This article was originally published in the Democrat and Chronicle on August 25, 2019.
by Caurie Putnam
On a winter’s day in 2016, Sue Savard opened a dust-covered trunk in a storage room of the village of Brockport’s Emily L. Knapp Museum of Local History and made a startling discovery.
“There were books, newspaper clippings, brushes and notebooks,” recalled Savard, director of volunteers at the museum. “But at the bottom, stacked one on top of another, were 105 oil paintings and 135 illustrations that were at least 100 years old.”
The art — an astonishing variety of landscapes, figure paintings and stills — was the work of Helen Mary Hastings, a Brockporter who lived from 1871 to 1953 and was best known locally for persuading her cousin James Seymour to bequeath his family home to the village for a library and the Knapp Museum.
Just like the stacks of paintings, though, Hastings had many layers. She was not only a relative of one of Brockport’s leading families, but also an accomplished artist with impressive training and a passion for women’s rights and architecture.
“You’ll find articles in all the old New York papers about the museum she started and her historic home restoration,” Savard said. “But few people knew she was an artist.”
Hastings studied at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Art from 1898 to1904 under some of the leading artists of the day, including portraitist Cecilia Beaux and impressionist William Merritt Chase. She also studied at Drexel Institute of Art, Science and Industry with illustrator Howard Pyle. The paintings and illustrations in the trunk were all made while she was a student.
Also in Hastings’ trunk were her student notebooks and sketchbooks with direct quotes, criticisms and instructions from her teachers.
“We have something amazing here,” recalled artist, instructor and gallery owner Sarah Hart when Savard shared the contents of the trunk with her.
Not only was Hart impressed with the caliber of Hastings’ work, but realized immediately the value of her notebooks, especially with the words of Chase, who was considered an American Monet and established the institution that was the forebear of the Parsons School of Design “Her notebooks have one of a kind information that doesn’t exist anywhere else in the world,” Hart said. “And Hastings’ collection shows the old fashion training of a portrait painter. This is a really significant find for people who love this type of art because it’s been washed over by a tidal wave of modernism, but it is making a comeback.”
It is unknown why Hastings saved her student work. At the time, artists typically destroyed their student pieces. Hastings even writes in a notebook that Chase said “not to keep their studies but to paint them out and use the canvas for a fresh start.”
Hart, who lives in Brockport, believes Hastings saved the work as a time capsule for the future and that this time capsule has the potential to attract art scholars and enthusiasts from around the world to the village.
In an effort to further preserve her words and works, Savard has spent the last three years painstakingly transcribing Hastings’ notebooks and self-publishing a book called “Helen Hastings’s Art In A Trunk.” The book, whose proceeds will help support the museum, is available locally at Lift Bridge Books in Brockport and on Amazon.
The public can view the find for the first time at a free exhibit of artwork by Helen Hastings from 6 to 9 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 14, and from 2 to 5 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 15, at the Emily L. Knapp Museum of Local History, 49 State St., on the first floor, in the former mayor’s office, below the museum.
After the show, the work will all be available for viewing permanently in the newly named Helen Hastings’ Gallery within the museum.
Due to the age and delicate condition of the original works (most need extensive restoration), the show and gallery will feature replica canvas prints that have been reproduced by Greg Lawrence of Holley, Orleans County. Lawrence also assisted Savard with the book.
Contact Caurie at caurie@urgrad .rochester.edu with news from west-side towns. She’s on Twitter at @Caurie Putnam and on Facebook at facebook .com/BrockportBlog.