Zama Vanessa Helder

Theme/Style – Modernism, American Scene, Magic Realism, portraits, landscapes

Media – Watercolor, oils, acrylics, lithographs

Artistic Focus – Whether she was painting in the startlingly austere style of her architectural and landscape works, or in the intensely Modernist style of her portraits, Zama Vanessa Helder’s work had a direct, unguarded quality that was both exciting and unsettling. An undisputed master of precisionist watercolor painting, Helder’s magic-realist techniques clearly transcended the regionalism that informed her Pacific Northwest and California landscapes, yet she remained intimately connected with the elemental essence of her subject, whether person or place.

Career Highlights –

• Born in Lynden, Washington in 1904, Zama Vanessa Helder began doing artwork while in high school, after which she attended the University of Washington and worked as a commercial artist. She then received a scholarship to attend the Art Students League in New York, where she studied from 1934 to 1935.
• Returning to the Northwest in 1936, Helder exhibited at the Portland Art Museum in Oregon, and by 1937 she had become employed by the Washington State WPA art programs, for which she completed numerous paintings and lithographs depicting urban and rural life in and around Seattle. As one of the leading WPA artists in the state, Helder was selected to design and produce two mural maps for the State Capitol Museum in 1938.
• Relocating to Spokane, Helder taught watercolor painting and lithography for the Federal Art Project at the Spokane Art Center from 1939 to 1941. She also was given large solo shows at both the Seattle Art Museum and the Spokane Art Center, and it was during that time that Helder produced her highly-regarded series of watercolors documenting the construction of the Grand Coulee Dam (now in the collection of the Northwest Museum of Arts and Culture in Spokane).
• Returning to Seattle in 1941, Helder was selected to paint another WPA mural on the evolution of aviation, which was installed at the Sand Point Naval Station.
• Helder began exhibiting nationally in 1936, and was first represented in New York by the Maynard Walker Gallery. That same year Helder was instrumental in arranging the first national exhibition of works by Women Painters of Washington, of which she was an active and loyal member, at New York’s Grant Studios. Helder then had a solo show there in 1938, followed by a solo show at the Staten Island Art Institute in 1939. Now represented by the Macbeth Gallery, she had a solo show there in 1941 and a two-person exhibit with Peter Hurd in 1944.
• Her work was exhibited often in California during the 1930s and 1940s, in shows at the San Francisco Museum of Art in 1936 and 1937, the Oakland Art Gallery from 1938 to 1941, the California Water Color Society from 1940 to 1950, and the San Diego Fine Art Society in 1941.
• Her work was included in exhibitions elsewhere including the Denver Museum in 1938 and 1940, and in New York at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Brooklyn Museum of Art, and at the Museum of Modern Art, where she exhibited in two shows, “Americans, 1943” and “American Realists and Magic Realists.” The latter exhibition included 12 of Helder’s watercolors, along with the work of Hopper, Sheeler, Wyeth, and others.
• It was also in 1943 that Helder married and moved to Los Angeles. She continued to exhibit locally, including a solo show at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in 1945. Other shows included a solo show at the Spokane Museum of Art in 1946, and group shows at the California State Fair and the Los Angeles Art Association in 1953. Helder also taught at the Los Angeles Art Institute from 1952 to 1955.
• Zama Vanessa Helder was a member of Women Painters of the West, Women Painters of Washington, and the National Association of Women Artists; and her work is in the collections of the Seattle Art Museum, the Newark Museum, the Saint Louis Art Museum, the High Museum of Art (Atlanta), and the Cheney Cowles Museum (Spokane). She passed away in Los Angeles in 1968.