Visual

Helmi's World

A woman ahead of her time

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

At times, Helmi Juvonen’s biographical timeline reads like a soap opera.

For example, even though the Montana-born painter, printmaker and sculptor wasn’t technically insane, she still spent the last 26 years of her life at Elma’s Oakhurst Convalescent Center, where she landed after being involuntarily committed to Northern State Hospital in Sedro-Woolley with a (mistaken) diagnosis of schizophrenia.

And although the accomplishments noted in Helmi’s history—from her birth in 1903 to her death in 1985—included exhibits throughout the Pacific Northwest and growing recognition from her peers, her art was often overshadowed by the fact that she didn’t follow the typical path of women of her time.

Instead of getting married and having children, Helmi developed friendships with Native American chiefs, attended ceremonies and potlatches from Bellingham to La Conner, Vancouver Island, and beyond, camped for long periods of time on reservations, studied aboriginal art and eventually created a body of work that helped to preserve a vanishing way of life.

On a recent tour of “Helmi’s World: Symbol, Myth, Fantasy” at Whatcom Museum’s Lightcatcher Building, curator Barbara Matilsky stressed the importance of looking beyond Helmi’s “eccentricities”—her obsession with fellow artist Mark Tobey, residing in an old shack in Edmonds without heat or water, and various other attempts to live independently—to the fact that what she created should be remembered in the annals of history.

“People don’t know much about how important her work was to Native American culture,” Matilsky says. “If she had money—and had been a man—life would have been very different for her.”

“Helmi’s World” features works culled from both before she was committed in 1960, and after her incarceration in Elma, where she was thankfully able to continue her artistic pursuits. Those visiting the gallery can see everything from paintings of petroglyphs from Central Washington to watercolors of Lummi masked dancers, linocut prints of the Makah Thunderbird and Wolf dances, mixed-media drawings inspired by ancient Peruvian tapestries, and more modern pieces that suggest Helmi was also on the cutting-edge of modern art.

“Although Helmi has not yet been recognized as widely as other Pacific Northwest ‘mystics,’ such as Mark Tobey and Morris Graves, she was, in many ways, ahead of her time,” Matilsky says. “Her graffiti-like abstractions, mixed-media compositions, and paper cut-outs relate to trends in contemporary art and communicate easily with a new generation of viewers.”

Matilsky admits to becoming slightly obsessed with Helmi while putting the exhibit together. This can be seen in the attention to detail included in the explanatory missives next to each work on display. When possible, she sought and found photographs that corresponded with the pieces Helmi had made, such as “Chief Seattle,” “Mark Tobey’s Eskimo Mask” or that of a Lummi dancer. She also put together the intricate timeline, made sure to include pieces that were representative of various points of Helmi’s life and career, and looked beyond the art to the real woman who—despite setbacks that would have silenced a typical person—never gave up on her visions.

Helmi’s last exhibit at the Whatcom Museum took place 30 years ago, a few months before her death. With “Helmi’s World,” her spirit is remembered, and brought back to vivid life. If you go, you’ll not only be paying homage to a master, but learning something in the process.

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