Magazine Feature / People

Artist Helen Davis receives DU award for professional achievement

Helen Davis was awarded the University of Denver's Professional Achievement Award for 2009. Photo: Wayne Armstrong

Helen Davis (EdD ’61) believes that her doctoral degree opened many doors for her but, ironically, some doors nearly closed while she was trying to earn it.

“I was asked, ‘Does your husband have his doctorate? We don’t grant doctoral degrees to women if their husbands don’t have one first.’”

Undaunted, Davis simply started taking classes and, simultaneously, society evolved. Ultimately, she was granted her degree.

Clearly, Davis is a woman who takes advantage of opportunities and who creates them where they don’t exist. Because of her tenacious passion and many accomplishments, Davis received the 2009 DU Professional Achievement Award.

Davis is a renowned artist, teacher and community activist who has inspired other artists, teachers and activists to believe in their passions.

She set up an arts and crafts program for military families and personnel at Fitzsimons Army Medical Center after World War II and then worked for 25 years as a consultant for similar Army hospital programs. She headed the Colorado Women’s College (CWC) art department from 1962-71 and ran the Boulder Valley School District’s art program from 1971-76. She’s been an exhibiting artist, curator, juror and lecturer across the United States.

Beyond her community achievements, Davis’ art is critically acclaimed and includes painting, sculpture, ceramics, fiber and photography. All of her art is two- or three-dimensional and that, again, is because of an opportunity she seized.

During World War II, Davis was an undergraduate at Northwest Missouri State University, where the industrial arts department was hurting for students. Woodworking, mechanical drawing and architecture courses had traditionally been dominated by men, who were then off to war.

“I took advantage of that, and I received a minor in industrial arts,” she says. “It gave me a technical background that few art people had.”

Millie (Schairer) Russell (CWC ’66) studied art under Davis and is today an accomplished artist. She says Davis’ effectiveness is due to her positive approach to life.

“She taught by emphasizing the best in what you were doing,” says Russell. “She made you feel so positive about what you were doing that you could hardly wait to do more.”

Davis, like most artists, has developed an “artist’s statement.” Hers is simple: “I make things because I must.” Similarly, her motivation to teach and advance art in the community derives from deceptively simple needs.

“When I’m passionate about something, I want to share it,” she says. “I’m passionate about art, so I have found ways to share it over my entire life.”

This story originally appeared in University of Denver magazine.

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