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zama vanessa helder

Born to an artistic family, Zama Vanessa Helder’s mother gave Helder her first painting lessons at a young age, eventually leading the prolific young artist to study art at the University of Washington. She kept an unorthodox school of pets and had an active social life. She taught and supported professional artists through the art associations that sustained Seattle and California’s vibrant art scenes.

In 1934 Helder moved East with a scholarship to the Art Students League of New York. There she also joined the National Association of Women Painters and Sculptors as well as winning membership in the American Watercolor Society in 1943. Attracting the attention of prominent galleries, Helder’s characteristic style and Northwestern subject matter brought her attention in exhibits at the Whitney and MOMA.

Moving back to Washington, Helder became a member of the Women Painters of Washington (WPW), was employed by the local branch of the federal Works Progress Administration (WPA) art programs creating murals, lithographs, and paintings, and spent two years teaching at the Spokane Art Center. It was around this period that Helder’s created one of her most well known works, a series of watercolors for the Bureau of Land Reclamation depicting the Coulee Dam during its construction, exhibited at the Seattle Art Museum in 1939.

Developing a distinct precisionist style, Helder’s tight yet airy compositions were rendered in an elegant, tempera-like finish. Assimilating her interests into her natural talent, Helder fluidly expressed her subjects in a striking, technical style that retained a sense of atmospheric lightness on canvas. In 1943 she followed her husband to Los Angeles and found success, joining the board of the California Watercolor Society while continuing to exhibit old and new works in California, Washington, and New York.


Z. Vanessa Helder has been exhibited at museums including the Museum of Modern Art, the Whitney Museum, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Denver Art Museum, and the Seattle Art Museum and is included in collections at the National Museum of American Art, the Smithsonian Institution, the Newark Museum, the High Museum of Art, the Portland Art Museum, Portland, Oregon, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the St. Louis Art Museum, the Academy Of Arts And Letters, Washington State University, I.B.M. Corporation, and the Northwest Museum of Arts & Culture.

Available Artworks