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Five Women Artists in the Collection: Helmi Dagmar Juvonen

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

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

The Whatcom Museum is featuring five women artists from its collection throughout the month of March—Women’s History Month—in conjunction with the #5WomenArtists campaign, organized by the National Museum of Women in the Arts. This week we highlight Helmi Dagmar Juvonen, whose work was last exhibited in the Lightcatcher in 2015.

Helmi Dagmar Juvonen (1903-1985), known in her day simply as Helmi, 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 strove 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.

Drawn to Northwest Coast native culture, she developed a rapport with the Lummi, Swinomish, Makah, and Yakama chiefs, who invited her to participate in their ceremonies. Aboriginal art and ritual nurtured Helmi’s creative spirit, empowering her to transcend gender bias, poverty, and decades confined to an asylum for mental illness.

Mary Randlett, Photograph of artist Helmi Juvonen, 1983. Whatcom Museum #1986.0017.000001.

With an avid interest in anthropology, Helmi believed in the importance of documenting Native American spiritual life. As a result, she forged a unique style, merging Northwest aboriginal culture with modern art. The artist also conjured “imaginary things,” and many of her works reflect both the dark and light sides of the human psyche.

In many ways, Helmi was ahead of her time and her graffiti-like abstraction, mixed-media compositions, and paper cutouts relate to trends in contemporary art.

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. You can view a selection of her work in this online virtual gallery and read more about her life on the Museum’s blog.

Compiled from curatorial narrative and research by Barbara Matilsky.

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.

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