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!

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