A Modern Eye: Helen Hooker O’Malley


Posted 5 months ago in Arts & Culture Features

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With a major retrospective of her work running in the Gallery of Photography and National Photographic Archive over the summer, American sculptor and portrait painter Helen Hooker O’Malley’s work behind the camera lens is put in perspective.

 

Helen Hooker was born into a wealthy American family from Greenwich, Connecticut and New York City. As a young girl, she attended the Wabanaki School in Greenwich. This open-air, alternative school instilled in her a love of Native American spiritual principles. After attending secondary school in New York City, she refused to apply to university and instead set up her own studio and enrolled with the Art Students League of New York where she was taught by many distinguished American artists.

 

Art and Travel, 1924–1935

To supplement her art studies in New York, Helen made trips to England, France, Spain, and Italy in the mid 1920s. Then, in 1928, aged just twenty-three, she embarked on a long journey with her older sister, Adelaide, through Germany, Sweden, Finland and the Soviet Union. They stayed six months in Russia while Helen studied art with the avant-garde painter Pavel Filonov, in Leningrad. On returning home in late spring 1929, Adelaide wrote a series of articles on their Russian travels for Good Housekeeping, which Helen illustrated. Helen also had her first exhibition, which featured her Russian paintings.

Helen spent Christmas 1929 with her sister, Barbara, in France, where she continued painting and photographing. In 1930, she traveled in Italy and on to Greece, where she studied dance with the Kanellos Academy of Greco Choral Dance and produced a prodigious number of watercolours. In their depiction of rural and coastal landscapes, these works anticipate the photographs she would later take in Ireland. When the Great Depression hit, Helen returned home and limited her travels to domestic excursions to California and New England. Being conscious of her social responsibilities, she helped out at Hartford House which provided relief to those in need. She applied her artistic talents to designing rooms there, a skill she would later use to design interiors for public libraries in Dublin.

 

Meeting Ernie O’Malley, 1933

In the spring of 1933, Helen met the wandering Irish writer and former military leader, Ernie O’Malley at a Sunday lunch in the Hookers’ Greenwich home. Fascinated not only by his life story but, as a sculptor, by his dramatic face, Helen asked to sculpt his head. Despite her parents’ disapproval, Helen and Ernie saw more of each other in New York and they fell in love.

In late 1934 Ernie decided that his future lay in reviving the arts in Ireland and that he should return there in order to secure his military pension. Helen resolved to join him there. To achieve this, Helen and her sister accompanied their mother on a trip to Japan. They visited, among other places, the Japanese branch of Hooker Electrochemical Company. After Japan, the two sisters continued their travels alone, and embarked on an epic journey through Korea, China, Mongolia and Russia to London and eventually on to Dublin.

Helen and Ernie married in London in September 1935. They returned immediately to Dublin, where Ernie took up his medical studies in UCD and Helen set about renting and decorating a house in the Dublin suburb of Rathmines. She explored the use of Irish tweeds and handicraft in their home and on their walls hung a mixture of Russian, Greek, Chinese and Japanese art as well as her own paintings.

 

Married Life, Dublin, 1935–1938

The O’Malleys settled down to domestic life. After a difficult pregnancy, their first child, Cahal, was born in 1936. Even during the pregnancy, Ernie and Helen had started to go on weekend photographic trips. Over the next few years, they would visit over 150 medieval monasteries and archaeological sites around Ireland. In mid-1935 Ernie had taken the American photographer Paul Strand on a five-week tour of Ireland. They had both been impressed by the beauty and artistic integrity of old Ireland. No doubt, Ernie thought similar visits would be a good way not only to explore Ireland with his wife, but also to start on a project to photograph the remaining traces of ancient Irish culture.

While Ernie was pursuing his medical studies, publishing his memoir, On Another Man’s Wound, and securing a diploma in European Painting from University College Dublin, Helen set up her own sculpture studio and in 1938 she enrolled in the Metropolitan School of Art in Dublin. She had quickly established a close circle of friends in Dublin. They included Maude Aiken (musician, wife of Frank Aiken), Fran Fagan (boutique store on Anne Street), Stella Frost (artist), Evie Hone (artist), Sybil le Brocquy (writer), Eileen McGrane MacCarvill (Lecturer in English at UCD), and Roisin Walsh (Dublin City Librarian) who commissioned Helen’s interior design work for libraries in Ballsbridge, Howth, and Pearse Street.

 

A Model Farm in Mayo, 1939–1944

In 1938, Helen was drawn home to Greenwich by her father’s untimely death. By this time, having lost a libel action, Ernie was no longer at ease in Dublin, and they decided to move to Mayo and pursue their photographic projects from there. A driven and committed artist, Helen started to spend time in Dublin, and in 1942 she began renting a small studio there for sculpture. Her work was included in the inaugural Irish Exhibition of Living Art in 1943. By 1944, Helen and Ernie decided that rural life was not for them. Helen rented a house in Clonskeagh, Dublin, moved the children to local schools, and threw her energy into the Dublin arts and theatre scene.

