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Juvonen, Helmi (1903-1985): The Pearl of the North

HistoryLink.org Essay 3831 : Printer-Friendly Format

Helmi Juvonen is an enigmatic figure in Northwest art history. Diagnosed as manic depressive in 1930, she had a life-long obsession with Mark Tobey (1890-1976), whom she met while attending Cornish College of the Arts. Committed to a mental hospital in 1959, she spent the last 25 years of her life at Oakhurst Convalescent Center. During these years exhibitions arranged by her artist friends sparked a re-discovery of her work, and she received considerable recognition. This biography of Helmi Juvonen is reprinted from Deloris Tarzan Ament's Iridescent Light: The Emergence of Northwest Art (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2002).

Gifted and Disturbed

No Northwest artist has been more hotly debated, or more widely misunderstood, than Helmi Juvonen. (Wesley Wehr, friend to her and other Northwest artists, bestowed on her title "The Pearl of the North." "Helmi" is Finnish for "pearl.") Although she was amply gifted and endlessly industrious, she won no major awards or public commissions, and she was unknown outside the Northwest. Committed to a mental hospital at age 56, she spent the last 27 years of her life as a ward of the state, enjoying her greatest recognition and acclaim during her latter years.

Helmi Dagmar Juvonen, born January 17, 1903, in Butte, Montana, was the second daughter of Finnish immigrant parents. Her mother came from the village of Ylitornio, on the Tornio River in the province of Pera-Pohjola in northern Finland. Her father, who had a modest talent for art, did pencil sketches for his children, and encouraged Helmi -- known simply as Helmi for most of her life -- in the picture diary she began when she was five.

She was 15 when her family moved to Seattle. One of Helmi's early treasures was a handful of faceted blue glass beads traded to the Indians through the Hudson's Bay Company (McBride). Helmi entered Queen Anne High School, majoring in home economics. She earned spending money by making rag dolls, which she sold to department stores. She designed the high school yearbook in 1922, the year she graduated.

In her twenties, she took a series of art-related jobs, working as a delineator at the Cascade Fixture Company, where she learned drafting and design, and working for artist Jacob Elshin (1892-1976), who designed and printed Christmas cards. A fine seamstress, she accepted commissions to hand-sew trousseaux. For a brief time, she also trimmed hats for Staadecker and Company Millinery Wholesale and turned her hand to projects such as party invitations and centerpieces.

Studying Art and Meeting Mark

Even in these early years, Helmi was long on whimsy. Given a scholarship to the Cornish School of the Arts in 1929, she illustrated Alice in Wonderland for an assignment in an illustration class. Studying puppetry with Richard Odlin, she made Romeo and Juliet puppets. That may or may not have had something to do with the fact that this was the year in which she met Mark Tobey (1890-1976), who had been teaching off and on at Cornish since 1922. She was not one of Tobey's students, but he is known to have praised her work. Helmi was smitten with him.

Nellie Cornish (1876-1956), founder of the school, commended Helmi to Dr. Richard Fuller (1897-1976), who bought a number of Helmi's paintings for the Seattle Art Museum (SAM) collection.

Helmi was first diagnosed as manic-depressive in 1930 (Fritzche) but it appears to have had no great impact on her life at the time. She took private art lessons with William Horace Smith, who later was named director of the Seattle School of Art. She also studied portrait and figure drawing with Francis Tadema, whose academic approach was so rigorous that Helmi's training included drawing the skeleton, learning the names of the bones, and drawing the muscles that covered them. Tadema took his students to the Woodland Park Zoo to sketch the animals -- a particular challenge since the animals had to be drawn while they were in motion.

Sketching Native American Ceremonies

That training prepared Helmi to sketch Native Americans as they drummed and danced during ritual events. She would show up at reservations with her knapsack, her sleeping bag, and her sketchbook. Her sketches provide valuable documentation of Northwest tribes. She recalled:

"When I went to the initiation of a cannibal secret society (10 initiated) it was in a long house with fires in the middle of the floor -- great chunks of wood! -- babies slept on an overhanging shelf on top of the door -- not even a shelf to keep them in -- bigger children fell asleep on long benches where spectators sat -- everyone has a place to sit -- the initiates came in black robes with wooden carved paddles + a big black headdress with feathers on top -- only a few are initiated -- and we had stew + bread -- they used to eat long pig! [Slang for human flesh] -- one man said the last long pig they ate many got sick -- so they eat venison now" (Helmi Juvonen to Morris Graves, August 6, 1975.)

