Helen Taylor Sheats, artist, born in Chicago, April 21, 1910, to Jessie Miller Johnson and Alvin Oscar Johnson, Helen Caroline Johnson grew up on the Westside across from Garfield Park. She was educated at home, along with her older sister Jessie, until high school. It was at home, as a little girl, that Helen began painting. She painted dolls on card stock, cut them out and made dresses with little tabs. She thought it was fun to do but never thought she would become an artist. After graduating from the University of Wisconsin in 1930 with majors in art and science, she embarked upon an art career spending two years as a student at the Art Institute of Chicago.
In 1932, Helen married Vern Taylor, an agronomist and fellow student at the University of Wisconsin, and moved back to Madison. It was there that she designed and built her first house. Made of steel, innovative at the time, it was based on 4-foot modules, which she had seen exhibited at a World’s Fair. It still stands in Shorewood Hills, and is known as the Taylor House. Helen and Vern had two children, Marion, born in 1937, and Tuck, born in 1938. Unfortunately, Vern had heart complications due to childhood rheumatic fever, and his health failed shortly after Tuck’s birth. He died in 1940.
After Vern’s untimely death, Helen went back to the University of Wisconsin for a teaching credential. She taught art in grammar schools and jewelry in adult education classes. While getting her teaching credential, she met Paul Henry Sheats whom she married in 1942. They had two children, Peter, born in 1944 and Michael, born in 1945. Paul’s son from a previous marriage, Paul Douglas, joined the family in the summers.
Helen dedicated the next period of her life to raising her children and to helping Paul build his career. The family moved to New York City where Paul was the Education Director of Town Hall of the Air, and later to Los Angeles when he joined the faculty at UCLA. During this time, Helen also resumed her interest in modern architecture. She worked with John Lautner, a Frank Lloyd Wright protégé, to design four residences and build two. One was an innovative apartment building (there are no common walls, for example), near the UCLA campus (1950), and the other a spectacular home in the hillside section of Beverly Hills (1963). Both buildings have received much attention for their unusual futuristic designs and features, as well as their importance as milestones in the career of John Lautner, who has been recognized as a major 20th century American architect.
After the kids were grown, Helen and Paul were divorced and Helen went back to art on a full-time basis. She studied with Arnold Schifren, a noted painter and teacher in LA. Her first painting of this period, Topanga River, is an example of the depth of her talent and maturity of her vision. She particularly enjoyed painting out of doors with Eileen O’Brien and Sam Lauren (the late Hollywood script writer). Helen, Arnold and Eileen began taking groups abroad for art classes, and organized trips to Mexico (San Miguel de Allende), Holland (Amsterdam), Denmark (Copenhagen) and Italy (Florence and Venice). Many of her paintings are from these long summer sessions spent looking intently at one locale. She has rarely been without a work in progress since she began painting, and has completed nearly 200, with another 15+ in various stages of completion.
At this time
Helen developed a close and enduring bond with Alfredo Valentino
and his family that continued to the end of her life. Alfredo was
one of Helen’s most frequent subjects and his influence can
also be seen in the many still life set ups he composed for her
using found objects and personal treasures. Helen’s heroes
were Matisse, Van Gogh and Frank Lloyd Wright. Her style can be
characterized as neo-Fauvist, and her bold use of color is a
tribute to those who went before. Her work is filled with an
intense and bright vision of the world.
In 1999, at her home in Los Angeles, Helen passed away surrounded by family and friends.