Editor's note: The Birger Sandzén Memorial Gallery and Cori Sherman North provided permission for Resource Library to publish the following exhibition gallery guide text for the exhibition The Art of a Prairie Child: Helen West Heller, 1872-1955, held May 1st through July 17th 2016 at the Birger Sandzén Memorial Gallery. If you have questions or comments regarding the text, please contact Birger Sandzén Memorial Gallery directly through either this phone number or web address:


The Art of a Prairie Child: Helen West Heller, 1872-1955

by Cori Sherman North


Although today the artist is largely unfamiliar, during Helen West Heller's lifetime she was well known for her expressive paintings, prints, and poetry, as well as for her depression-era WPA murals and mosaics, and woodcuts reproduced in the New York Times. The last major showing of the artist's career was organized by the Smithsonian Institution's department of graphic art in 1948, the year following publication of Heller's book Woodcuts U.S.A. (1947). (right: Helen West Heller, Meditation [aka Woodland Melody], 1920s, woodcut on paper, 4 1/4 x 2 1/2 inches. Collection of Birger Sandzén Memorial Gallery)

More than sixty examples of Heller's printmaking and illustration work are featured in this retrospective exhibition. Bethany College holdings of thirty-five Helen West Heller woodcut prints are the nucleus of the Sandzén Gallery exhibition, but two private collections have loaned additional works to provide a fuller glimpse into the artist's career. Kent Garlinghouse of New York, whose mother was a close friend of the artist, has loaned 19 prints, including a variety woodcuts and a few lithographs. Heller's biographer, Dr. Larry Stanfel of Montana, has shared seven books which carry illustrations by the prolific artist and two large-scale color woodcuts from the 1950s.

In the April 14, 1925, art section of the Chicago Evening Post, a 31-syllable "tanka" poem by Helen West Heller appeared, praising the lithographs of Bethany College professor Birger Sandzén:

Pines and horses turn
From the wind. Birches wink
In the sun. Viking rocks
Fling faces to the sky. Light,
Light! - shouts to the very clouds.

Heller had just returned to Chicago from a visit to Lindsborg, where she was invited by Sandzén (1871-1954) to show six of her woodcut prints in the college's annual exhibition that accompanied Easter performances of Handel's Messiah oratorio. Heller was invited back Bethany College to show in the spring exhibition of 1926 and for a larger exhibition of her prints and watercolors in 1927. Heller and Sandzén most likely met as fellow artists in Chicago's wide-ranging exhibition programs. In 1922 Heller had been among the organizers for the democratically-motivated Chicago No-jury Society of Artists (1922-57). The October 1923 catalogue for the group's first show lists many of Sandzén's colleagues from Chicago's Swedish American artists' community, as well as friend G.N. Malm (1869-1928) also from Lindsborg. Sandzén exhibited with the Chicago No-jury artists in subsequent years, adding the society to his extensive exhibition schedules.

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Born in 1872, "Hellen" Barnhart grew up on an Illinois farm, where dreams of an art career prompted her to study for a year in St. Louis and then move to Chicago, around the time the World's Columbian Exposition of 1893 opened. Aside from an unsuccessful attempt to survive as an artist's model, nothing is known of her studies during that first Chicago period of her life. The young artist moved on to New York City and married, becoming Mrs. Helen West in 1901. Helen West attended classes at the anarchist Ferrer Center Modern School (est. 1911), taking painting lessons from the gritty realists of New York's Ashcan School, Robert Henri (1865-1929) and George Bellows (1882-1925). The Modern School's espousal of "free love" and Socialist ideals paved the way for Helen to move in with Roger Paul Heller (1888-1975), an inventor more than fifteen years her junior. After divorcing and marrying for the second time, Helen and her new husband moved back to the Barnhart family farm to work the land.

After seven years of physical toil and isolated art practice, in 1921 Helen West Heller left her eccentric husband behind and took her sketches and paintings back to Chicago. She engaged with other artists of the Roaring Twenties and became a dynamic member of the arts community. In 1928, Heller published Migratory Urge (Chicago: F.J. Meine), a book of woodcut images and text. Recognized with a solo exhibition and her first sale of a painting as she turned 50 years old, the diminutive Helen West Heller continued to be identified as a fiery Marxist who pushed boundaries of fine art definitions for the rest of her career. Moving to New York in 1932, the artist is known to have regularly participated in open-air debates on Columbus Circle and joined Communist art societies and attended the First American Artists' Congress Against War and Fascism in 1936. In December of the same year, Heller led a protest of more than 200 Artists Union strikers against federal WPA (Works Progress Administration) job layoffs and was beaten and arrested by the police. Twenty years after the first, Heller published another book, Woodcuts, U.S.A. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1947), pairing her woodcut images of Americans at work with verse by other poets. The volume was issued in a limited edition as well as the smaller format included in this exhibition. Despite critical success the artist died destitute in Bellevue Hospital in 1955, a ward of the State of New York.

Major holdings of Helen West Heller's work may be found at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the Art Institute of Chicago, the New York Public Library, the Brooklyn Museum, the Library of Congress, the Indianapolis Museum of Art, and Bethany College and the Birger Sandzen Memorial Gallery of Lindsborg, Kansas.

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Exhibition organizer Larry Stanfel holds a Ph.D. from Northwestern University and has published several books and more than 60 articles on a variety of topics. His current publications include Uncompromising Souls: The Lives and Work of Artist Helen West Heller and Husband Roger (2016) and The Complete Poetry of Helen West Heller (2016).

About the author

Cori Sherman North is Curator at the Birger Sandzén Memorial Gallery.


(above: Helen West Heller, Prairie Child, 1926, color woodcut on paper, 9 x 8 1/4 inches, inscribed pencil: To Birger Sandzén.Collection of Birger Sandzén Memorial Gallery)


(above: Helen West Heller, Salutation to the New Dawn, 1920s, woodcut on paper, 3 x 4 inches. Collection of Birger Sandzén Memorial Gallery)


(above: Helen West Heller, Splicing Job--Iliad A 436,437, 1952, color woodcut on paper, 17 x 18 inches, Collection of Dr. and Mrs. Larry Stanfel)


Resource Library editor's notes:

The above text was published in Resource Library on June 29, 2016 with permission of the author and Birger Sandzén Memorial Gallery, which was granted to TFAO on June 16, 2016. Resource Library wishes to extend appreciation to Cori Sherman North for her help concerning permission for publishing the text.

Read more information, articles and essays concerning this institutional source by visiting the sub-index page for the Birger Sandzén Memorial Gallery in Resource Library.

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