Her sketchbook had to be put away when she witnessed secret-society initiation rites. They had to be sketched from memory. Her Indian acquaintances included Tulalip tribal chief Shelton, Yakima chief Job Charley, Makah chief Charlie Swan, Ute Indian artist Julius Twohy, and Mrs. Bobbie Temple-Sweat (married to Chief Seattle's great-grandson Vergil), among others.

Helmi haunted historical museums to study and to sketch Native American carved masks. She made linocuts of Indian designs and scenes, preferring battleship linoleum for her work because "it cuts readily + wears well" (Helmi Juvonen to Wesley Wehr, January 26, 1960).

Helmi's first exhibition, at the Harry Hartman Bookstore, in Seattle, in 1934, featured her documentary watercolors of Indians. She also made dolls dressed to represent individual tribes, and accepted a commission to create a mural of dolls of all nations for the toy department of the Bon Marché store. Her mural was a holiday feature there for many years.

Seattle was, in those days, little more than a frontier town. Helmi lived in a tiny 300-square-foot cottage at 5054 Canada Drive, a short street just off Beach Drive in West Seattle. In 1937, she met and sketched Rolland Denny, then 86, who was one of Seattle's earliest white settlers. He was two months old when his parents landed at Alki Point.

Alongside Fay Chong, Jacob Elshin, Morris Graves, and Hans Bok, Helmi worked on the WPA Federal Art Project, under Bruce Inverarity, whose father had first sparked her interest in Canadian Indians. During this time, she designed hooked rugs with Indian and floral motifs copied from books. She and the other artists spent a month at Hooverville, sketching the packing-box shacks of the unemployed.

War Years

After the United States declared war on Japan and Germany in World War II, she did research for the U.S. Navy to design camouflage. At the age of 40, she went to work for the Boeing Company, drawing isometric perspectives of mechanical equipment. Her employee identification card specifies her height as 5 feet, 5 inches and her weight as 140 pounds. The I.D. picture shows her with a cap of dark hair, and a pleasant face with a half smile, and intelligent eyes.

To further her skills, she attended night school at the University of Washington, studying engineering and mechanical drawing under Charles E. Douglas, who, she recalled, "said I was a genius!" It was a time of preliminary interest in atomic theory, and Helmi noted also that UW electrical engineers were creating preliminary designs for refrigerators, stoves, and irons that used atomic heat (Helmi Juvonen to Wesley Wehr, May 16, 1960).

Helmi also went to night school at Potlatch Pottery to learn casting and modeling in clay. Through it all, she continued as often as possible to visit Indian ceremonies of the Lummi, the Makah, the Nez Percé, and the Yakima. She described one ritual in a letter:

"Charlie Swan at Neah Bay was a Makah from the Nootka tribe of the West Coast of Vancouver Island. He did the wolf dance with wooden wolf mask + button blanket -- crawling about on the floor imitating a wolf very realistically -- I spent much time at his house sketching his many masks -- rattles + etc. He often had Canadian Nootkas visiting -- one old chief wanted to buy me for his wife at a potlatch!" (Helmi Juvonen to Wesley Wehr, May 22, 1960).

Helmi had an abiding interest in the colorful aspects of the Northwest's ethnic diversity. Wesley Wehr remembers that at the annual Japanese Bon Odori festival at the Buddhist church in 1951, Helmi sat on a ledge next to the steps of the temple sketching the dancers. The sketches were the basis for her painting Bon Odori, which Dr. Fuller purchased for the permanent collection of the Seattle Art Museum.

Helmi's cottage was severely vandalized in 1952. Possibly it was an act of teenagers who thought Helmi's unorthodox lifestyle made her an easy target. Her mental competency once again came into question. Harold A. Seering, a King County Superior Court judge, signed an order of restoration to legal competency for Helmi on May 21, 1953. The order stated: "It is further ordered that the property located at 5054 Canada Drive, Seattle, Washington, be restored to her and that the Sheriff be directed to remove the padlock therefrom."

