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Grand Rapids in 1856

Scene of early Grand Rapids viewed from the...

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Helen Castenholz, Friend of American Art

by Cindy Laug

published: March 3rd, 2008

The appreciation of art created by American painters and craftsmen had been one of the ruling interests of Helen Mae Castenholz for many years and it was natural that she should have been selected president of the Friends of American Art. The group of more than 200 art lovers was established about 1938 as an auxiliary to the Art Gallery (former name of the Art Museum). Their purpose was to encourage American art and artists at a time when they took second place to European art. Constance Rourke, the famous Grand Rapids author, was an ardent supporter of the Friends of American Art. Castenholz chaired the American Folk Art show in 1940 and was featured as “Woman of the Week” on April 3, 1941 in a series run by the Grand Rapids Press. (Find more information to your right in Related Items)

Born in Ravenna, Helen was schooled in Michigan, but at an early age attended the Chicago Art Institute. She majored in sociology and economics at Northwestern University. She received her Masters degree from Columbia University in New York. She specialized in ceramics at both Columbia and the University of Southern California. She taught economics in the Muskegon Public Schools from 1922-1929, and while there was encouraged to turn her skills to the arts which were her strength and passion.

Helen came to Grand Rapids in 1931 to supervise the art program in the public schools where she also taught 4-6th grade art, and was president of the GR Art Teachers club. She was quoted as saying, "Children 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."

Following through on her ideas that children should learn to use their hands, she launched a summer studio school where youngsters with the craftsmen's urge could weave and sculpt in the quiet of the backwoods. During the summer Helen took her students to her rustic cabin near Walkerville on the Pere Marquette River.

Helen moved from Grand Rapids when she married Joe Schiebout, a career Air Force officer, in 1944. Stationed in Oberammergau, Germany after the war, Helen worked with German youth teaching them how to card wool and then use looms to weave it.

Helen's family was originally from Alsace and while growing up the family spoke German one night, French the next, and English in between as they sat around the dinner table. Her ability with German and French proved a great asset during the Schiebout family's European tour. Even though she was not teaching in the classroom her love of art continued through drawing and free-hand paper cutting which entertained her daughter, Judith, and other children.

In addition to art Helen was active in Girl Scouting and helped develop Scouting for African American girls in Gulfport, MS. She was also president of local American Assoc. of University Women (AAUW) chapters in Wisconsin and Texas. Helen and Joe had been married for fifty years and when he died in 1993 she went to live with her daughter, Judith.

Grand Rapids lost a devoted artist and teacher when Helen left Grand Rapids, but her vision of increasing awareness and appreciation of American Art was evident. Future articles about Friends of American Art specifically noted workshops, exhibits, and Art Gallery space offered to area artisans. A children's gallery and a weekly education program for school children were also added. After a rich, full life Helen Mae Schiebout died March 19, 1999 in Baton Rouge, LA at the age of 99.


Items Available at the History and Special Collections Dept., Grand Rapids Public Library

  • Alten, Mathias. Mathias J. Alten: Journey of an American Painter. Grand Rapids: Grand Rapids Art Museum, 1998.
  • Rourke, Constance. Charles Sheeler, Artist in the American Tradition. New York: Harcourt, Brace & Co., 1938.
  • Sweeney, J. Gray. Artists of Grand Rapids, 1840-1980. Grand Rapids: Grand Rapids Art Museum, 1980.
  • Sweeney, J. Gray. Themes in American Painting. Grand Rapids: Grand Rapids Art Museum, 1977.
  • Art & Graphics Collection, #224
  • Orville Bulman Collection, #357
  • Frederick Stuart Church Collection, #228
  • Search "American Art" in the library catalog for a large collection of materials.


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