 

Dublin — Visual Art and Theatre, 1942–47  

A driven and committed artist, Helen started to spend time in Dublin, and in 1942 she began renting a small studio there for sculpture. Her work was included in the inaugural Irish Exhibition of Living Art in 1943. By 1944, Helen and Ernie decided that rural life was not for them. Helen rented a house in Clonskeagh, Dublin, moved the children to local schools, and threw her energy into the Dublin arts and theatre scene.

On Helen’s return from the US in August 1938, Ernie had already rented a house on the Louisburg coast in Co. Mayo. They sought a more permanent home, which they found that November at Burrishoole Lodge, near Newport. During the Second World War — ‘The Emergency’ — they were determined to make their contribution and established a self-sufficient farm and the first tuberculosis-free herd west of the Shannon. They leased additional land and employed men to grow crops and to plant an entirely new garden full of diverse fruit trees. Helen would say proudly, if a little exaggeratedly, that they were self-sufficient except for sugar and tea.

Over this period, Helen gave birth to Etain in 1940, and Cormac in 1942, and also continued her photography. Her focus turned to subjects close to hand, such as planting, reaping, harvesting, threshing and other domestic matters. Using funds inherited from her father, Helen designed striking new farm buildings and an art studio at Burrishoole Lodge, and Ernie oversaw their construction.

 

Dublin — Visual Art and Theatre, 1942–47

In late 1944, Helen helped found the Players Theatre with actors Gerald Healy and Liam Redmond. Based on the Famine, the Cork and Dublin productions of their first play, ‘The Black Stranger’, received considerable acclaim in 1945. Other plays followed, including Donagh MacDonagh’s ‘Happy as Larry’. Helen played an important role on the Board in addition to designing stage sets, costumes and the company’s logo. When the war ended in June, Helen returned to Greenwich to see her family and her theatre enterprise fizzled out. It was revived in part in London where she moved in 1947–48 and again in the 1953–54 season.

 

America, Divorce and Remarriage

The immediate post-war period from 1946 to 1950 was challenging for Helen. With her marriage in trouble, she spent more time in America, away from her husband and children. During this period, Cahal and Cormac contracted primary tuberculosis, and Ernie took them out of school and back to Mayo to rest and recuperate.

With the encouragement of her American family, Helen returned to Ireland in 1950 and took her two older children, Cahal and Etain, out of boarding school and flew them to the United States – without Ernie’s permission. Helen started a new life with them in Colorado. She designed a new house, garden and amphitheatre amid the dramatic Colorado mountain landscape. She started to sculpt, paint and take on interior design work again. By 1952, when she divorced Ernie, she had her first exhibition in Colorado Springs. The following year, she moved between New York and London, working on theatre projects. In 1956 she married Richard Roelofs Jr. By early 1957 she had a significant exhibit in Greenwich, shortly before Ernie died in March of that year.

The next fourteen years were spent initially settling into married life again, then later tenderly caring for her sick husband in Greenwich and renovating Burrishoole Lodge, which had been uninhabited for almost ten years. The refurbishment of Burrishoole, and subsequently the Dublin mews, gave Helen an opportunity to buy a second collection of contemporary Irish art. She continued her photography in Ireland, which now included work in Kodachrome, and also expanded her artistic activity to include poetry. Her poems were a form of diary, which recorded her thoughts on all sorts of subjects – her life, loves, art, ambitions, stories about travels and meeting people. Sometimes during a portrait sculpture sitting, she would write about her sitter; other times she wrote about the paintings on her walls, or a particular artist, such as Jack Yeats, and her memories of them and their work.

 

A New Creative Phase

Some months after Richard Roelofs’ death in May 1971, Helen started her most productive phase. In the next fifteen years, she would create over half of her lifetime’s sculptural work, spending a significant amount of time in Ireland. Firstly, in Burrishoole, which she eventually sold in 1981, then latterly in her mews in Ballsbridge, Dublin where she established a studio. Here, her later sculptural work concentrated on new challenges, such as capturing the body in action. In her photographic work, she also explored new areas such as still life, whilst continuing her examination of form and pattern in the landscape.

During this time, Helen started to dream of creating a museum in Mayo where her collection of Irish and international art could be enjoyed by locals and visitors. In 1977, she approached the Irish government with her plans. She selected over 600 artworks for the proposed museum and donated them to the Irish American Cultural Institute. Ultimately, however, several years after giving her gift, the government decided against building the museum. Instead, her O’Malley Irish Art Collection is currently housed in the elegant surroundings of the University of Limerick.

After these last productive years, Helen decided to gift forty-five of her sculptures to the University of Limerick and a selection of her photographs to the National Library of Ireland. In the US, she exhibited her works in Birmingham, Stamford and Greenwich. She was delighted by the creation of the O’Malley Art Award by the Irish American Cultural Institute, which both honours Ernie O’Malley and benefits contemporary artists in Ireland.

Helen continued to sculpt and exhibit until 1991. She died, aged 88, in 1993. To the end, Helen had always been true to her mission – to show how art could transform life and to exemplify the artist’s role in that effort.

Words: Cormac K.H. O’Malley

Re-printed with permission from A Modern Eye: Helen Hooker O’Malley’s Ireland, a book accompanying an exhibition of her work which is running in the Gallery of Photography and The National Photographic Archive until September 1.

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