Helder, Z. Vanessa (1904-1968)

  • By David F. Martin
  • Posted 9/09/2008
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 8633
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Z. Vanessa Helder was one of Washington state's most distinguished artists of the early twentieth century. Born into a pioneer family, she  became the state's leading practitioner of Precisionism, a style that utilized a hard-edged,  realistic technique that she successfully mastered in the difficult medium of watercolor. After attaining success in Seattle, Helder studied and worked briefly in New York, where she attracted the attention of some of the leading galleries and museums of the day. Upon her return, she was involved in the state's WPA programs and became an instructor at the Spokane Art Center for two years. Her Northwest landscapes, especially those of Eastern Washington, were uncommon subjects for the national venues in which she participated and brought attention to the unique geographical and atmospheric qualities of her home state. Helder's series of watercolors documenting the construction of Grand Coulee Dam remains one of the major accomplishments of any regional artist and several of these paintings continue to be in demand for national exhibitions and publications.

Life of an Artist

Zama Vanessa Helder  seemed destined to live the life of an artist from the moment she was born in Lynden, Washington, on May 30, 1904. Her first name, Zama, was derived from a town in North Africa where Hannibal met his defeat in 202 bce.

“When I was young," Helder later said, "my parents used to say: Vanessa, behave yourself, and generally speaking I thought I did though my brother may have taken a different view. He was not subject to unusual notions as I was.” 

Her parents were among the earliest settlers in Whatcom County, and led equally interesting lives. Anna Wright Helder, her mother, was the daughter of a Civil War veteran who had moved his family from Kansas to the Lynden Settlement in 1887. He opened the town’s first hotel and his son later opened Lynden’s first drugstore.

Her father, Rynard R. Helder, was born in Holland and emigrated to the U.S. at the age of 2. He accompanied his parents to Whidbey Island in the mid-1890s and settled in Lynden  in 1898 where he married Anna the following year. Their union produced two children, Vanessa, and a son, R. Wright Helder, who would become an accomplished studio photographer.

Rynard was a successful businessman and served as the Secretary/Treasurer of the AmeriCanadian Mining Company. Anna Helder was involved in both music and the visual arts, studying painting with William Gilstrap (1840-1914) and Max Mayer (1887-1947) at Puget Sound University in Tacoma. In 1923, she became a faculty member of the Bellingham School of Music and Art. Under her mother’s tutelage, Vanessa produced her first painting at the age of 9 and never put her brushes down after that. She attended local schools and graduated from Whatcom High School before attending the Success Business College in Bellingham, followed by the University of Washington.

Vanessa and her mother were active members of the Theosophical  Society  and were involved in Spiritualism. One of her first published works was a graphite portrait of Madame Helena Blavatsky (1831-1891) that was used as an illustration for the 1930 publication The Personality of H. P. Blavatsky by Curuppumullage Jinarajadasa (1875-1953).

Mastering Watercolor

She distinguished her own personal artistic expression by concentrating on the medium of watercolor as opposed to her mother’s use of oil paints. Her earliest works follow the standard techniques of watercolor, utilizing transparent washes to build form and drybrush to suggest texture.

These early works display a debt to Elizabeth Colborne (1887-1948), who was the leading artist of Bellingham during that time. Although there is no evidence of her studying with Colborne, the elder artist’s influence is evident in both technique and subject matter. Colborne produced  paintings in water-based mediums as well as woodblock prints of the Northwest landscape that reflected an interest in Japanese art and composition.

After an early mastering of the watercolor medium, Vanessa turned her attention to rural and industrial architectural elements juxtaposed within the region’s natural landscape.

New York Years

In 1934, she won a scholarship to study at the Art Students League of New York. Over the next three years she studied with some of the most renowned artists of the day including Robert Brackman (1898-1980), George Picken (1898-1971), and Frank Vincent Dumond (1865-1951). While in New York, she likely became acquainted with the work of Charles Sheeler (1883-1965), a leading proponent of Precisionism, the style of sharply defined  and highly scrutinized realism which she adapted and incorporated into her own work.

In 1935, she became a member of the prestigious National Association of Women painters and Sculptors ( Now called National Association of Women Artists), affording her the opportunity to be included in prominent East Coast group exhibitions where her work was often cited as among the best entries. A year later she became an associate member of the American Watercolor Society and exhibited with that organization through the next few decades, becoming a unanimously elected Active Member in 1946.

