State College

‘Visionary’ printmaker celebrated with Palmer exhibition

Jules Heller works in the studio in 1983 at Arizona State University. He served as a dean at Penn State, York University in Toronto and Arizona State.
Jules Heller works in the studio in 1983 at Arizona State University. He served as a dean at Penn State, York University in Toronto and Arizona State. Photo provided

When Jules Heller did something, he went all in.

In the 1950s, when he and his family were living in Los Angeles, he built a playhouse for his daughters.

Nancy Heller said the playhouse was “incredibly sturdy” and made with salvaged aircraft parts. It had airplane windows, window boxes and a Dutch door — one with a top that opens separately.

She said it was more complicated than it needed to be — she and her sister would have been happy with a tent — but they enjoyed the fact that they could actually put flowers in the window boxes. Their father took his craft seriously.

“When he did something, he really did it,” Nancy Heller said of her father.

Though Jules Heller died in 2007, his influence on the arts community in State College and at Penn State is still easily observable.

He headed the committee that planned the first Central Pennsylvania Festival of the Arts in 1967, said Patrick McGrady, who curated “The Prints of Jules Heller” exhibition at the Palmer Museum of Art that celebrates the work of the prominent printmaker.

At that time, Jules Heller was serving as the founding dean of the College of Arts and Architecture at Penn State.

McGrady said the festival was a success from the start, due to the effort of Heller and the other planners.

“They were visionaries,” he said.

Jules Heller was interested in bringing the arts together, McGrady said. He thought “that bringing all of these ideas together is central to allowing the arts to speak to everybody.”

“This year we only scratched the surface,” Heller said at the closing of the inaugural festival, “in years to come, when people want to know what is going on in all the arts, they will come to central Pennsylvania to find out.”

Arts Fest draws more than 100,000 people to the area each year.

Nancy Heller, an art history professor at The University of the Arts in Philadelphia, said her father felt it was important to involve as much of the town and make it as accessible to people as possible.

Now, the festival is the premier example of the area’s town and gown relationship.

“I’m not sure he could have imagined that it would grow to the size it has now or that it would still be going on 50 years later,” she said.

With the 50th festival this year, McGrady said it was an opportunity for the Palmer to showcase the lesser known aspect about Jules Heller.

“Everyone knows his relationship to the festival, ... but he really was a very fine printmaker and an important printmaker for the country during the middle and late years of the 20th century,” McGrady said.

The exhibition spans six decades of Jules Heller’s printmaking.

He started out making realistic, often politically progressive, images, Nancy Heller said.

Early in his career, McGrady said, he used the figure — often people — as the primary vehicle for the narrative of the print.

“No matter what the image is, the figure is very central to it,” he said.

Jules Heller used three major techniques for this part of his career to create prints: drawing on the surface of a lithographic stone (limestone); carving into linoleum to create a relief in which whatever image is flat will print; and cutting into a plate so that whatever is incised will print.

“For an artist of Jules’ imagination, he would really explore the possibilities of all of these techniques, because he just liked the idea of looking into the possibilities,” McGrady said.

In an lithograph from 1947 called “Day’s End,” Heller depicts his wife, Gloria, who had fallen asleep at a table in the studio where Heller was completing his residency in Mexico City.

The group he was working with — Taller de Gráfica Popular — had a lithographic press dated 1871 from Paris, and the lithographic stones they had were heavily used, even broken in many instances, McGrady said.

Most lithographers don’t address the edge of the stone, but in this image of his wife, Heller, against tradition, did include it, McGrady said.

It not only creates an irregular frame to the image, but also it tells the story of these printmakers who had to “beg, borrow and steal” to get their stones, many of which were in horrible shape, and Heller wanted people to know that, he added.

“It shows Jules’ attention to the possibilities; (he was) always looking for new, exciting ways to derive images,” McGrady said.

Then he moved into a period that was more stylized — images not meant to be realistic but that still suggested figures, Nancy Heller said.

Later on, he began working on computers, and those images were completely abstract, she added.

Though Jules Heller spent much of his career as an administrator — in addition to his role at Penn State, he served as a dean at both York University in Toronto and Arizona State University — he always made time to teach, Nancy Heller said.

“(Teaching) was something that really, really mattered to him,” she said.

He wrote two major texts — “Printmaking Today” (1958) and “Papermaking” (1978). “Printmaking Today” was the first comprehensive printmaking text, and he became nationally known for his understanding and ability to teach printmaking, McGrady said.

“He’s as well known as a teacher as he is a printmaker,” he added.

The prints for the Palmer exhibition, which is on display through Aug. 14, belong to the estate of Jules Heller, which is run by his family.

Nancy Heller and McGrady worked together to choose the prints and bring the exhibition to life.

“We intended the exhibition as a retrospective. We wanted to essentially give our audiences an idea of a full range of Jules’ printmaking career, and the reason is, of course, ... that he was very instrumental both for Penn State as well as the … State College community,” McGrady said.

Sarah Rafacz: 814-231-4619; @SarahRafacz

IF YOU GO

What: “The Prints of Jules Heller”

When: 10 a.m.-4:30 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday and noon-4 p.m. Sunday; through Aug. 14

Where: first floor gallery, Palmer Museum of Art, University Park

Info: 865-7672, palmermuseum.psu.edu/exhibitions/current/prints-jules-heller

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