Helen Louise Allen (1902-1968) joined the School of Human Ecology’s Related Art program in 1927, teaching weaving, embroidery, and the history of textiles and interiors to hundreds students for more than 40 years. One was Timothy J. Arand-McIlrath (’69 MA), a graduate student with a passion for the arts. Tim met Helen in 1966 and knew her as his professor, mentor, and friend until her death in 1968.
In honor of the 50th anniversary celebration of the collection Helen Louise founded and donated to the university, Tim reminisced in his home in Iowa to about the woman who was a key influence in his becoming the successful fiber artist he is today.
A Graduate Student’s First Impressions of Helen Louise Allen
When I arrived at Madison, I found out that there were no textiles in the Art Department. Jewelry was what I picked up but I became very frustrated because I clearly was not a jeweler in the sense that University of Wisconsin was teaching it.
One day, one of my professor said to me, “I think you need to meet Helen Allen.” Helen was a good friend of his, so he invited us to dinner at his house.
What was my first impression? I suppose “quirky” would be good word. The image I have is this short, round, and—it was winter time, so she had the collie coat on—she was bundled up and reminded me a lot of a grandmother. You certainly did not get the sense of what an amazing woman she was, but she was incredibly gracious.
She was gracious, humble, incredibly curious, very low-key, and after you got to know her very, very, driven. I don’t think you’d get that driven quality right up front. You had to be around her a little while to get that sense of how important she thought doing things was. I met Helen, and then the next day went to her office, and she immediately started to show me things and talk about things. I was thinking, “this is where I need to be.”
She was so obsessed with textiles that everything around her revolved around textiles.
A Love of Textiles and Challenging Students
There was something about that woman that just drew you to her. I’m sure it was my fascination with textiles, that tactile sense. She liked touching things and feeling things. She just possessed the qualities that were just really, really were important to me. I can look back now and realize that. I’m not sure at the time I did. I just knew I had a place that was good for me.
Right away she made the connections and got me transferred from the Art Department to her. I was offered a graduate assistantship to Beginning Design and started taking classes with her. It happened very, very fast.
She immediately started to challenge me. I had an ongoing list all the time of processes and techniques that she expected me to learn, and then figure out something I could do with them creatively. As a professor, she wanted you to be a discoverer. She didn’t want you to ask 50,000 questions. She wanted you to get your hands dirty and start doing it. She wanted you to show her your work, and then she might comment. You had to master techniques. Once you master a technique, then you’re free to play with it. And, you had to do enough samples to convince her you knew what you were doing. Of course she would demonstrate first, but her demonstration was of a super master. I’d sit there in wonder. This was before the advantage of YouTube videos and watching a technique many times until you figured it out. There were
books, obviously, but back then groups of two or three of us would work together to figure out what she did in her demonstrations.
The Textile Collection 50 Years Ago
There was a textile collection then (in the late 1960s). It wasn’t organized the way it is now, but there was a huge room across from Helen’s office with shelves and boxes of textiles. Many of her acquisitions. Every day when she’d come in with an armful or a bag full of items for us to look at.
Ruth Harris was obviously her second hand, and Ruth would be the one getting things out for us. She knew where everything was in that room and would find things, and work with Helen. She was invaluablem I think, to Helen.
Textile Visits in a Red Mercedes
She always, to my knowledge, had a Mercedes. I have vivid memories of red seats, because as a 20-year-old driving a Mercedes, that was exciting and fun. She would say, “I wanna go and look at…” and we would go. She’d be busy touching and feeling, and talking with people. She was a great listener. She would inquire, and ask questions, and listen. She was curious about everything. Her eyes were always open, watching. Something would catch her eye when we were driving. She’d see a sign and suddenly she’d say, “Well, maybe we oughta check that out.”
Acquiring was important, but she would never say, “We’re going to go and we’re going to hopefully get this.” Her comment would be more likely, “We’re going to visit with so-and-so, because this person does this, and I think you should see this and meet this person.”