Women Painters of Washington

During visits home to Seattle, she produced studies and paintings of distinctly Northwest subject matter to satisfy the growing interest in New York. By 1936, she had returned to Seattle and became active with the Women Painters of Washington, a highly successful organization of the area’s most prominent women artists.  That year, Helder arranged for the organization to hold their first national exhibition at the Grant Studios in Brooklyn, New York. One of her own entries was a painting of the CCC (Civilian Conservation Corps) Camp Ginkgo near Vantage.

The following year, Women Painters of Washington held a second exhibition at the same gallery which had now moved into the city with a location at 175 Macdougal street in Greenwich Village. Helder’s work was so well received in both shows that she was invited to have a solo exhibition of 16 watercolors in February and March 1938.  She developed close friendships with WPW members Dorothy Dolph Jensen (1895-1977), Blanche Morgan Losey (1912-1981), and Ebba Rapp (1909-1985), who often accompanied her on painting excursions to Eastern Washington and other remote areas of the state.

A Leading Artist of the 1930s

In addition to her activities with Women Painters of Washington, she also exhibited with the Seattle Art Museum’s Northwest Annuals and other important local venues. By 1937, Helder had become employed by the Washington State WPA (Works Progress Administration) art programs. She completed numerous paintings and lithographs depicting urban and rural life in and around Seattle and continued her interest in the landscapes of Eastern Washington.

She often concentrated on the architectural forms of old houses and industrial structures that are usually devoid of human interaction.  At first glance, the subjects are familiar, invoking memories and feelings associated with such a universal subject. Although the paintings appear to be a literal transcription of a particular place, she often adjusted the compositions to evoke mood and to induce emotional relationships to the viewer. In describing her process of painting a covered bridge in Brattleboro, Vermont, she stated “I did sketches from three points, knowing that I was doing half realistic, half dream pictures from my childhood memories.”

As one of the leading WPA artists in the state, Helder was selected to design and produce two mural maps for the State Capital Building. The two murals were installed in the Public Land Social Security Building in September 1938. The panel on the east wall depicted Eastern Washington while the West wall depicted the western part of the state. Both murals were seven feet square and depicted the natural resources, and public points of interest in both area’s. Unfortunately, the murals have either been removed or painted over with no record of their fate.

Moving to Spokane

Helder received hometown recognition when the art gallery at Western Washington College in Bellingham honored her with a solo exhibition in 1938. That same year she relocated from Seattle to become an instructor at the Spokane Art Center. She taught watercolor painting and lithography alongside some of the region’s finest artists. They included Carl (1911-1993) and Hilda Morris (1911-1991), Guy Anderson (1906-1998), and Robert Engard (1915-2003), who would become her close and lifelong friend.

After participating in the Northwest Annuals for several years, Helder was given a solo exhibition of her work at the Seattle Art Museum in May 1939. The show was met with glowing reviews and precipitated the purchase of her watercolor City Gas Works for the museum’s permanent collection later in the year. A few months later, in July, she was given a second solo exhibition at the Grant Studios in New York, maintaining her visibility in the East.

Following the Seattle Art Museum’s lead, the Spokane Art Center also gave Helder a large solo exhibition from October 12, 1939, through November 3,1939. The show consisted of 50 paintings, all of them depicting Eastern Washington subjects.  The exhibition coincided with still another national exhibition of 12 of her watercolors at the Staten Island Art Institute in New York. This busy year also brought the inclusion of additional paintings in several national and regional group exhibitions.

Helder's Grand Coulee Dam

Shortly thereafter, Helder began a series of watercolors depicting the final stages of construction of Grand Coulee Dam and its environs. Had she only produced this series of 22 watercolors, her reputation would have been secured, as they are without question some of the most accomplished and critically acclaimed works by any Northwest artist.

After gaining a pass from the Bureau of Reclamation, she was allowed to wander unaided along the construction scene of the dam. She would make numerous sketches, often accompanied by her friend Bob Engard, and work them into the final compositions in her studio. The masterful technique and powerful strength of these works are nearly as awe-inspiring as the dam itself. 

A Life in Art 

Helder returned to Seattle in 1941, still employed by the Federal Art Projects.

