Helen Katharine Forbes, W. P. A. Mural Artist

Photo of Helen Forbes and Dorothy Puccinelli

Helen Forbes (right) and Dorothy Puccinelli (left)

collaborating on a WPA mural

Helen Forbes, Rock Bound Pool circa 1930

Helen Forbes, Rock Bound Pool.

Circa 1930. Watercolor.

Helen Forbes, Monrovia Bear Mural, 1940

Monrovia Bear Mural, 1940.

Located at Monrovia, California public library.

Born in San Francisco on February 3, 1891, Helen Katharine Forbes grew into a pioneer California family. Forbes pursued and studied art at the Mark Hopkins Institute of Art in San Francisco which later adopted the name San Francisco Art Institute; she was awarded a lifetime scholarship in 1914. Primarily known for her western landscapes, still lifes and murals which were funded under the Works Progress Administration, Forbes body of work reflected American Regionalism in a sincere and honest approach despite the struggles Americans were going through during The Great Depression in the 1930s.

Forbes is considered a WPA mural artist and her style is heavily influenced by her academic teachers she learned while studying abroad and inspired by her living environments in California and various travels. From 1921 to 1925, she studied at the Academy of Fine Arts under Hermann Groeber in Munich and under a French cubist, Andre Lhote in Paris. She moved back to California and resided in Carmel and Death Valley at some point in her career. She also became inspired by landscapes of Mexico and the Sierras in the 1920s. Then in the 1930s, she moved back to the states and she taught in the Art Department of UC Berkeley.

American Regionalism was a style that was very prominent during the WPA era where artists depicted realistic rural scenes during the 1930s as a response to The Great Depression. President Roosevelt’s New Deal funded artists during his presidency to relieve the unemployment rate until the economy recovered. Gaining support through the government helped many artists get exposed and showcase their talents. Typically, American Regionalism is conservative and traditional that the WPA was generally sensitive to the local public that program administrators encouraged artists to depict the “American Scene” with representations of so-called traditional American values such as hard work, community, optimism, and family[1]. Some artists would put political and social undertones in their works but on the other hand, Forbes body of work does not relay her personal points of view but rather concentrated on rural scenes which are romanticized along with colorful and fluid details in her compositions of animals, nature, and idyllic landscapes.

By focusing on the narratives of different cultural ethnicities in California and on recreational places like the beach, national parks, zoos and outdoor lifestyle, artists like Forbes highlighted the local interests and activities. They emphasized on its rich agricultural growth, regional landscapes and animals with colorful themes and California’s developing community which helped boost the country’s morale during such hard times. The murals were “thematically and stylistically conservative, were intended to be almost comforting to the viewers”[2]. Forbes worked on a handful of murals for post offices, zoos, and public libraries most of which are in San Francisco where she was based. She became an active member in many organizations such as the National Society of Mural Painters; California Society of Etchers; San Francisco Art Association; Palo Alto Art Club; San Francisco Mural Society. She was also a founder and president of the San Francisco Society of Women Artists from 1928 to 1930 and in 1931 her body of work was held at the California Legion of Honor, which received an Honorable Mention and at the San Diego Museum of Art.


[1] Laurel Bliss and Melissa Lamont, "Documenting WPA Murals in California." Art Documentation: Bulletin Of The Art Libraries Society Of North America 29, no. 1 (Spring 2010): 5. Art Full Text (H.W. Wilson), EBSCOhost (accessed May 8, 2017).

[2] Ibid, 6.



       Bliss, Laurel, and Melissa Lamont. "Documenting WPA Murals in California." Art Documentation: Bulletin Of The Art Libraries Society Of North America 29, no. 1 (Spring 2010): 5. Art Full Text (H.W. Wilson), EBSCOhost (accessed May 8, 2017).