I found this fantastic metal relief work over the weekend at a second hand store. I was immediately smitten with it for a number or reasons. It has a Scandinavian style which reminded me of the horses Stig Lindberg created in the 1950’s and it was done in a very interesting medium, metal relief. The work was signed but only thanks to the herculean efforts of my fiancee were we able to uncover the artist and her fascinating history. (Check out the unusual name, look at the signature detail depicted below, and you will appreciated the achievement of deciphering the name.)
The work was done by Helmi Dagmar Jovonen, born in 1903, the daughter of two Finnish immigrants. She is a recognized artist associated with the “North West Mystic” school and has had numerous museum exhibitions of her work and is housed in many permanent collections. (A recent special exhibit of her work and papers, “Dispatches to You,” at the Frye Museum just closed in January.)
Helmi’s life story is quite interesting. Due to her being diagnosed as a manic-depressive and confined to a mental hospital in Seattle from 1959 until her death in 1985 many associate her with the “outsider art” movement, though I don’t think this is particularly accurate. Outsider art is usually defined as art “outside” the confines of the proper art world, the artists are not trained and many
produce art solely for their own personal reasons, not selling or making an income from their art during their lifetime. While it obvious Helmi created art out of a need to express herself, not just for economic reasons or fame, she was a well trained artist. The “outsider art” label seems to come from her being confined to a psychiatric institution for decades. Being confined and labeled as mentally unstable meant she was shut out from the official art world of the time.
Helmi attended the Cornish School of the Arts on a scholarship in 1929, she studied figure drawing under Francis Tadema and mechanical drawing at University of Washington. During the 1930’s as part of a WPA she spent a month in a Hooverville sketching the packing-box houses of the unemployed. During WWII she worked for Boeing drawing isometric perspectives of mechanical equipment and research into designing camouflage for the U.S. Navy. On top of this she was very involved in the early art world of Seattle, being close friends with a number of fellow artists, many of these relationships lasting until her death. Some of these friends, who went on to head museums and art schools, were admirers of her work and ensured it received its proper recognition in later years.
Helmi had a close relationship with the Indian tribes of the Northwest, and was of the few outsiders allowed to view their sacred ceremonies. Her drawings, watercolors and sketches of NW Native
American life are some of the best and only records of these tribes during the era. She created linocuts, learned casting and modeling in clay, and created dolls and puppets. For a number of years she created a mural at Christmas for a department store depicting children representing all the nations of the world which was a popular attraction.
As the years went on Helmi’s mental stability was called into question. She was a single woman, living a bohemian lifestyle, and as such she was suspect. While there is no doubt she did suffer from mental illness – particularly delusional thinking – in today’s world she would not have spent half of her life in a mental institution. Instead she probably would have lived in the community, possibly with the help of medication and regular mental health services. Helmi’s style changed dramatically as the mental illness intensified, changed from a very precise line approach to a very wavy, abstract line work.
One of her most notable delusions was her obsession with fellow artist Mark Tobey, who was also a friend. Tobey was openly gay, but Helmi was convinced they were to be married and carried the fantasy quite far – creating wedding invitations, announcements, creating a life-size pillow to look like Mark, writing letters across the country in care of major museums, etc.. He shows up in her artwork quite frequently as a result of the fixation. Outside of Tobey she had other delusional or paranoid thoughts – she had all the electrical
wiring removed from her home in the belief they carried “death rays.”
Helmi was committed to Northern State Hospital in 1959 and became a ward of the state. When she was committed, Dr. Fuller Director of the Seattle Art Museum, sent museum staff to her home to rescue her artwork which he then kept safely stored for the next twenty five years.
As an interesting aside: A book by Urich Fritzche published in 2001, which I link to at the end of this post, raised serious issues about human rights abuses involved in Juvonen’s repeated commitments to long term mental illness facilities. It also shed light on the roles played Dr. Fuller, along with prominent Seattle art collectors, and their collusions with artist and private art dealer Wesley Wehr (1929 – 2004) who gained control of Juvonen’s possessions long before her death in 1985.
Helmi continued to work and create in the hospital and corresponded regularly with her friends in the art world. While in the hospital she would create with any materials she could get her hands on and it seems the institution staff was quite supportive of her efforts and ensured she had access to materials, as well as allowing her to raise and care for families of cats (which she loved) at the facility.
In the 1970’s Helmi started receiving the recognition that had alluded her most of her life. In 1975 an exhibition of her work was organized by at the Pacific Northwest Arts Center Gallery which led to a rediscovery and appreciation of Helmi’s work. A large exhibition at the Frye Museum followed in 1976, which led to shows at the Burke, Nordic Heritage Museum, Evergreen State College Gallery, the Washington State Capitol Museum.
Helmi’s health went into decline in the 1980’s, and she died after falling into a diabetic coma in 1985 at the age of 82. Her work is found at art galleries, particular in the Northwest, and many examples of her work can be found in the permanent collections of museums. Her personal papers pertaining to her life were eventually deposited in the Smithsonian Institution of Archives of American Art, thanks to Mark Wehr, who gained control over much of her estate.
The style of Helmi’s work varies greatly as do her subject matters. Much of her work has a very whimsical style that appeals to many. Other examples of her work, particular her watercolors and sketches of American Indian life and culture, exhibit precise realism. Her early work in the 1930’s- 1940’s demonstrate an affinity for abstract realism.
The metal relief piece of her work that I found is interesting due to the medium used. At first I wasn’t convinced it was her work, the signature was difficult to read and I couldn’t find any work she did that indicated she had ever worked with metal or embossing. (Though her work with linocuts would have well prepared her for the medium.) Then I found this piece of Helmi’s work, done in the same medium and nearly identical in style, which sold at auction in 2007 at Leslie Hindman Auction house in Chicago.
While my piece depicts a horse, this depicts a lamb, but the style is identical. The lamb artwork is dated 1965 near her signature, which means it was done while she was confined to the mental institution. Based on these two examples I think its safe to say she did a series of these metal relief pieces depicting animals and I hope to find some other examples. Anybody out there reading this who has seen or owns similar works please let me know. Most of the examples of Hemi’s work I’ve found online, with the exception the horse and the lamb metal relief, are done in pencil, paint or watercolor. She definitely did clay and sculpture pieces as well. If you GIS her name you will see many examples of her work and it is interesting for the sheer range displayed. More information about Heni can be found at the following:
Woodside/Braseth Gallery has a slideshow of 7 works by Helmi currently for sale.
This History Link site has a good biography of Helmi, with more info and detail than the wikipedia entry.
Northwest Digital Archive has a collection of her papers and a detailed list of her exhibits and shows.
BOOKS on Helmi:
Helmi Dagmar Juvonen: Her Life and Work by Urich Fritzche published 2001
Helmi Jovonen: Observations and Transformations by Helmi Juvonen, Delbert John McBride, Martha Kingsbury, published 1984