Transcending Boundaries: Becoming Helmi

The Whatcom Museum’s online virtual exhibitions feature a variety of historic photographs, artwork, and ephemera that visitors can view at their leisure. Recently, the Museum has uploaded a new virtual gallery that showcases a sampling of artwork by Helmi Juvonen (1903-1985), which can be viewed HERE. Scroll down to learn more about the life Helmi.

Helmi Juvonen, Vantage, circa 1975-1976;
Gouache on rice paper. Gift of Dr. Ulrich & Stella Fritzsche.

Transcending Boundaries: Becoming Helmi

Helmi Dagmar Juvonen (1903-1985) was a Seattle-based artist who found success capturing the culture of Native American tribes across the Pacific Northwest. She was a persistent artist who strived to create art in a time where being a female artist was tough. Even as she struggled with poverty and mental illness, Helmi continued to create art until her final days.

Finding Her Love and Audience

Born in Butte Montana in 1903, Helmi found her love of art at a young age from her father, a Finnish immigrant, who made pencil sketches and watercolor paintings for her and her sister. When she was 15, her family moved to Seattle. During the time that she attended Queen Anne High School, Helmi sold handmade rag dolls and greeting cards at a local department store.

After graduating high school, she worked as a seamstress for a local company and took on small side jobs to pay her way through art school at Seattle Art School. Through these side jobs, Helmi established a line of connections that included affluent citizens and successful artists. In 1929, through one of these connections, Helmi got a scholarship to attended Cornish School (now Cornish College of the Arts) in 1929 where she studied puppetry and lithography. In 1930 she was hospitalized with manic-depressive illness (now known as bipolar disorder) and spent three years at Northern State Hospital.

After being released, Helmi lived on the edge of poverty as she struggled to make a living. Helmi continued to take on art-related jobs and created drawings that she sold at Pike Street Market for 50 cents each. Her talents were well-recognized and her works were purchased by many important Seattle collectors. During this time, Helmi made connections with Chief Shelton of the Lummi Tribe, Chief Colowash of the Yakima tribe, and White Eagle of the Chippewa.

Capturing the Spirit of Native Americans

Over the course of two decades Helmi continued to build a rapport with tribes across the Pacific Northwest. She was invited to participate in religious ceremonies across the state. Helmi later illustrated many of these ceremonies and captured the emotions that surrounded them. Examples of tribes she interacted with include the Lummi, Swinomish, Yakima, and Makah. In 1953 she attended the “Treaty Day” ceremonial dances in La Conner where many different tribes danced. She also produced hundreds of drawings of Native American artifacts in the Washington State Museum.

Helmi Juvonen; Untitled (Eskimo Adam & Eve), Tempera; 13″ x 10″. Gift of Ron Kellen.

Trying Times

During the 1950s, a period of suppression and conformity in American life, a woman living alone as an artist proved difficult. Helmi’s eccentricities, including living with dozens of cats, alarmed neighbors and family who disapproved of her creative career. For a period of time, the artist’s obsession with Mark Tobey, the most renowned of the Pacific Northwest mystic painters, embarrassed Tobey as well as his many supporters.

Helmi was mistakenly diagnosed with schizophrenia (now recognized as manic-depression), and was committed against her will to Oakhurst Convalescent Home in Elma, Washington, where she lived the final 26 years of her life. Here, she continued to make art and welcomed artists and supporters, who organized museum exhibitions that she attended, including her 1985 retrospective at the Whatcom Museum.

The Whatcom Museum’s collection of her work, which numbers 250 objects, includes some of her finest pieces, such as paintings of petroglyphs from Central Washington, watercolors of Lummi masked dancers, and linocut prints based on the Makah Wolf Dance experienced at Neah Bay. This virtual gallery gives a small sampling of the complexity of Helmi’s vision by displaying some of her most unusual artworks, where images and symbols from a variety of cultures converge.

Helmi’s life is one of great trials. Even in the face of mental illness and poverty, Helmi continued to produce art until her final days. Through her tireless work, she forged a unique style that merged aboriginal Northwest culture with modern art.

Sources:

http://archiveswest.orbiscascade.org/ark:/80444/xv25660

https://www.whatcommuseum.org/v/vex22/index.htm

Drawing Practice: Bellingham National Juried Art Exhibition and Awards

Kelly Bjork; Tiger Overhead, 2016; Gouache and pencil on paper, 19 x 15 in. Courtesy of the artist.

