The Prints of John F. Helm, Jr.: A Retrospective
October 13, 2001 – February 10, 2002
The Beach Museum was proud to present the first major posthumous consideration of John Helm (1900-1972). Although born in Syracuse, NY, Helm was one of a handful of exceptional and committed individuals responsible for developing and nurturing the rich visual arts culture that flourished in Kansas during 1930-1960. Helm came to K-State in 1924, the year he graduated from Syracuse University with a degree in interior design, taking a position as an instructor of drawing and painting in the Department of Architecture and Allied Arts.
Helm’s contribution to the cultural life of K-State, the state of Kansas, and the region was enormous. For example, in 1928 Helm was responsible for initiating the collection of works of art by Kansas and regional artists that now constitutes the core of the Beach Museum’s collection. As the collection’s first curator, Helm acquired and cared for works in the collection until his retirement in 1970. In the 1960s, Helm lead the first serious attempt to raise funds for the creation of a facility to house K-State’s art collection. The Beach Museum of Art is largely a result of Helm’s vision and his pioneering work. Without a permanent collection, there would be no need for a museum at K-State.
Given Helm’s tireless efforts as a champion of the visual arts in Kansas, it is remarkable that he had any time to devote to his own creativity. Although he was a gifted painter and watercolorist, Helm’s greatest legacy as an artist is his work in the graphic arts. Working primarily in various intaglio techniques (drypoint, aquatint, etching, soft-ground, and engraving) and wood engraving, Helm created a body of prints that represented a sustained meditation on the landscape of the Flint Hills surrounding Manhattan.
Among Helm’s most powerful prints are the drypoints he produced throughout his career as an artist. The earliest print in the exhibition, On the Keats Road (ca. 1927) and Helm’s last print, Storm Warning (1972), are both drypoints, a technique in which the image is created by incising a design with a sharp needle-like instrument on a zinc or copper plate. Helm’s drypoints possess an immediacy that bespeaks the artist’s command of both his subject and technique, and the facility with which he was able to record his sensations of the Flint Hills is breathtaking. Helm’s ability to convey the character, essence and the vastness of the Flint Hills landscape is all the more remarkable given the small scale of his prints as, for example in Wind (ca. 1945), an image measuring only 3×4 inches.
This exhibition featured all of Helm’s known editioned prints and was accompanied by a catalogue of his prints.