Obviously these visits had profound impact, because I’d get to meet one-on-one with people, see what they were doing, and hear about what they were doing in a way that few other people would get that chance to do. It was first-hand exposure and something I’ll treasure forever. All of my experiences with Helen certainly have affected the way my life has transpired as a textile person. I am sure I have unconsciously developed a lot of the characteristics that she had. I’m horribly curious, and it sometimes gets me into trouble.
What It Means to Be a True Collector
I’ve been thinking about what it means to be a true collector. For her, I think being a collector was being a sharer. Some people amass
collections for their personal importance, I think. Helen acquired things because she thought they might be useful and helpful for somebody else down the road to be able to look at and use as an example. The teacher in her was always first item of order.
Her Infamous Knit Collie Coat
The collie coat was a real thing and I’m telling you it was really heavy. Carrying that thing, I just kept thinking to myself, “why do you need such a heavy coat?”
Helen got several different collie breeders to save their hair…collies require lots and lots of grooming, and they shed lots and lots of hair. She had I think five or six different people saving her collie fur that then got spun into yarn that got woven to make this coat. She did not do it. I don’t think she wove the fabric either.
I think it was just something she had done, at least that was the impression, because the coat was obviously all done by the time I came along. It was a thing by then. My recollection was that it was full-length on her and grey with grey suede trim. I’ve wondered what happened to it. I know Ruth Harris inherited it when Helen dies, but beyond that I don’t know what ever happened to it.
Most everything she wore was long. She’d wear everything very long. She wore long skirts all the time. She’d wear what was interesting to her regardless of whether or not it was interesting to anybody else. She could care less. She lived in a world that was pretty much Helen Allen.
She’s more unique every time I think about her. I chuckle all the time when I think about her, because I chuckle at how much I learned from her, and how she affected my life, and how much a lot of the things I do mimic her by accident. I don’t think it was ever an intentional thing, it’s just that she affected me in a way that has carried through my whole life. That’s pretty amazing when you can recollect that. That one person has had that kind of an effect on me.
What Helen Allen Might Thinking of Her Collection Today
I’m sure she smiles now down on everything that’s happened with that collection, that it’s become worldwide, but I suspect her initial intensions were much humbler.
I can certainly imagine her being excited by the fact that people all around the world could just tune in and see these pieces (referring to the Digital Collection). That part would be intriguing and of very of great interest for her.
Supporting the Collection for the Future
Being a donor and a supporter (of the textile collection) is something that seems pretty obvious to me. I wanted to be able to carry on her legacy. I want to be a part of her legacy, and see that collection continue to grow. Randy and I are very big on education. We’ve signed an MOA endowing a graduate apprenticeship in the textile collection so that there will be funds available to have a graduate assistant learning and doing the same kind of things I did. I think furthering education and knowledge about textiles is something that’s always going be a part of my life, and I’d like it to be a part of other people’s lives.
The woman left many indelible marks on me that will never go away, and wonderful indelible marks.
Inspiring a Textile Artist’s Life-long Career
I have the highest regard for Helen. I can’t believe the things that she started in me that have blossomed over the years, and how I’ve chuckled many times thinking, “Oh, Helen would find this interesting.”
As I look at my career, things that have happened by accident have been some of the most wonderful joys of my life, and changed the direction of my fiber work massively over my career. Things turned out differently than expected. Her life was like that. She would be fiddling with something, and something would happen that would trigger her to go in a different direction. I guess I learned that from her.
Certainly there was never anything that was sacred. You could try anything with her and it would be fine. Open minded was another great term for her, because she would pretty much let you go any direction you wanted to try. She might politely tell you what to avoid, but she thought failures were a big part of the learning process. I agree. It’s fine to fail at something as long as you learn from it.
I tended to teach that way too, and students would get very frustrated with me. “Why won’t you just answer this question?” Because it’ll be better if you answer the question by doing it. Students became very frustrated with me sometimes because I would do that same thing. I’d say, “Well do it for a while and see what happens.”
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Timothy Arand-McIlrath completed his Master’s degree in 1969 in Related Art. He was an art and design professor at Iowa State University in Ames, for 33 years. He also was involved with the Surface Design Association and a state craft organization.
Always an artist, Tim is now retired and living in Okoboji, Iowa, where he continues to create two- and three-dimensional works.