Helen West Heller Biography

Helen West Heller




Helen West Heller (nee Helena S. Barnhart), engraver, painter, poet, and activist, was born to Washington Miller Barnhart and Edith Harrington Barnhart in rural Rushville, Illinois on October 12, 1872, and raised on a farm. She moved to Chicago in 1892 where she supported herself as an artist's model and by doing other menial jobs. She was primarily self-taught as an artist but studied briefly at the St. Louis Academy of Fine Arts and later at the Art Students League in New York in 1903.  

In 1901, Helen married Herbert Warren West in New York. While still married, she met her future husband, Roger Paul Heller, in 1912 at the Ferrer Center and Modern School in Greenwich Village. She and Roger were married in 1914 and they remained in New York for about five years before moving to the Barnhart farm in Rushville. Helen returned alone to Chicago in 1921 determined to be an artist. When her paintings were not accepted for the Art Institute of Chicago's Annual American Exhibition she became a driving force behind the formation of the No-Jury Society of Chicago Artists, which held its first exhibition in 1922 in the galleries of Marshall Field & Co. in Chicago. In 1923, she turned her creative energy to woodcuts and in 1928 produced the block book, The Migratory Urge. She moved to New York in 1932 and created paintings, woodcuts, linocuts, and murals for the Works Progress Administration Federal Art Project. Heller contributed illustrations to the New York Times and the New Masses between 1932 and 1948. Her book, Woodcuts U.S.A., was published in 1947 by Oxford University Press.

Heller was a member of the American Artists Congress and attended the first American Artists' Congress Against War and Fascism in 1936. Her work was included in exhibitions at the Brooklyn Museum of Art, the Salon d'Automne, Paris in 1934, and a major exhibition of her work was mounted at the Smithsonian Institution's Department of Graphic Art in 1948. Her work is represented in the collections of the Brooklyn Museum, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Indianapolis Museum of Art, the Library of Congress, and the Smithsonian Museum of American Art.

Helen West Heller died in New York on November 19, 1955.