Helmi moved to the University District, near Tobey's studio. In 1953 and 1954, Tobey may have allowed her to use his studio during his extended trips out of the city. In 1953, he addressed a letter to her at 37302 Brooklyn Avenue, saying, "Dear Helmi: I would like to have the room for a full week so must ask you to work somewhere else for this time. It's long past the time I [made] preparation for the N.W. exhibit. Hope I don't inconvenience you much" (Mark Tobey to Helmi Juvonen, 1953).

Tobey's Swedish companion, Pehr Hallsten, felt a Nordic affinity for Helmi. One day in 1953 while he was watching her paint, she gave him some Windsor & Newton watercolors to try his hand. When he enjoyed it, she encouraged him to continue. Tobey later became very proud of Pehr's paintings, which he sold to actor Vincent Price and other collectors.

Obsession with Tobey

Tobey became Helmi's obsession. At one point she made a life-size doll of him, dressed it in pajamas, and kept it on her bed. As her obsession with Tobey grew, the once-crisp lines of her art became tangled in an imitation of Tobey's "white writing" style. Although it may have reflected her state of mind, it did not compromise the quality of her art. In a parallel obsession, Austrian painter Oskar Kokoschka was infamous for living with a life-size doll of Anna Mahler in the early twentieth century. Helmi may have known about Kokoschka, but her lifelong preoccupation with dolls and puppets suggests that she needed no example from art history as inspiration for a Tobey doll.

She attended Baha'i services in an attempt to be closer to Tobey. After his departure from Seattle, she moved out to Edmonds. Since Tobey left her no forwarding address, she wrote to him in care of major art museums in New York and Europe, and even in care of Pablo Picasso, whom she seemed to believe was a resident of New York.

Committed

In late 1959, Helmi's mental competency was again an issue. This time she was committed to Northern State Hospital in Sedro-Woolley. The proximate cause is unclear. This much is known:

  • Her neighbors objected to the condition of her house, which she shared with numerous animals, including chickens and cats. Complaints were so persistent that civil authorities had asked her to leave Edmonds. She wrote to friends on several Indian reservations asking for a place to live, but was unsuccessful.
  • She had the electrical wiring removed from her house because she thought it carried a death ray.
  • She was diagnosed as manic-depressive, although no one who knew her before or subsequent to her committal remembers ever seeing her depressed.
  • Her obsession with Mark Tobey and her insistence that they were to be married was a persistent delusion, as were her letters to museum authorities and noted artists with whom she was unacquainted, asking for their support of the marriage. She embarrassed Tobey by addressing love notes to him in care of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

Despite having been given a deadline to vacate her home -- usually described as a shack -- she refused to do so without having a place for her cats and chickens. In mid-February 1959, Helmi was picked up at the Pike Place Market, where she rented a stall to sell her work, and was taken to Northern State Hospital in Sedro-Woolley. Since she had no family in the area, the Edmonds Police Department notified Dr. Fuller at Seattle Art Museum.

Neil Meitzler, a preparator on staff at the museum, took the museum truck out to Helmi's home at 2nd Avenue SE and James Street in Edmonds. He found the animals gone and the windows broken. He loaded up Helmi's possessions and artworks and took them to the museum, where he crated them for storage at the Mayflower Warehouse, to keep them safe for her until she returned. Dr. Fuller paid for their storage as part of the museum budget.

For the most part, Helmi kept up her spirits. In February 1960, she decorated the interior windows of her ward at Northern State with paintings in celebration of Valentine's Day. Excited about the planned Century 21 World's Fair in Seattle, she collected beach stones to make key chains and earrings to sell to tourists, noting in a letter, "Both sell well -- esp. at Olympic Hotel." She was planning future work, saying "Will do [i.e. paint] the blessed saints when I get home -- as well as tribal costumes" (Letter to Wesley Wehr, January 29, 1960).

Ward of the State

This time, Helmi was legally declared incompetent. Since she had no relatives willing to take responsibility for her, she became a ward of the state. In March 1960, she was moved to the Oakhurst Convalescent Center in Elma, Cowlitz County, where she would spend the rest of her life. She described it during her first week there in a letter to Wesley Wehr: "A small, neat town surrounded by pastures -- small woods + many trees ... This is a nice quiet place + all are pleasant -- it is on the road to Hoquiam + Aberdeen -- visiting days are every day."

