5 Women Artists in the Whatcom Museum’s Collection: 5. Sheila Klein

Inspired by the National Museum of Women in the Arts’ challenge, “Can you name five women artists?”, the Whatcom Museum is highlighting five female artists whose artwork is featured in our collection throughout the month of March (Women’s History Month). This is the last one of the series! Follow us on social media and share our post with your followers, or tell us your favorite women artists. Don’t forget to tag your posts #5WomenArtists.

Sheila Klein; Stand, 2000; Nylon, Lycra, spandex and steel, 13 x 13 x 9 ft. Whatcom Museum, gift of the artist.

Artist #5: Sheila Klein

Sheila Klein fearlessly defies prevailing styles and trends. Acclaimed nationally for her public art installations, including Underground Girl (2000, Hollywood-Highland Metro Station, Hollywood, CA) and Comfort Zone (2004, Harborview Medical Center, Seattle, WA), she has devoted her career to transcending the boundaries of art. Her smaller-scaled artworks deserve greater recognition, and the Whatcom Museum’s sculpture, Stand, highlights this other side of the artist’s practice.

Stand was the first artwork to be exhibited in the courtyard of the Whatcom Museum’s new Lightcatcher building as part of the exhibition, Show of Hands: Northwest Women Artists, 1800-2010. Klein’s interactive sculpture, which forms gigantic pairs of men’s stretch pants, invites visitors to explore an unusual portal into space and the artist’s imagination.

Photo by Clara Senger.

Inspired by an experimental approach towards materials and ideas, the artist welcomes the unexpected. Recognizing her unique vision, Klein was recently awarded the 2017 Arts Innovator Award, funded by the Dale and Leslie Chihuly Foundation. The artist has exhibited at a wide range of venues, including  PS 1/Institute for Art and Urban Resources, New York; Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh; and the Museum of Art and Design, New York.

Born in Pittsburgh, Klein is a self-taught artist who moved to the Skagit Valley in 1976. During the 1980s, she worked in Los Angeles as a member of A2Z, an award-winning, collaborative art and architecture firm. She returned to Washington in 1995 and has since been living on a farm outside the town of Edison with her artist-husband Ries Niemi. Her large studio is a melting pot of ideas for grand projects as well as more intimately-scaled objects.

5 Women Artists in the Whatcom Museum’s Collection: 4. Mary Henry

Mary Henry; Linear Series #5, 1966; Acrylic on canvas, 50 x 72 in. Gift of Suzanne and John Rahn, Whatcom Museum 2010.57.1.

Inspired by the National Museum of Women in the Arts’ challenge, “Can you name five women artists?”, the Whatcom Museum is highlighting five female artists whose artwork is featured in our collection throughout the month of March (Women’s History Month). Follow us on social media and share our posts with your followers, or tell us your favorite women artists. Don’t forget to tag your posts #5WomenArtists.

Artist #4: Mary Henry

Barbara Matilsky, our Curator of Art said, “I sometimes wonder about the kind of recognition the artist Mary Henry (1913-2009) might have received had she chosen a different path at a critical junction in her career.” After studying with the pioneering Bauhaus modernist Lazlo Maholy-Nagy (1895-1946) at Chicago’s Institute of Design in 1945, she was invited to join the faculty, the first women to be so recognized. Instead, she chose to follow her husband and relocate to Arkansas.

Mary Henry, after receiving the Twining Humber Award for Lifetime Artistic Achievement, 2006. Photo by Alice Wheeler.

Divorced in 1964, Henry returned to her native Northern California, where she painted bold, hard-edge, geometrically constructed compositions inspired by her mentor. She was among a small group of women, including British artist Bridget Riley, who contributed to the movement that came to be known as Op (Optical) Art. For Henry, geometry was not purely aesthetic, but was pursued to invoke the spiritual in art. She excelled in graphically conjuring distinctive patterns in black and white, as in Linear Series #5, as well as brightly colored shapes that often evoke landscape elements.

In 1968,  Henry’s paintings displayed at San Francisco’s Arleigh Gallery were nationally noted in Artforum magazine. She moved to Washington State in 1976 to be near her daughter, and lived on Whidbey Island from 1981 until 2009. The Whatcom Museum organized the first solo museum exhibition of Mary Henry’s artworks, curated by John Olbrantz, in 1988. By the time of the artist’s death at the age of 95, other Pacific Northwest museums had introduced her work to an appreciative public. Her outstanding contribution to abstraction has yet to be nationally acknowledged.

5 Women Artists in the Whatcom Museum’s Collection: 3. Elizabeth Colborne

Inspired by the National Museum of Women in the Arts’ challenge, “Can you name five women artists?”, the Whatcom Museum is highlighting five female artists whose artwork is featured in our collection throughout the month of March (Women’s History Month). Follow us on social media and share our posts with your followers, or tell us your favorite women artists. Don’t forget to tag your posts #5WomenArtists.

Sunset Over the Elizabeth Colborne; Bellingham Bay, c.1930; Color woodcut, 9 x 6.75 in. Gift of the Bellingham Public Library, 1976.62.103.

Artist #3: Elizabeth Colborne

The Whatcom Museum holds the largest collection of work by Elizabeth Colborne (1885 – 1948), heralded as one of  Pacific Northwest’s greatest print makers. This birds-eye view of Bellingham Bay, at its most seductive time of day, directly confronts the duality of nature’s majesty with the economic realities of the logging industry. With smoke stacks rising up in the foreground, the abstract compositional influence of Japanese prints is apparent.

Living alone in a cabin, Colborne studied both man-made and natural landscapes in magnificently detailed drawings. She often poignantly portrays the intrusion of the human footprint by strategically focusing on old growth stumps in the forest. Colborne’s work can be appreciated for both its artistry and as a chronicle of the region’s history.