Reposted from June 20th, 2017 Seattle Art Museum Blog

Catharina Manchanda, the Seattle Art Museum’s (SAM) Jon and Mary Shirley Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art, juried this year’s Bellingham National Juried Art Exhibition and Awards, on view now through September 10 in the Lightcatcher building. Barbara Matilsky, Curator of Art at the Whatcom Museum, describes the biennial art exhibition and award as relatively new. “The Whatcom Museum’s first biennial was inaugurated in 2015. Patricia Leach, the Museum’s director, envisioned Bellingham National as a way to bring the rich variety of art created around the country to our region. Although the Museum is committed to supporting Pacific Northwest art, it has increasingly embraced a wider, cultural scope,” says Matilsky. “Bellingham National has attracted the attention of Washington artists, which means that their work is well represented here. Community reaction has been as varied as the works of art on display. One thing that I have noticed: The exhibition challenges people to think about art in new ways, which is ultimately a good thing. It also offers the invited curator a unique opportunity to explore ideas related to a particular theme or medium of her/his choice.”

This year’s call for submissions focused on drawing, an activity and mode of expression that seems overdue in light of our ever-increasing attachment to electronic devices. Catharina Manchanda’s interest in exploring how contemporary artists are approaching the medium is at once a reaction to new media art forms and an acceptance of drawing that utilizes new media. “As we are clicking and tapping away, drawing and writing are becoming increasingly rare. Drawing has an immediacy and material quality that registers differently under these digital conditions. Its very ‘slowness’ becomes significant at a time when a flood of imagery and information keeps shortening our attention spans. From a more linguistic and conceptual vantage point, drawing connections, drawing on memory and history, and drawing understood as notation and trace, opens distinct possibilities for artists,” Manchanda states. “Not surprisingly, artists submitted work in a variety of mediums—from pencil drawings to annotated collages, videos, and sound recordings.”

Matilsky embraced what visitors may find a somewhat unorthodox perspective on drawing. “I share Catharina’s expansive view of drawing and was delighted that she was able to identify artworks that further pushed the boundaries of the medium. The sound and video pieces that she selected surprised me and added to the complexity of the exhibition.”

Featuring more than 60 works from 29 artists around the country, below Catharina Manchanda offers a glimpse into a selection of the works on view. Get yourself to the Museum and see this spectrum of artistic positions with, and about, drawing.

Margie Livingston, Seattle, WA; Dragged Blue Drawing, 2016; Watercolor and mixed media on paper, string. Courtesy of the artist.

Margie Livingston, Seattle, WA
The artist arrives at these lyrical compositions with controlled chance operations. Heavy sheets of paper are tinged with color and then dragged on the studio floor or the street where the movement creates a chance image. Embedded in the surfaces are dust and dirt, portions are rubbed and worn and yet the overall drawings have a quiet lyricism.

 

Kelly Bjork, Seattle, WA; Splayed Produce, 2016; Gouache and pencil. Courtesy of the artist.

Kelly Bjork, Seattle, WA
Kelly Bjork’s quiet interiors are beautifully rendered with an eye for crisp color and form. Embedded in her compositions and titles is a sparkling sense of humor—Tiger Overhead and Splayed Produce project an element of danger and adventure that’s there for you to discover.

 

Lou Watson, Portland, OR
The artist takes the most ordinary traffic patterns and movements as occasion for artistic intervention. For Bellingham National, she chose a spot along I-5 and ascribed a musical note to each of the lanes. Every time a car went past a traffic sign, it triggered a tone—a little car a short note, a long truck a longer one. With this, she composed a minimalist score from the monotonous back and forth of highway traffic. The movement of the cars along the road is linear like a drawing and her paper prints give insights into her process.

 

Masha Sha, Boulder, CO; New Now, 2017; Colored pencil on tracing paper. Courtesy of the artist.

Masha Sha, Boulder, CO
Sha’s vivid, large-scale pencil or crayon drawings spell out phrases that invite free association. Whether you see her bright red  “New Now” today, tomorrow, or in ten years, it will always be the now of the moment. Drawn with intensity, we may interpret that now in personal, communal, social, or political terms and it will mean different things to each of us.

 

Kirk Yamahira, Seattle, WA; Untitled (stretched); 2017. Acrylic, pencil, unweaved, deconstructed on canvas, 67 x 67 in. Courtesy of the artist.

Kirk Yamahira, Seattle, WA
Kirk Yamahira deconstructs the fabric of a  canvas—he carefully lifts individual threads—to arrive at abstract lines and patterns that read like three-dimensional drawings. In some instances an additional tilt of the stretcher results in objects that are utterly transformed.