She wrote to Tobey in New York, "Come back to me, my great Papa Moth." Tobey later called it "the best love letter I have ever received from anyone ... I saw myself as a big moth, winging my way across the vast expanses of America, back to Seattle. But I moved to Switzerland instead" (Tobey).

Helmi appears to have had a strong, unsatisfied mothering instinct -- perhaps visible in her lifelong focus on drawing dolls, and in the fact that whether she was at home or visiting a museum, she invariably had either a doll or a cat in hand to cuddle. Although her interest in marriage and children seems to have been limited to her prolonged fantasy about Mark Tobey, she mothered younger artists, buying them warm mittens and admonishing them to dress warmly and to eat sensibly. Later, she wrote regularly to Morris Graves, urging him to eat well. Her mothering instinct was, in later years, sublimated into caring for a succession of cats.

Many of her paintings that depict Mark Tobey as her husband show them with a brood of children, sometimes with wings, the boys wearing Tobey-style goatees. So great was her desire for motherhood that her body assumed the appearance of advanced pregnancy, which it retained until her death. If that appearance was caused by a tumor, it was never cause for surgery. (Her bent spine in later life suggests that she suffered from osteoporosis, which can cause internal organs to be pushed forward.)

Biding her Time

At Oakhurst, Helmi continued to create art. In 1961, a friend, Tom Kaasa, arranged for an exhibition of Helmi's prints at Hanga, a gallery newly opened on Broadway by Mineko Namkung, wife of photographer Johsel Namkung.

Oakhurst rules were lenient enough to allow Helmi to raise entire families of cats, who were her constant companions. One, whom she named Mrs. Dill Pickle, spent so much time in her lap that Helmi sometimes wrote letters using the cat as a desk.

She kept up a voluminous correspondence, sending letters to and receiving polite replies from the likes of Pope Paul VI and the crowned heads of Sweden, Spain, and Denmark. She read tirelessly. Her choice usually alighted on books about ancient cultures. In 1975, her letters to Morris Graves referred to the way of life of the ancient cave painters of Lascaux.

She wrote to Morris Graves often, sometimes several times in a week, always telling him that he was kind and good, and reminding him to "eat good wholesome food -- vegetables + fruit." She gave him regular reports on what she saw in the woods during her daily walks, and updates on the health and habits of her constantly changing family of cats. "Do animals talk?" she asks in one letter. "They do to me."

Recognition A turning point in Helmi's life occurred in 1975. Anne Gould Hauberg and Betty Bowen organized an exhibition of Helmi's work at the Pacific Northwest Arts Center Gallery, a council offshoot of the Seattle Art Museum, in Pioneer Square. The show led to a rediscovery of Helmi. Kay Greathouse, director of the Frye Art Museum, invited Wesley Wehr to guest-curate an exhibition of Helmi's work for the Frye in November 1976.

A few months before his death, Dr. Fuller, in the advanced stages of Parkinson's disease, came to see Helmi's exhibition, his wheelchair moving slowly from one picture to the next, pausing in front of each to study it with an expression of deep satisfaction.

The Frye exhibition was followed by Helmi shows at the Burke Museum in Seattle, in 1982; at the Nordic Heritage Museum, in Seattle, and at the Evergreen State College Gallery and the State Capitol Museum, in Olympia, all in 1984; a retrospective exhibition at the Whatcom Museum of History and Art, in Bellingham, in 1985; and a major exhibition at the Museum of Northwest Art, in La Conner, in 1991.

Reaching Out

Helmi chafed at her confinement. On July 16, 1975 -- a day on which she wrote Graves three letters -- she complained, "All the drawings I have done for the N.W. exhibit were thrown in junk." She also said, "I scarcely talk to nitwits here + everywhere!! Idiots come here!" In the next sentence, she told him she was making a Tlingit mask "for the father of the boy who works for President Ford," and went on to describe the tribal style of dress of people in Kenya.

Many of her letters of this period express the desire to "get out of here." Distressed that many of her belongings disappeared from her room, she sent some of her work back to Seattle for safekeeping with Wesley Wehr. She was enormously frustrated in attempts to get a box for her sketching materials.

