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Helen West Heller: artist, poet, activist

She found symmetry in baseball. She made a triptych celebrating American agriculture. Her portraits featured the work of human hands, her own and those of her subjects. Prints made by Helen West Heller (1872–1955) carry strong messages about people and their labors. Fortunately, our museum’s collections include several woodcuts by this creative, talented, and very independent printmaker.

Woodcut with illustration of baseball players
Baseball: a Close Decision,” woodcut by Helen West Heller, 1928. Everything is in motion—arms and legs, players and spectators—except the ball. Gift of the artist.

After growing up close to nature as a child in Illinois, Heller spent much of her adult life in urban centers. She studied at the St. Louis School of Fine Arts in the 1890s and later at the Art Students League in New York. In the early years she struggled for recognition, and when her work was rejected for conventional exhibitions, she became a founding member of the Chicago No-Jury Society for artists outside the establishment. In 1928 she published her poetry and her images in a small book, The Migratory Urge.

An activist during the volatile period of the 1930s, Heller was a member of several left-leaning artists’ organizations and attended the first American Artists’ Congress, Artists Against War and Fascism, in 1936. The group selected her woodcut “Reforestation” as one of 100 prints featured in its publication, America Today, and circulated it nationwide in a series of exhibitions characterized by socially conscious images that reflected the world outside the artist’s studio. She created paintings, prints, and murals for the Works Progress Administration’s Federal Art Project during the Great Depression. Participation in the WPA gave her some much-needed exposure, and by the late 1930s Heller exhibited her work more widely at museums and galleries.

Three woodcuts arranged in a series
“American Soil,” woodcut triptych by Helen West Heller, 1935. The three subjects represented are “Cotton Picking,” “Reforestation,” and “Corn Husking.” Gift of the artist.

In 1947 the Oxford University Press issued Woodcuts U.S.A., a publication with 20 of Heller’s prints and quotes from American writers. The following year she was recognized as an associate member of the National Academy of Design. The Smithsonian showed 35 of her prints in a solo exhibition in 1949, in generous recognition of which she presented eight titles now in the museum’s Graphic Arts Collection: “Alabama Biochemist,” “American Soil” (triptych), “Baseball: A Close Decision,” “Companioned,” “Milennium,” and “Nocturne.” Her work is represented in the collections of the Brooklyn Museum, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Indianapolis Museum of Art, and the Library of Congress, which purchased her prints through its prestigious Pennell Prize program.

Woodcut showing a man standing in a laboratory
“Alabama Biochemist,” woodcut by Helen West Heller, 1947. George Washington Carver is pictured with his scientific laboratory glassware and surrounded by the cotton and peanut plants he studied. Gift of the artist.

Over her career, Heller worked in mosaics, oils, and murals, but she is best known for her woodcuts, which feature elaborate textures and patterns. Her artistic credo, as outlined in a letter to Smithsonian curator Jacob Kainen at the time of her 1949 exhibition, focused on composition. “Composition is a science: in its lower levels it is a branch of mathematics, in its exalted uses it is a branch of psychology. Next in importance is powerful line, simple enough to be penetrating, not so simple as to become static.” Her woodcuts demonstrate the power of line, and the overflowing patterns of her compositions carry many levels of meaning. They are never static but convey action, movement, and a celebration of humanity.

Helena E. Wright is a curator in the Division of Culture and the Arts.