Ladies With Sisu >> Helmi Juvonen

A couple of weeks ago, we took a trip to the Frye Art Museum here in town, and that's where I learned about the work of Helmi Juvonen. Born to Finnish immigrants in 1903, she moved to Seattle in 1918 and lived in Washington until her death in 1985. She was able to support herself with her art, by selling rag dolls, and drawings that she would clip outside of her studio on University Avenue. She was fascinated with Native American culture, and would often show up at reservations all over the Pacific Northwest to observe and participate in ceremonies and sacred rites, and sketch what she saw there. She was diagnosed with manic depressive disorder in 1930, although there is no evidence that she actually suffered as such. She did, however, suffer from some sort of mental illness, as she had a lifelong  ( please see comments below) obsession with a fellow artist, Mark Tobey (who was gay). She went so far as to send out wedding invitations to major museums for their marriage and to create a life-sized doll of him that she kept in her bed. When she was 57, she was committed to a mental hospital where she lived the remainder of her life, caring for scores of cats that became her family and continuing to create art with whatever materials she could scrounge up. She did not receive any notoriety for her work until the last decade of her life, when museums in Seattle began exhibiting her pieces.

Isn't her story amazing?! I could not get it out of my head after I saw this exhibit. Her art is expressive and lovely, and you can tell it comes straight from her heart. If you'd like to learn more about Helmi's amazing story, check out this essay.

There is a Finnish term known as sisu that I think sums up Helmi perfectly. Sisu means being brave, and continuing on even when the odds are against you. It means creating art even though no one will look at it, and showing up at Indian reservations and asking to be let in.

shanti >> sondra



  1. What a haunting story, but very beautiful pieces! I'm bummed I missed this exhibit--I was just at Frye last weekend, but they were in the middle of shifting exhibits so most of the museum was closed up. They had a smaller gallery up though made up out of their permanent collection where museum employees paired pieces to James Joyce sonnets. It was really cool, but I'm excited to show David an bit more of a show next time I take him!

  2. Ulrich Fritzsche3/29/13, 3:50 PM

    Helmi did not have a livelong obsession with Mark Tobey. As the research in my book clear demonstrated. It didn't start until about 1952, and ended about 1955. Then it was over. See my book 'Helmi Juvonen: Her Life and Work - A Chronicle.'
    Ulrich Fritzsche M.D. Seattle

  3. abhaya_sondra3/29/13, 3:58 PM

    The information I used was from both the curator's notes at the Frye, as well as the article that I linked to in the original post, which say otherwise. As I have not read your book as a source, I will let the remark stand from these other well-researched sources. Thank you for your comment.

  4. Ulrich Fritzsche M.D.3/30/13, 12:16 PM

    Rather than bringing up my book I should have mentioned that I knew Helmi personally as a friend from 1976 until her death in 1985.

  5. abhaya_sondra3/31/13, 11:44 AM

    I have updated the text above to reflect your knowledge; again, thank you for your comment.