Elizabeth Colborne at 23 years old, featured in the article, “Women of Genius,” 1908.

Born in South Dakota and orphaned at a young age, she moved to Bellingham to live with her maternal aunt. She lived alone in Whatcom County most of her life, except for attending Pratt Institute and spending part of the year in New York City, which nurtured her career as a graphic artist. Colborne developed a reputation for children’s book illustrations and landscape views that catered to New Yorkers’ interest in the beauty of the Northwest.

Colborne’s work was rescued from oblivion by her sister, who donated a treasure trove of material to the Bellingham Public Library. In 1976, this work was transferred to the Whatcom Museum and supplemented by later Museum purchases and private donations. It was not until 2011 that the Museum featured a retrospective exhibition, Evergreen Muse, The Art of Elizabeth Colborne, curated by David F. Martin, and accompanied by a publication that quickly sold out. National media coverage quickly followed, assuring Colborne’s rightful place in art history. The Whatcom Museum will be lending six fabulous Colborne drawings to the new Cascadia Art Museum in Edmunds for an upcoming exhibition, Botanical Exuberance: Trees and Flowers in Northwest Art.

5 Women Artists in the Whatcom Museum’s Collection: 2. Vanessa Helder

Inspired by the National Museum of Women in the Arts’ challenge, “Can you name five women artists?”, the Whatcom Museum is highlighting five female artists whose artwork is featured in our collection throughout the month of March (Women’s History Month). Follow us on social media and share our posts with your followers, or tell us your favorite women artists. Don’t forget to tag your posts #5WomenArtists.

Z. Vanessa Helder (1904-1968) Eastern Washington Landscape, 1936-40; Watercolor on paper, 19 x 23 in. Gift of the Washington Art Consortium through gift of Safeco Insurance, a member of the Liberty Mutual Group.

Artist # 2: Z. Vanessa Helder

The Whatcom Museum recently acquired a watercolor by Z. Vanessa Helder (1904-1968), who was born in Lyndon to one of the earliest pioneer families in Whatcom County, and attended Bellingham High School. This enigmatic work, featuring abandoned buildings with no signs of life, suggests the economic hardships of depression-era America.

Z. Vanessa Helder (1904-1968), ca. 1940. Courtesy Northwest Museum of Arts & Culture/Eastern Washington State Historical Society, Spokane, WA.

Nationally recognized in the 1930s and 1940s for her magic realist drawings, Helder was selected to participate in the Museum of Modern Art’s seminal exhibition, American Realists and Magic Realists (1943), alongside luminaries such as Edward Hopper and Andrew Wyeth.  However, once Abstract Expressionism seized the limelight, her work was largely forgotten. In 2013, the Tacoma Art Museum organized an exhibition of Helder’s work, reintroducing it to the public.

Helder is best known for a series of watercolors (housed at the Northwest Museum of Arts & Culture, Spokane) that interpret the building of the Grand Coulee Dam, a project that she completed for the Federal Art Project. She also painted several murals for public buildings that have not survived.

The Whatcom Museum is thrilled to own one of her watercolors, which are quite rare. Unfortunately, the art in her estate was privately sold without any trace of the buyers’ identities. To date, the majority of her works have not been found. The Museum’s drawing is especially significant to its collection because Helder probably studied with Bellingham-based artist Elizabeth Colborne (1885-1948), whose art will be featured next, so stay tuned!

5 Women Artists in the Whatcom Museum’s Collection: 1. Anne Eisner

Inspired by the National Museum of Women in the Arts’ challenge, “Can you name five women artists?”, the Whatcom Museum is highlighting five female artists whose artwork is featured in our collection throughout the month of March (Women’s History Month). Follow us on social media and share our posts with your followers, or tell us your favorite women artists. Don’t forget to tag your posts #5WomenArtists. We start this challenge on March 8, International Women’s Day, to celebrate the contributions of women in the arts.

Anne Eisner; Two Mbuti Pygmies, 1956; Oil on canvas, 40 x 25 in. Gift of the Estate of William J. Eisner, 1975.110.12.

Artist #1: Anne Eisner

The Whatcom Museum houses several paintings by Anne Eisner (1911-1967), an under-recognized artist who made an important contribution to both art and anthropology.

Anne Eisner Putnam painting in the Congo.

In 1946, Anne Eisner journeyed from New York City to the former Belgian Congo (now the Democratic Republic of Congo), where she painted, transcribed more than 200 legends, and maintained ethnographic notes on the Mbuti Pygmies. The first white woman to live in Pygmy camps, Eisner introduced  the anthropologist Colin Turnbull to the people portrayed in his widely-read book, The Forest People (1961). Although he used Eisner’s notes (with her permission), Turnbull rarely mentioned her in his writings. Lost to history, the artist finally came to light in 2006, when Harvard University’s Houghton Library featured 9 years of her work in an exhibition, Images of Congo: The Art and Ethnography of Anne Eisner Putnam, 1946-1958, which was accompanied by a publication.

It is a mystery how the Whatcom Museum received Eisner’s work, which was donated by her father, also an artist. William Eisner was one of the first manufacturers of wax paper and director of New York City’s Art Students League. The Whatcom Museum owns work by Eisner’s father as well as her sister, Dorothy, an accomplished painter in her own right. An added bonus in this bequest was a drawing by Diego Rivera of Two Workers, which was inscribed to Anne Eisner by the artist in 1938. This drawing is featured in the Whatcom Museum’s current exhibition, Images of Resilience: Chicana/o Art and its Mexican Roots.