With the success of her State Capitol Museum murals, she was selected to paint another, this time designed by R. Bruce Inverarity (1909-1999), the State Director of the WPA. The work depicted the evolution of aviation and was installed at the Sand Point Naval Station in the Bachelor Officer’s Quarter.  Like her State Capitol murals, this work has also been lost, either by removal by the U.S. government during a renovation or in a devastating fire at the station in the 1970s. The original building in which it was placed no longer exists.

She continued exhibiting locally and nationally and in 1941 married Robert J. S. “Jack” Paterson (1907-1968), an industrial architect. That same year she held a final exhibition with the Grant Studio’s before switching to the prestigious Macbeth Gallery, also in New York City. The gallery represented some of the most important American artists of the period and her addition to their stable illustrates the prominence that she had achieved.  Her first exhibition included 38 watercolors that were later used by the gallery to circulate among other venues in the East. Helder was especially fond of painting winter subjects and she often traveled to Brattleboro, Vermont, where she found the snow-covered landscape particularly enticing.

By this time, Seattle had its own professional watercolor society, which was formed in 1939 by three of her Women Painters of Washington friends, Florence Harrison Nesbit (1910-2001), Dorothy Milne Rising (1895-1992), and Vara Grube (1903-1994). The Northwest boasted an unusually large number of excellent watercolorists, but few worked in the Precisionist style that Helder had perfected.  Besides her activities with the WPW and the Northwest Watercolor Society, Helder participated in other art related activities including lecturing at the Seattle Art Museum and participating in the National Art Week‘s “Art In Action” program giving public demonstrations along with other noted Seattle artists Fay Chong (1912-1973), Edwin Burnley (1896-1981), and Julius Twohy (1902-1986), who painted in his traditional Ute Indian clothing, to the delight of the public.

American Realists and Magic Realists

After the attack of Pearl Harbor in 1941, Helder became involved in the war effort by joining Washington State Artists Council for Defense, using her talents for fundraising as well as poster, graphic, and camouflage design.

In February, 1943, Vanessa Helder reached one of the highest points of her career when she was included in an important exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art titled “American Realists and Magic Realists” 

The exhibition consisted of American master artists from the past such as Raphaelle Peale (1774-1825), John James Audubon (1785-1851), Winslow Homer (1836-1910), and Thomas Eakins (1844-1916). Besides Helder, the living artists selected by Lincoln Kirstein (1907-1996) “chiefly for the intensity and quality of achievement”  included Edward Hopper (1882-1967), Charles Sheeler, and Andrew Wyeth (b. 1917). Helder exhibited 12 of her watercolors including three from the Grand Coulee series.

With the numerous solo exhibitions that she had in New York, the MoMA exhibition was the only one in which she actually attended in person. Having made the trip East to enjoy her success, she also took advantage of the brutal East Coast winter to search for  “some snow stuff wherever.”

The regional newspapers applauded her success and relished the idea of a local artist exhibiting in such an important venue as the Museum of Modern Art. She had officially arrived.

However, following her trip East, Washington state lost Helder when she relocated to Los Angeles to join her husband who had moved there for professional opportunities.

Moving Away

Her success in California resumed and she became active with the California Watercolor Society, eventually serving on their board and other arts organizations who displayed her Washington State paintings along with recent works executed in her new home. She also continued to exhibit in New York where she held a two-person exhibit with artist Peter Hurd (1904-1984) at the Macbeth Gallery in March 1944. Of her 11 paintings in this exhibit, eight were produced in Vermont and three with California subjects. In 1945 she was honored with a solo exhibition of her work at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, where she exhibited 24 watercolors of various locations in which she had been active, including a few of the Grand Coulee series.

For Helder, social concern was a priority and she volunteered her time working with wounded soldiers at Fort MacArthur and in San Pedro’s Birmingham Hospital. She felt that teaching art classes was a way for her to contribute as an artist to the rehabilitation of the soldiers who could possibly use artistic skills for employment opportunities. She also continued to promote art, especially through lectures with various organizations. Her highly successful time at the Spokane Art Center caused her to be actively involved in the pursuit of establishing other art centers for the benefit of the public. She became an advocate for this concept and was honored in February 1946 at the Oklahoma Art Center.

