her life and more examples of her work.  For my purposes, a quick summary will have to do.
        Helen West Heller (1872-1955) has a slightly mysterious biography.  It seems that at least some accounts of her life were romanticized, if not downright fictionalized.  But one thing that's in no doubt is that she had a clear and unwavering determination to be an artist.  Born on a farm, when she was twenty she went to Chicago with the intention of becoming an artist.  She had little formal training at art schools, and was the proverbial starving artist, struggling
to gain recognition and to make ends meet.  She worked in a variety of media, including poetry as well as painting, fresco, embroidery, and more, and eventually (in 1923) tried her hand at relief block printing, at least in part because the materials were inexpensive.  She came to view relief block printing as her favored medium.
        Heller was involved with radical movements in both art and social causes.  Although her work can fairly be called Modernist, she preferred not to be categorized.  She thought of herself as expressing emotional and psychological states, rather than realistic scenes, but her work is never wholly abstract.  You can also see that she was concerned with texture, pattern, and movement.  I really enjoy her use of pattern, both when it's a realistic part of the image, as in the first image above, and when it's purely decorative as in the middle image.  (A portrait, by the way, of one of my favorite people, George Washington Carver, portrayed in my favorite medium - Double Score!)
        Even in this relatively representational image of ducks you can see Heller doing some interesting things with more abstract shapes and lines.  Look at the sky/background in particular.  But I like the way she integrates representational and abstract in her work so that neither looks like an afterthought or a gimmick attached to the other.  They balance to make images of unique style.
        Helen West Heller was a prolific printmaker, with a strong personal vision, and a determination to produce her art according to her vision.  She's definitely an artist who deserves recognition as one of the outstanding printmakers of the twentieth century.

[Pictures: Razorbacks, woodcut by Helen West Heller, 1932 (Image from Abigail Furey Fine Prints);
Alabama Bio-Chemist, wood engraving by Heller, 1947 (Image from Illinois Women Artists Project, from the collection of Scattergood-Moore).
Ducks at Night, woodcut by Heller, 1929 (Image from LSD Art).]


Scatt said...

Thanks Anne, very well written.
By the way, the image of "Alabama Bio-Chemist" on the Illinois Women Artists Project website is from my personal collection - as are all the other images on their website. . .
I look forward to seeing what other woodcut artists you will be highlighting - so I'll make a regular visit to this blog.
All the best.

Anne E.G. Nydam said...

Your collection looks amazing! Thanks!

Dr. Larry Stanfel said...

Hello, Anne,

I regret you were unaware of my several publications when you were composing your piece about Helen.

I have two books just out

Uncompromising Souls: The Lives and Work of Artist Helen West Heller and Husband Roger, Larry E. Stanfel,, 2015, 404 pp.

The Complete Poetry of Helen West Heller: With Illustrations Selected from Her Art, Larry E. Stanfel,, 2015, 270 pp.

You may read more about them and me at, and each book has its own facebook page.

My previous publications on this remarkable woman, who grew up in my hometown, and her unusual husband follow.

 “Helen West Heller: a rediscovery,” Journal of the Mid America Print Council, 13,1,2005, pp. 4-7
 “Helen West Heller Viewed Through Her Work,” California Society of Printmakers News Brief, Fall, 2005, p. 7
 “The Poet of the Wood Engraving,” Journal of the Mid America Print Council, vol. 14, number 1, Spring/Summer 2006, pp. 15-21, 24
 “The Life and Times of Helen West Heller : the artist’s making in her own words, Part I,” Canton Area Communities Magazine, 3,1, January, 2008, pp. 11-17, 19-25, 27
 “The Life and Times of Helen West Heller : the artist’s making in her own words, Part I,” Canton Area Communities Magazine, Part II, 3,2 February 2008, pp. 6-19
 “The Life and Times of Helen West Heller : the artist’s making in her own words, Part I,” Canton Area Communities Magazine, Part III, 3,3 March 2008, pp. 24-41
 “Looking for Roger Heller, Part I,” CACM, 3, 6, 2008, 14-26
 “Looking for Roger Heller, Part II,” CACM, 3, 7, 2008, 25-50
 “The World of Helen West Heller,” Illinois Heritage (Illinois State Historical Society), Jan-Feb, 2012, pp.13-18

I very much look forward to hearing from you.

Dr. Larry Stanfel