Helmi Juvonen was an artist of considerable talent during a time when women artists in the Northwest were not taken seriously and few made art their vocation. She received considerable attention toward the end of her life and can be loosely associated with the artists who have come to be called the Northwest School. Morris Graves, Mark Tobey, and Guy Anderson were her friends and contemporaries. Known to all as simply “Helmi,” she brought a light-hearted joy and humor to a group of artists known more for their somber mysticism. She focused on primitive art at a time when there was very little interest in it. She is described by those who knew her as a person of endless energy and generous nature. She was prolific in her art production and totally without pretense. She could be called eccentric, but also independent, colorful, and whimsical. Although quite gregarious, Helmi also was a loner. It is sometimes difficult to pin down the facts of her life.
Helmi Dagmar Juvonen was born in Butte, Montana, on January 17, 1903. She was the second daughter of Finnish immigrant parents. Art was a common means of expression in the family with her father making pencil drawings for his two daughters, and her older sister worked in water colors. Helmi moved to Seattle with her mother and sister in 1918 at age 15 it was already quite apparent at that time that Helmi’s vocation would be art.
Following her graduation she took on a variety of jobs while attending evening classes at the Seattle Art School. Helmi became estranged from her family during this time as her mother and sister were strongly opposed to her attempts to study art and establish a career as an artist.
Beginning in 1929 she studied at the Cornish Art Institute on scholarships provided by well to do friends. In 1930, following a severe depression, Helmi was hospitalized and diagnosed with manic-depressive illness. Although she was in and out of institutions between 1930 and 1959, Helmi devoted a great deal of time studying and recording Indian culture and art. When she could, she continued to attend and sketch regional Indian ceremonies spending spent weeks at a time on the reservations.
She was able to earn a subsistence living doing commercial art and selling her own artwork. She spent a great deal of time with and made many close acquaintances in the community of artists, many of whom would later be identified with the Northwest School including Mark Tobey with whom she became obsessed in the early 1950’s. In February 1959 Helmi was legally declared incompetent and was sent to Oakhurst Convalescent Center where she would live until her death in 1985.
In 1975 a retrospective exhibit of Helmi’s work was mounted under the auspices of the Pacific Northwest Arts Council. The exhibit brought Helmi’s art to the attention of an appreciative art community. It was the first of several retrospective exhibits during the final ten years of Helmi’s life.