Helen Lineberry: Notes for an Art History – Part 1

As you’ll notice in my introductory post, my thesis work incorporates imagery derived from the 1929 drawings created by a 10-year-old Helen Lineberry (then Helen Howerton), who also happened to be my grandmother. These images were incorporated from an ongoing project which sought to aggregate and develop the legacy of Helen Lineberry’s lifetime of artwork in her own right. While it continues to influence my own practice as part of a “kinstitutional” investigation, Helen’s work also deserves its own space. Begun in summer 2018, I started documenting as much of her work as I could find, having successfully captured images from three of her five children. Below are images from her childhood notebook. You may view the complete file here. It’s a rather large file but I believe worth one’s patience to download. If you would like to acquire a printed and bound version of the notebook, please feel free to email me: Topher.lineberry@gmail.com. I am also interested in talking more with libraries and archives that may be interested in documents such as a facsimile of Helen’s childhood notebook.

From the 1929 notebook, it is clear that Helen consumed images of women from mass media of the time: print such as newspapers, books, and pulps; radio; silent film and later talking pictures. Childhood depictions of cowboys, gentlemen, flappers, pilots, cowgirls, princesses, teachers, women lounging and smoking cigarettes, et al. evidence Helen’s own cultural landscape of gendered ideals. Lineberry’s drawings reflect her own contemporary popular myths of femininity. Within and in-between these myths, however, Helen Lineberry provides psychic insight into underlying social and interpersonal tensions: a profile figure of a girl slapping a male figure in the face (a sectioned-off ballerina dances underneath); a woman hitting her husband in the head with a rolling pin after cutting her hair short (en vogue with the flapper’s cutting of historically long female hair as a symbol of independence); a male figure bucked into the air by a horse, the impact marked by a streaming cartoon cluster of multi-colored stars; a woman tied up and blindfolded. Pictorial hints of her social and economic status are found in some of the details of an “everyday”: bedrooms, shoes, clothes, bathtubs, diving and swimming, make-up rituals.

Helen was the only girl amongst her siblings, growing up with several brothers on an Asheville estate. Their life in the early twentieth century reverberated many developments of the “American Gilded Age”: termed by historians from the Roaring Twenties in which Helen lived her formative childhood years. She was born the year before the 19th Amendment culminated the women’s suffrage movement, coming into an unprecedented landscape of gender and identity in the 1920s and beyond. It was a time in which the “New Woman” came into being. As discussed in “Suffrage, Social Activism, and Women Artists of the South” by Evie Terrano in the exhibition catalogue for Central to their Lives about the developments of the 1910s, the “New Woman” – such as that typified by the South Carolina branch of the Congressional Union for Woman Suffrage – “…was often associated with leftist radicalism and was striving toward equal rights and sexual liberation.” (p. 30)

While Helen may not have been directly involved in later iterations of such politics, namely feminisms of the latter 20th century, the suffrage movement and the cultural transformations around it undoubtedly cleared many paths for her life, and in treading them cleared paths for others. The cultural and social ideas of femininity Helen came into grappled with tradition amidst the momentum of women’s rights benefited by mostly white, wealthy spheres, which continued to play out in American and European landscapes. These ideas contain many patriarchal mechanisms for the expectation of women. The context of what scholar Sarah Haley calls “Jim Crow Modernity” contributes to how we evaluate Helen’s work within broader constructions of “white woman” as a subject under what many consider to be an era of U.S. apartheid. However, family members also posit Helen had to fight for her own femininity in a male-dominated environment, and she used art and culture as one of many ways to do it. Economic gains during the roaring twenties corresponded to the continued gains after the women’s suffrage movement. Women’s contributions to the market as workers and producers – underpaid or not at all – were more formally met with validation as consumers. Such validation has historically been key to expanding and containing democratic recognition in the U.S., rather than a purely “civic” or “civil” ideal of democracy. Mass production and hard-fought social and political gains led to women holding unprecedented power as buyers in the early 20th Century: seen in part through emerging modern women’s fashion, to which Helen Gaines Howerton Lineberry was quite adept.

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