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Grand Rapids in 1856

Scene of early Grand Rapids viewed from the...

Woman of the Week, Helen Castenholz

President of Friends of American Art Group Tells of Rourke Memorial  

Grand Rapids has a veritable gallery of interesting women—women who are accomplishing a great deal as presidents or executive officers of organizations. This department of The Press regularly presents a “Woman of the Week” and describes her noteworthy activities. This is the twelfth in the series.

As president of the Friends of American Art, Helen Castenholz is presented today. She is a tall woman who spent much of her early life in Muskegon and came to Grand Rapids ten years ago to supervise art in the public schools. The appreciation of art done by American painters and craftsmen has been one of her ruling interests for a number of years, and it was natural that she should be selected to head the group of more than 200 organized art lovers in his city. Against the background of the current show on at the Art gallery, Miss Castenholz spoke about art as a practical and living element in a city.

“The Friends of American Art was organized about two years ago in Grand Rapids as an auxiliary group of the Art Gallery,” Miss Castenholz explained. “The idea of the organization was to encourage American art and artists and Mrs. William Butler as first president of the group was an inspiring leader.

“Every year we bring an American show to the gallery. Next year we have made plans to bring an exhibition of work done by artists of the great lake region. We want to bring people in Grand Rapids down to the gallery, make them realize it is their gallery and encourage them to buy the work of local artists in particular.

Usual Art

“To me there is art in everything. I believe firmly that art should be usable and ‘livable,’ that is why we have sponsored the open workshop meetings at the gallery this year, where attractive objects are made by hand—looms, potters’ wheels brought down and exhibitions of weaving and pottery shown before an audience. Anyone’s home can be enhanced by such objects—made artistically livable. Art is not limited to the framed landscape or portrait. It can be perfectly expressed in a rug, a drape or a sculptured object.

“The Friends of American Art has regular monthly meetings with a lecture and the open workshop is also scheduled once a month. Each member of the group also receives a print at the end of the year, suitable for framing, selected from the artists’ exhibition. In addition members are eligible for the prize painting from the local show given each year to one of our art group.”

Constance Rourke, the famous Grand Rapids author was an ardent supporter of the Friends of American Art and on Friday, April 18 a memorial broadcast will be given on John J. Audubon as a tribute to Miss Rourke.

Art as Hobby

The fact that Constance Rourke was an enthusiastic member of the Friends of American Art group here should spur other civic and art minded persons in Grand Rapids to join the group, Miss Castenholz feels. Art as a hobby for adults is invaluable, she thinks, and children should start early in belonging to art groups.

It is with children that Miss Castenholz works mainly in art instruction here, teaching fourth, fifth and sixth graders. She believes, however, that too many things are being done by older persons for children nowadays. They are getting a little soft and dependent, she says. Dependent on the radio, the movies, the gadgets of the mechanical age, everything is handed them, if not on a silver platter—a facsimile of one. Children should “put something into” life, she maintains. They should learn to use their hands at an early age and make things—learn to contribute “by hand” to art when they are young, then they will not need to cast about frantically for a hobby at a later date.


Ceramics are Miss Castenholz’ own art interest. She has specialized in ceramics at Columbia University and the University of Southern California. Born in Ravenna, Miss Castenholz attended the Chicago Art Institute when she was young. She majored in sociology and economics at Northwestern University, however, where she obtained her AB degree. She went back to Muskegon, where she had lived much of her life, to teach—and the school principal swerved her from sociology and its companion “Ec” to art. “Art is your forte, Helen,” the principal insisted, and so Miss Castenholz was launched forthwith on her art career.

Miss Castenholz makes her home here on James Ave. with her 81-year-old mother, Mrs. Anna Castenholz, who also has art as her main interest, even though she has been blind for the last 20 years. She is still actively interested in artistic work and plays the piano skillfully.

In the spring, summer and fall Miss Castenholz packs her car with fishing equipment and take off to a 40-acre rustic camp on the Pere Marquette River. She has a log cabin on the site and envisages bringing her loom to her back woods—several looms as a matter of fact—and launching a summer studio school for Grand Rapids children, where youngsters with the craftsmen’s urge and instincts can weave and sculpt to their hearts’ desire.

The energetic head of the Friends of American Art also sculpts as a sideline. She says she is “foolish for work,” since she is also president of the Grand Rapids Art Teachers club and before taking her present responsibility with the Friends of American Art—was chairman of the American Folk Art show last year.

“But I love working for art,” she states. “It’s the thing I like to do—and I may as well be ‘foolish for it.’”

Grand Rapids Press, April 3, 1941

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