Her fame had become so widespread that she was featured in the Watercolor Series of American Artist magazine in June 1948. She was even used in an advertisement for Strathmore artist papers and boards as part of their Prominent Artist series.

With an exhausting schedule, she even managed to add teaching to her busy life by becoming an instructor at the Los Angeles Art Institute from 1952 to 1955.

Shifting Aesthetics, Changing Times

With the advent of Abstract Expressionism, the type of realism that Helder had established her reputation on began to lose favor with the critics and art institutes. Although she did produce some paintings utilizing geometric abstraction, she took a unique approach to adapting to these changes by producing works that at first glance appeared to be abstractions but after a closer inspection reveal a realistic scene but from a non-traditional observation.

She would create compositions using birds-eye views of train crashes or topographic studies where the rendering of the terrain and highways observed from a higher vantage point made unusual abstract designs arising from the forms and lines. To further broaden the contemporary appeal of her work, she began using the opaque medium of casein and experimented with rice papers, as she felt that Chinese painting was among the most beautiful in the history of art.

To supplement her income, she also ventured into crafts-related artwork by producing metal jewelry, glass mosaics, and other utilitarian objects that could be sold along with her original greeting cards through West Coast department stores. Although her paintings had always sold very well, especially considering the economic depression of her heyday, she had always kept her Grand Coulee Dam series intact.

Grande Coulee Dam Series Preserved

In 1954, Florence Reed (1893-1981), director of the Eastern Washington State Historical Society, (now the Northwest Museum of Arts & Culture) arranged for the purchase of 20 works from the Coulee Dam series from the artist. Reed had been active with the Spokane Art Center during Helder’s time there and had studied watercolor painting with her. Reed’s son Gervais (1926-2001) would himself become an important figure in Seattle’s art history through his instruction at the University of Washington, his innovative directorship of the university’s Henry Art Gallery and numerous other substantial contributions that he made to our regional culture.

A few years after the acquisition, Helder donated the two remaining works of the series, both Kettle Falls subjects, to the museum, completing the collection.

Last Years

Vanessa Helder continued to live in Los Angeles but her career slowly came to a halt  due to her own declining health as well as her husband’s chronic illness in which she was the primary caretaker in his final years.

She died on her husband’s birthday, on May 1, 1968, just eight days after his own demise.

Her art estate was bequeathed to the Westside Jewish Community Center in Los Angeles, a puzzling decision since she herself was not Jewish. The center sold the remaining works from her estate in several sales over the next few years, with no record of their purchasers. Of the hundreds of artworks Helder made over her lifetime, the majority remains unlocated -- to this day. 


Correspondence between Vanessa Helder and John Helder (cousin), Christmas 1962, copy in possession of David F. Martin, Martin-Zambito Fine Art, Seattle, Washington;  History of Whatcom County Vols. 1 and 2, ed. by Lottie Roeder Roth  (Chicago: Pioneer Historical Pub. Co., 1926); The New York Times, February 2, 1936; "Seattle Artist 'Exports' Western Beauty to East," Seattle Star, April 5, 1937, p. 18; David Martin to Helder's friend, historian Dorothy Koert and Koert to Martin, May 20, 1994 and March 4, 1997, in possession of David F. Martin, Martin-Zambito Fine Art; David Martin telephone interviews with Wright Helder (the artist’s brother),  1990-1995, notes in possession of David Martin; David Martin conversations with Helder friends, Dorothy Koert, Doris Jensen Carmin and John McLauchlan, 1990-1999, notes in possession of David F. Martin; American Artist, June 1948, pp 46-47; Virginia Boren See, “Art in Action: National Art Week Opens," The Seattle Times, November 18, 1941; Suzanne Martin, "Counterpoint," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, February 28, 1943; Dorothy C. Miller, et al, American Realists and Magic Realists, The Museum of Modern Art, exhibition catalogue, 1943, in possession of David F. Martin,Martin-Zambito Fine Art; Suzanne Martin, "Counterpoint," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, March 25, 1945; Copies of correspondence between Helder and Florence Reed provided to the David Martin by the late Gervais Reed in 1991; David Martin and Herb Morris of the American Watercolor Society, email correspondence, May 14, 2008, in possession of David Martin; Correspondence between Morton A. Schrag, The Westside Jewish Community Center of Los Angeles and David Martin, March 8, 1993, in possession of David Martin.

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