Helen Davis (EdD '61) has lived a life of art and, at 94 years of age, she is still passionately encouraging others to do the same.
"Art is part of my very being," Helen says. "I guess I'm kind of like a missionary in the world of the arts."
Creation is a daily practice for this spirited emissary. Her studio, which occupies the converted master bedroom of her apartment in a Boulder retirement community, is neatly apportioned with floor-to-ceiling shelves storing boxes of photographic studies, bins of paints and brushes, and drawers of raw materials.
An acclaimed experimental artist whose creative output spans all mediums, from ceramics to fiber to watercolors, Helen has dedicated her life to educating and empowering through art.
"I love to teach, especially the beginning courses, because that's where you can really contaminate people," she says mischievously.
Early in her career, Helen established an arts therapy program at Fitzsimons Army Hospital after World War II. She later led the art department at Colorado Women's College (CWC) from 1962–71. Prior to retiring in 1976, she ran the Boulder Valley School District's art program and helped develop the Boulder Arts Commission. For her pioneering contributions, the University of Denver awarded Helen its 2009 Professional Achievement Award.
As a woman, Helen faced many challenges pursuing her profession, from seeing her salary drop to $80 a month (down from $200) after her employer learned that she was married, to initially being unable to pursue a doctorate degree because her husband did not have one. "That was the beginning of my becoming a staunch feminist," Helen says. Ultimately, times changed and she graduated from the University of Denver with an EdD. Her doctorate then became the deciding factor when she was hired as the CWC administrator from a pool of mostly male candidates.
"Over the years, I've had many opportunities to teach," says Helen, "but the climate at CWC was the most inspirational." Helen characterized CWC at that time as "the eighth of the Seven Sisters colleges," attracting intellectually minded women from both the east and west coasts. "It was a mix of students with different outlooks. It made teaching very exciting."
Helen stays in touch with many former students, but Millie (Schairer) Russell (CWC '66) became like a daughter to her. Helen was her advisor when Millie was an art major and "Millie adopted me," she says. Helen and her husband, Robert Davis (who died in 2012), invited Millie to stay with them over a winter break from school, and that act of kindness blossomed into a decades-long friendship.
Helen has similarly nurtured other women over the years. "If you are passionate about something, you want to share it," she says. "I'm still doing it."
After retirement, Helen hosted a critique group that became an incubator for local female artists. When she announced that she would disband the group on her 80th birthday, her friends honored her by raising $80,000 to endow the Helen B. Davis scholarship at the University of Denver.
Helen continues to contribute to the fund, including a significant estate gift that expands her legacy of supporting women, education and the arts. She invites others to contribute as well. If someone inquires about purchasing one of her artworks, she offers it gratis in exchange for a donation to her scholarship fund.
Reflecting on her life's mission, Helen says, "if I had to estimate how much time I currently spend promoting art and providing moral support, I would say it's about 20 hours a week." Even at 94, she is modeling how to live an artful life.
Be Creative With Your Legacy
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