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Tacoma Art Museum brings once-forgotten Northwest artist back into the spotlight
Vanessa Helder, Main Street, Brattleboro, not dated. Watercolor on paper. Private collection, courtesy of Martin-Zambito Fine Art.

TACOMA, WA.- Z. Vanessa Helder was a one-of-a-kind, nationally recognized master watercolorist from the Northwest, but decades after her 1939 solo exhibition at the Seattle Art Museum and after exhibiting at the Museum of Modern Art, the Whitney Museum of American Art, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, her name and artworks have all but been forgotten….until now. Tacoma Art Museum has brought Helder’s rare talent and striking, expressive works back to the public in Austere Beauty: The Art of Z. Vanessa Helder. On view through October 20, 2013, the exhibition and accompanying catalogue are the first major survey of this under-recognized artist’s life and artistic career.

“Though Helder is known to scholars of American art as one of the Northwest’s most interesting early modernists, most people have never had the chance to see her accomplished works or to learn about her life,” said Margaret Bullock, Curator of Collections and Special Exhibitions at Tacoma Art Museum. “We are excited to bring her work to greater attention and a broader audience.”

Born in Lynden, Washington, Helder (1904–1968) was one of the Northwest’s leading artists in the first half of the 20th century with a unique personal style. She specialized in watercolor; her works radiating clear color as she tightly controlled a medium known for its fluidity and soft, blurry line. She began her artistic training at the University of Washington and then relocated to New York to study at the Art Students League before returning to Washington to work for the WPA Federal Art Project at the Spokane Art Center. In 1943 she moved to Los Angeles for the remainder of her career where she became deeply involved in the local art scene and the California Watercolor Society. Helder’s exhibition history encompassed not only regional museums and galleries but also stretched throughout the country, most notably her inclusion in the American Realists and Magic Realists exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in 1943.

“Our Northwest Perspective Series of exhibitions and catalogues offers new research into the life and work of important Northwest artists like Vanessa Helder,” said Stephanie A. Stebich, Director of Tacoma Art Museum. “We are proud to contribute scholarship to promote the region’s art history and to re-introduce such important artists to the public.”

Co-curator David Martin, a well-known Seattle art historian and owner of Martin-Zambito Fine Art has spent decades researching Helder including a two-year nationwide search to relocate the artist’s important works. Thanks to his tireless efforts, the museum is able to present a broad range of Helder’s iconic images, such as her series about the building of the Grand Coulee Dam, her portraits, and her depictions of eastern Washington landscapes and regional landmarks like Alki Point Lighthouse.

“Her striking body of work is a testament to her restless creative spirit and deep love for her art,” said Martin.

A quirky character, Helder would often be seen walking her pet skunk, Sniffy, on a leash around the streets of Seattle. She was a pivotal member of the Women Painters of Washington and an advocate for other women artists. Helder battled the barriers of her day that fought against women becoming professional artists with determination and savvy by keeping her work in the public eye.

Austere Beauty: The Art of Z. Vanessa Helder is organized by Tacoma Art Museum.

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