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She may not be a household name, but Helen West Heller was a pioneering artist—possibly the finest woodcut artist the United States has ever produced.
Born a poor Midwestern farm girl in 1872, Helen was determined to forge a career in the arts. At the Ferrer Center and Modern School in New York City in 1911-12, after struggling unsuccessfully to support herself with her paintings and separated from her first husband, she met the enigmatic Roger Paul Heller, a brilliant, yet failed, electrical engineer sixteen years her junior. With instructors like Robert Henri and George Bellows and students that included the likes of Rockwell Kent, Leon Trotsky, and Emmanuel Rabinowitz (a.k.a. Man Ray), the Anarchist institute was a powerful attraction, and the period’s most prominent radicals circulated there.
Gaining exposure and respect, but not financial success, Helen would later become a fixture of Chicago’s modernist art scene. Her ingenuity and creativity shined brightest as she brought the medium of woodcutting to new heights as an expressive art form and published more than one hundred poems in literary magazines and newspapers.
As the fascinating, in-depth biography illuminates the life and work of this national treasure, Uncompromising Souls also examines the career of the artist’s eccentric husband and sheds light on an intriguing chapter of America’s story.
Dr. Martin S. Cohen, Poet, Essayist, Biographer, and Art Historian has favored Uncompromising Souls and The Complete Poetry with many kind words in his “Literature Corner” column in the Tikvah Times, vol. 10, No. 7, 2018, New Hyde Park, NY. Dr. Cohen also agreed to allow the reproduction of his article.
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Discover a hidden treasure in the life and work of an early to mid-twentieth-century radical, poet, and celebrated woodcut artist — along with her enigmatic and eccentric husband.
Helen West Heller
The female Heller was one of the finest of all woodcut artists and, some critics said, the best ever produced in America. Larry Stanfel
A distinguished performer in the ancient and beautiful art of woodcuts … A woman of high intellectual attainments, unusual emotional intensity and sensitivity of feeling, she has been able to combine all these qualities in her work and … has developed a technical mastery of her tools and her medium which gives her fluent expression of them. John Taylor Arms, Renowned Etcher
While the skills of many wood-cut makers have been enviable, Helen West Heller employed artistic innovations escaping most. She could imbue even static scenes with a feeling of motion and, sometimes, a sense of the past or future of the subject. Her people do things, think things that draw viewers to them … Larry Stanfel
She led a starving life in the Midwestern metropolis; and she speaks bitterly of the pains and suffering as a disregarded model – her only concrete relationship to the social world of art. Dr. Ernst Harms
Evident from these earliest of her production is her enviable facility for drawing and, what is more rare, drawing and painting human likenesses. Larry Stanfel
Helen West’s fellow students at the Ferrer Center included familiar names such as John Sloan, Rockwell Kent, Emmanuel Rabinowitz (later Man Ray,) Ben Benn, and even Leon Trotsky … This was, in fact, the prestigious art education she neglected to mention in every autobiographical statement attributed to her. Larry Stanfel
She felt herself an artistic and social rebel, unable to cope with life, and after a struggle with suicidal tendencies she retired for years to an Illinois farm. Dr. Ernst Harms
Had the honor of seeing again the beautiful paintings of Helen’s. I love her more as a person and an artist every time I see her. Onya La Tour
I think she can rest assured of her future recognition, a devout painter filled with aesthetic religiosity. She stands with the titans of her period, her acclaim very late, but her superb accomplishment complete and irrefutable. Robert Godsoe
But Helen with her glorious gift for art has become so fanatically involved with a social movement that she burns herself out over agitated radio speeches and [illegible word; writing?] in the Daily Worker giving now to her art her discontented frustrations Washing out her color. Making a mass element from her former rainbow radiance. Onya La Tour
His favorite hobby is the strenuous task of educating the public to a just appreciation of ‘his’ Esperanto in which we wish him all due success. If he has half the luck he has brains, things ought to come Roger’s way. Roger Heller’s College Year Book
Esperanto is the only grassroots movement for peace and justice. Bill Harris, Esperanto USA
… he apparently didn’t see fit to work for other people …. Had a job at the Navy Yard but was hooked on ‘The Village Crowd’ by then so couldn’t see why he couldn’t come in late & make it up at the end of the day. So, after a warning, was let go. Roger’s niece, Patricia Gardner
… It is reasonable to ask, in fact whether he may have taken the Navy position in order to secure a platform for propagandizing with a government office. Larry Stanfel
Roger Heller at this time already had been identified as an enthusiastic reformer, so the Ferrer Center offered many possibilities of that sort, though the principal educational attraction for him, of course, was Esperanto. Larry Stanfel
His eccentricity started when he was living in Greenwich Village. Claire Heller Moxon, Roger’s Sister
I have several good leads for acceptance of my inventions with the Radio Corporation of America, the American Telephone and Telegraph Co., … and several others … I also have a plan for detection of submarines & surface boats, which should interest the Navy. Roger Heller
… I make illustrations, of which a crude example would be the anatomical line drawings I made so long ago for Dr. R.L. Dickinson and his co-worker Dr. John Osborne Polak, which TAMPAX is now exploiting. … they are still under the impression that these MD’s made them. Who cares? I am just an old nobody, not even in Who’s Who? Roger Heller
During an open house at Canton Senior High School I observed Roger while he was drawing, a sagittal plane view of a human head and neck. He labeled all the parts in Latin! Herbert Babcock
He had what appeared to be an obsession; he scoured the town, including trash bins behind stores, for scrap, largely paper. This he aggregated at various points and then made colorful sweeps with his gleanings, either mounted on a rickety push cart or piled on a plywood sheet he roped around his waist and dragged along the streets. … and Roger’s companions, an unruly pack of curs, swirling and snapping about him. Larry Stanfel, Uncompromising Souls; the lives and work of artist Helen West Heller and husband Roger
Listed among books received
Print Quarterly, the prestigious British journal!
