Helen Lineberry: Notes for an Art History – Part 2

Image: Asheville Citizen-Times, September 13, 1936 .

In high school during the Great Depression, Helen Lineberry (then Helen Howerton) took classes at the WPA art center in Asheville, NC. While we know a great deal in general about the WPA (Works Progress Administration) program established under the Roosevelt, I have yet to find a great deal about this particular art center in Asheville where Helen learned skills in fashion drawing. I also have yet to find information about Helen’s teacher, Eadie Heyman. According to the newspaper article above, around 300 students enrolled in Asheville’s WPA art center, 40 of whom were reported to be studying fashion drawing. Because so little is currently known about the art center, I cannot confirm whether or not it was racially integrated, but the context of Asheville’s Jim Crow order of the time strongly suggests it was. Government subsidy of segregated art education is but another factor in understanding how privilege and inequity compound in 20th century visual arts and into the present. Evidence of Helen’s time at Asheville’s WPA art center is significant for tracking her later education at the now-defunct Traphagen School in New York City.

After high school, Helen briefly attended St. Genevieve-of-the-Pines College in her hometown of Asheville. The campus site became part of what is now Asheville-Buncombe Technical Community College while the later iterations of St. Genevieve was ultimately absorbed by Carolina Day School. While there, Helen appeared in another newspaper article for participation in a school function. The advertisement was placed directly next to an announcement for the Black Mountain Woman’s Club featuring a talk by Anni Albers with other local groups like Penland and Montreat Normal School. While there is no evidence that Helen ever interacted with Black Mountain College, it is significant that she lived in Asheville and made art simultaneous and adjacent to it. The potential for a history such as Black Mountain College to eclipse other local narratives such as Helene’s has been the subject of a working paper for the Journal of Black Mountain College Studies, “Black Mountain College: Eclipsing the Local in Artworld Memory”, currently undergoing intense edits.

Image: Asheville Citizens-Times, October 26, 1937, provided courtesy of the Anne Chesky Smith and Swannanoa Valley Museum.

After two years at St. Genevieve-of-the-Pines, Helen transferred to the Woman’s College of the University of the University of North Carolina [now present-day University of North Carolina at Greensboro (UNCG)]. It was here that Helen began to make work that defined her entry into adulthood as an artist.

The above images were likely created by Helen Lineberry (then Howerton) in 1938 at the Woman’s College (WC) of the University of North Carolina during the art department’s inaugural programming at the Beaufort Art Colony with Professor Gregory Ivy. For those unfamiliar with the geography of North Carolina, this meant that inland students of the Piedmont Triad in Greensboro at the WC traveled to the coastal town of Beaufort to study art, which was several hours away by car.

From Daniel Belasco’s essay in the catalogue for Central to their Lives: Southern Women Artists from the Johnson Collection titled “Eyes Wide Open: Modernist Women Artists in the South,” the author revisits Southern women artists within art historical conceptions of Modernism. Belasco’s “ism” of Modern and his genealogy of feminist traditions may require extra attention, but he lays some helpful groundwork. Graduating in 1940 from the Woman’s College (W.C.) of the University of North Carolina (present-day UNCG), Helen Howerton Lineberry fits into a timeline of what Belasco would consider the second generation of modernist women artists in the South. As evidenced above by her formal experimentation with landscape through geometric and gestural abstraction, Helen’s education promoted engagement with growing trends in the emergent field of Modern art, particularly under the tutelage of Ivy, who has proclaimed influence by surrealism and Cubism in philosophy and style. While multiple contexts and historical events corroborate Helen as a “modern” artist, her schooling is of particular note in establishing her practice. As Belasco writes:

“The second generation of Southern women modern artists – those born in the early twen- tieth century – was more ethnically diverse than its predecessor and included women of African-American, Jewish, and other backgrounds. They came from middle- and upper-class families and did not need to travel to Europe to pursue advanced art education, World War II having made such journeys impossible. The importance of Southern institutions of higher learning cannot be overstated. Little in mainstream culture encouraged women to excel in the visual arts beyond producing practical handicrafts or visionary folk art. Only colleges and universities provided opportunities for professional development in the arts. Once larger numbers of women began teaching in degree-granting art programs in the 1920s, they were able to mentor young women and establish new female-to-female lineages that would expand what was once an exclusively male and white heritage.” (page 54)

Of both generations of modern women artists in the South, Belasco qualifies: “Southern women overcame low expectations of their ability to make fine art of consequence. They were often born to money and benefited from familial status and racial privilege.” (page 53: “racial,” read: “white.”)

Helen Howerton made this lithograph print from a drawing taken on the front porch of a dormitory house on Wilson Avenue in Greensboro’s College Hill district. An excerpt of the description on the back of it states: “1938 – Women’s Dormitory at Women’s College N.C. (W.C.) Porch where we moved our beds outside –
we slept – studied – enjoyed the rain and the snow…”
The sense of freedom and camaraderie are palpable.

Of particular interest to Helen’s work is a reflection of women’s higher educationopening up potentials for homosocial interaction. The word homosocial is used here in its broadest and most literal sense. However, of the many possibilities for new exchanges from unprecedented interactions between women – such as Belasco’s identification of female-to-female art lineages in Southern higher education – were also the homosexual. While Helen regaled me with fond tales of skinny dipping with her female art friends at the Beaufort Art Colony (also on record in a 1990 oral history transcript by UNCG), she was not necessarily involved in the latter sexual extension of the homo. Having attended the Woman’s College of North Carolina for her MFA within ten years of Helen’s graduation, critic Jill Johnston reflects from her seminal autobiographical 1973 work, Lesbian Nation:

“But we were certainly a bunch of wonderful bandits in north carolina. The place we all ended up that year was the women’s college in greensboro where apparently many young women flocked from all over the carolinas to study mostly home economics. The bunch I fell in with were the sensitive fucked up poet and painter types, a readymade contingent of tightlipped lesies, a whole nest of queers.”

To reiterate, I am not suggesting Helen was a lesbian. And as Johnston conveys elsewhere in her text, the atmosphere of the school still remained conservative and, important to emphasize, racially segregated. Johnston still points to the fact that Helen gained her formal art training in a space where women could relate to one another in new and profound ways. Circling back to Belasco’s assertions, perhaps we call the situation of these new relations “modern.”

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