The Whatcom Museum recently uploaded a new virtual gallery that showcases a sampling of artwork by Helmi Juvonen (1903-1985). It can be viewed HERE. Scroll down to learn more about the life Helmi.
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, her father made pencil sketches and watercolor paintings for her and her sister. When she was 15, her family moved to Seattle. During her time at Queen Anne High School, Helmi sold handmade rag dolls and greeting cards at a local department store.
After graduating, she worked as a seamstress and took on small side jobs to pay her way through Seattle Art School. Those side jobs helped her establish 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). It was there she studied puppetry and lithography. The next year, she was hospitalized with manic-depressive illness (now known as bipolar disorder). She spent three years at Northern State Hospital.
After being released, Helmi lived on the edge of poverty as she struggled to make a living. Helmi continued to take on art-related jobs and create drawings that she sold for 50 cents each. Her talents were well-recognized and her works were purchased by many important Seattle collectors. During this time, Helmi made connections with Chief Shelton of the Lummi Tribe, Chief Colowash of the Yakama tribe, and White Eagle of the Chippewa.
Capturing the Spirit of Native Americans
Over the course of two decades Helmi continued to build a rapport with tribes across the Pacific Northwest. She got the chance to participate in religious ceremonies across the state. Helmi later illustrated many of these ceremonies and captured the emotions that surrounded them. Examples of tribes she interacted with include the Lummi, Swinomish, Yakima, and Makah.
In 1953, she attended the “Treaty Day” ceremonial dances in La Conner. She also produced hundreds of drawings of Native American artifacts in the Washington State Museum.
During the 1950s, a period of suppression and conformity, a woman living alone as an artist proved difficult. Helmi’s eccentricities, including living with dozens of cats, alarmed neighbors and family. For a time, the artist’s obsession with Mark Tobey, the most renowned of the Pacific Northwest mystic painters, embarrassed Tobey.
Helmi was mistakenly diagnosed with schizophrenia (now recognized as manic-depression). As a result, she was committed against her will to Oakhurst Convalescent Home in Elma, Washington. She lived there for the final 26 years of her life. While there, she continued to make art and welcome artists and supporters. These supporters organized exhibitions, including her 1985 retrospective at the Whatcom Museum.
The Whatcom Museum’s collection of her work, which numbers 250 objects, includes some of her finest pieces. Some of those include paintings of petroglyphs from Central Washington, watercolors of Lummi masked dancers, and more. This virtual gallery gives a small sampling of the complexity of Helmi’s vision.
Helmi’s life is one of great trials. Even in the face of mental illness and poverty, Helmi continued to produce art until her final days. Through her tireless work, she forged a unique style that merged aboriginal Northwest culture with modern art.