West Coast artist Z. Vanessa Helder seems to have been prepared from the start to pursue an independent course in art. Her full name, Zama Vanessa Helder, curiously was chosen by her parents to represent a town in North Africa and the name of a former music teacher, respectively, but she preferred the more mysterious Z. Vanessa Helder, or more simply “Zelma.” She was born in Lynden, Washington, a small town near Spokane. Her mother, Anna Wright Helder, was an artist, so it is not surprising that she started painting at a young age, and that she decided early on to pursue a career as a professional artist.
Helder enrolled at the University of Washington, Seattle, where she received her first formal studies. Following her graduation, Helder began her professional career in Seattle, where she established herself as a specialist in watercolor. She was recognized for her outstanding talents in 1934, when she was awarded a two-year scholarship by the Art Students League, New York, one of only ten outstanding artists from the United States so awarded. At the League, she studied with Frank Vincent DuMond, George Picken, and Robert Brackman. Helder’s course of study at the Art Students League proved to be enormously influential. She not only refined her watercolor technique, but also added oil painting and lithography to her repertoire. Furthermore, her exposure to contemporary American modernism, which was then the dominant mode in the New York art world, provided a lasting influence on her own work.
Soon after her arrival in New York City and subsequent matriculation at the Art Students League, Helder’s career began to accelerate rapidly, in a way only possible in the great arena of the New York art world. In 1935, she began to participate in a number of group shows in New York galleries and clubs, including the New York Watercolor Club, and she was elected that year to the National Association of Women Painters and Sculptors. In 1937, she was given her first “one-man” show at the Grant Studios, New York, an institution with which she maintained a relationship for several years.
During this period in New York, Helder frequently sent works to Seattle for exhibition. She remained the darling of Seattle’s art society, with frequent reports of her activities in New York appearing in the local newspapers. After she completed her studies at the Art Students League, Helder returned to Seattle, where for many years she was a popular local figure, noted as much for her art as for her idiosyncratic behavior, which included walking “Sniffy,” her pet skunk, prominently throughout the streets of Seattle. She also worked locally as a WPA artist, painting murals in various civic buildings. She exhibited annually at the Seattle Art Museum from 1936 to 1941, capped by winning a prize in 1936, and holding a solo exhibition there in 1939. Helder also participated in exhibitions throughout the West, including at the San Francisco Museum of Art, California, in 1936-37; the Portland Art Museum, Oregon, in 1936; and the Denver Art Museum, Colorado, in 1938 and 1940.
About 1939, Helder moved to Spokane, where she helped found the Spokane Art Center, an art school at which she was an instructor in both watercolor and lithography. She spent three productive years there until 1941, when the federal government, which had funded the center from its inception, canceled its financial support. Later that year, Helder returned to New York, and soon after married Robert S. J. Paterson, an industrial architect. Helder, ever the individualist, retained her distinctive name. In 1943, the couple moved to Los Angeles, California, where she remained until her death in 1968. She was as active as ever, exhibiting annually at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, from 1945 to 1948, as well as at a number of Southern California institutions until the late 1950s. Throughout her career, she remained a committed watercolorist, exhibiting regularly at the American Water Color Society, from 1936 to 1958, and the California Water Color Society, from 1939 to 1958. Today her work is held in a number of museum collections, including the Newark Museum, New Jersey; the High Museum of Art, Atlanta, Georgia; the American Academy of Arts and Letters, New York; and the Cheney Cowles Museum, Spokane.
Helder’s style is notable for the sharp, almost austere precision of her drawing and her coolly modulated palette. Her work certainly suggests a Precisionist linearity and objectivity that one normally associates with artists such as Charles Sheeler and Ralston Crawford. However, unlike these artists, who typically isolate elements of machinery and architecture from nature, Helder usually juxtaposes man-made objects with natural ones, treating all elements with the same cold, objective treatment. Her best works are winter scenes, which, because of the naturally stark character of the season, are complemented by her uncompromising eye.
The high point of Helder’s career came in 1943, when she was represented by twelve watercolors in “American Realists and Magic Realists,” a huge exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, New York. The exhibition, which included work from past American masters, such as Rembrandt Peale, Thomas Cole, Thomas Eakins, and Winslow Homer, and contemporary artists, including Edward Hopper, Charles Sheeler, Louis Lozowick, Ben Shahn, and Andrew Wyeth. The fact that Helder was represented alongside these artists is a testament to the popularity of her art and the singularity of her vision. In her artist’s statement, Helder explained:
My views on art are colored by conditions in the Northwest. The teaching experience I had for three years at the Spokane Art Center showed me the value of art in daily living. It gives people in small communities fresh outlets which they have not had before, and it creates a new art public, because in doing a thing people learn to appreciate it and to love it. All this I learned in teaching, although I don’t like to teach. . . .
While painting is not a simple thing, the doing of it, to me, is as simple as breathing. I have always painted—good, bad or indifferent—and I always will (Helder, as quoted in Dorothy C. Miller and Alfred H. Barr, eds., American Realists and Magic Realists, exhib. cat. [New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1943], p. 42).
Executed about 1920, when Helder sixteen, Mount Baker, Washington shows a clear debt to the work of Elizabeth Colborne (1887–1848), who was the leading artist of Bellingham, Washington. Although it is not known whether the young Helder studied with Colborne, her early works reveal a connection that suggests that she may indeed have. Colborne was a proponent of watercolor and woodblock prints, and Mount Baker, Washington exhibits strong overtones of Japanese woodblock composition.