A Good Friend

Wehr was a frequent and faithful visitor and correspondent, obtaining art supplies for her and arranging excursions to see exhibitions. He also helped to arrange exhibitions of her work, and saw to it that her work entered collections including the Nordic Heritage Museum and the Henry Art Gallery and that papers pertaining to her life were deposited in the Smithsonian Institution Archives of American Art.

Helmi needed all the help she could get. The scattered state of her mind can be deduced from her letters to Morris Graves. On June 7, 1977, she wrote:

"Dear sweet Morris -- We are having nice sunshine -- the kitties like it much -- we get free water from the spring so the grass is nice + green -- no one here goes to see Tutankhamen's exhibit altho it is on TV mornings!! If I were home I would make linoleum block prints of Egypt -- they even burned my nice table someone made me for blockprints -- it was beautiful -- the red roses are blooming -- I saved them when someone was going to cut them down -- Wes [Wehr] is going to S.E. soon -- maybe to exhibit -- he is known as a collector of ancient leaves -- mostly from Wash-Ore. -- am working on Noah's Ark -- am collecting animals -- got a good book -- dear Morris eat good food a new kind of vegetable -- I MISS YOU! love (xxx) Helmi."

In early 1978, a $25,000 legacy from her brother-in-law in California, Darrell Asher, who had married her sister, Irene, renewed Helmi's hope of being able to live independently. In May of that year, she wrote to Graves, "I am trying to get out of here + need a lawyer + [to] make a will." But she was by then 75. She had spent nearly 20 years at Oakhurst.

Despite discouragement, Helmi continued to hope. She wrote to Graves on April 19, 1980: "Ivar [Haglund] said the city owes me a house + will give me the money for it -- [Albert] Rosellini [former Washington State governor] said they would -- (architect) Bob Shields will build me a house."

That September, she wrote Graves that KING-TV "took me + ma[ma] kitty to Spain + to France + to Sweden + to England," and "Rockefeller sent Wes a French car!"

She continued to paint and make collages, writing to Graves such things as "I think mother is still living!" and "I heard Mark was teaching children paintings."

Nearing the End

In 1982, the contents from Helmi's house in Edmonds were taken out of storage and driven to the house of her friend Brent Goeres, near Elma. Her handmade clothes, the Romeo and Juliet puppets she had made as a student at Cornish, and her books and dolls were unpacked so that she could decide what disposition she wanted to make of them.

She chose to leave many of her personal effects with Goeres, and signed deeds of gift for her papers to go into archives at the University of Washington and her artworks to go into several regional museums.

Helmi died on October 18, 1985, after going into a diabetic coma. She is buried at Forest Lawn Cemetery in Los Angeles, beside her mother and sister, in a plot her brother-in-law had bought for her. It is difficult at this point to assess her legacy. Gifted, erratic, always generous, and enormously productive, she was a key figure in the lives of all who knew her.

Sources:
Delbert J. McBride, Helmi Juvonen: Observations and Transformations Catalog for exhibition at the Washington State Capitol Museum and Evergreen State College, Olympia, 1984; Dr. Ulrich Fritzche, chronology drawn up for a Helmi exhibition at the Davidson Galleries, Seattle, July 2 through August 1, 1998; Helmi Juvonen to Morris Graves, August 6, 1975, Wesley Wehr collection, Manuscripts, Special Collections, University Archives, University of Washington Libraries, Seattle; Helmi Juvonen to Wesley Wehr, Jan. 26, 1960, Wehr collection; Helmi Juvonen to Wesley Wehr, May 16, 1960, Wehr collection; Helmi Juvonen to Wesley Wehr, May 22, 1960, Wehr collection; Mark Tobey to Helmi Juvonen, 1953, Wehr collection; Helmi Juvonen to Wesley Wehr, January 29, 1960; Mark Tobey, A New Look Catalog for an exhibition at the Cheney Cowles Museum, Spokane, Feb. 19 through March 27, 1988, organized by Wesley Wehr.


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Helmi Juvonen (1903-1985) at Oakhurst Convelescent Center, September 1983
Photo by Mary Randlett, Copyright 2002


Sculpture by Helmi Juvonen
Photo by Richard Nicol, Courtesy Nordic Heritage Museum and UW Special Collections


 
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