Buy the Book
The poet-artist’s published verses are collected for the first time and paired with wonderful pictures selected by the author from the breadth of her career. Read her inmost thoughts on success, art, life, death, aging, and celebrities of her time.
Helen West Heller, the creator of hundreds of unparalleled woodblock prints was also a widely published poet with over one hundred in newspapers and literary magazines.
Around 1892, when she departed her family’s Illinois farm for Chicago, she nursed an unquenchable thirst for a career in the arts, but she hadn’t settled upon a particular form.
Her first public success, in 1899 in a literary magazine called The Criterion, consisted of a poem in company with a drawing she had executed to illustrate it. These constitute the first pair to appear in the book.
Until 1919 painting and drawing forged ahead in her scheme of things, but between 1919 and 1922 she concurrently composed poems that appeared in very respectable literary periodicals. By 1925 she had established the foundation that would support her growth into one of history’s finest woodblock print artists, and at that time sprang a stream of weekly verses in her own newspaper column, which flowed into 1927.
Seldom longer than a dozen lines and generally shorter, her poems addressed a wide spectrum of emotions and topics that embraced artists like van Gogh, Picasso, Redon, Utrillo, and her Chicago colleagues; autobiographical expressions of both her rural and metropolitan lives embodying her poverty, aspirations, and longings; adventurers like Billy Nutting and Carl Akeley; Chicago of the Roaring Twenties; politics and society; the business side of art; love, aging, and death.
With each of her collected poems, presented chronologically, Dr. Stanfel has matched an image of a work of her plastic art, where the connection may be thematic, emotional, historical, art-theoretic, or geographical, to exemplify the types of linkages. The art chosen as illustrations range from her earliest efforts to works completed in her late years of activity, and the media include all, excepting mosaic, that she is known to have employed. A number of these have not been seen in public for as long as 100 years.
Finally, informative end notes annotate the works with explanatory allusions to the artist’s life, biographical names referenced in the poetry, historical facts, and the nature of the connections.
Selected Articles by Larry Stanfel
- “Helen West Heller: a rediscovery,” Journal of the Mid America Print Council, 13,1,2005, pp. 4-7
- “Helen West Heller Viewed Through Her Work,” California Society of Printmakers News Brief, Fall, 2005, p. 7
- “The Poet of the Wood Engraving,” Journal of the Mid America Print Council, vol. 14, number 1, Spring/Summer 2006, pp. 15-21, 24
- “Ballet Brothahs Don’t Wear Tutus,” Sistah Magazine, vol. 5, no.1, Dec/Jan 2008, pp. 12-13.
- “The Life and Times of Helen West Heller : the artist’s making in her own words, Part I,” Canton Area Communities Magazine, 3,1, January, 2008, pp. 11-17, 19-25, 27
- “The Life and Times of Helen West Heller : the artist’s making in her own words, Part I,” Canton Area Communities Magazine, Part II, 3,2 February 2008, pp. 6-19
- “The Life and Times of Helen West Heller : the artist’s making in her own words, Part I,” Canton Area Communities Magazine, Part III, 3,3 March 2008, pp. 24-41
- “Reaching Out,” Canton Area Communities Magazine, 3,5, 2008, p. 18
- “Things My Mother Said,” Canton Area Communities Magazine, 3, 5, 2008, pp. 36-40
- “Alumnus Remembers Early Years at IIT,” Letter to the Editor, IIT Magazine, Winter 2008, p.3
- “The First of the Ten, The Last of the Ten: An Afternoon with Joseph Solman,” JMAPC, 16, 1, 2008, pp. 14-17.
- “Looking for Roger Heller, Part I,” CACM, 3, 6, 2008, 14-26
- “Looking for Roger Heller, Part II,” CACM, 3, 7, 2008, 25-50
- “The World of Helen West Heller,” Illinois Heritage (Illinois State Historical Society), Jan-Feb, 2012, pp.13-18