Helen S. Petersen Bentley on her first day of university at Iowa State College, 1930.
In 1930, Helen began a Bachelor of Science (BSc) in Applied Art at Iowa State College in Ames, Iowa. One of her letters home describes her excitement about, and pleasure in, learning:
Really you can’t imagine how much I do enjoy college! It’s all so wonderful. Learning new things and seeing people who are so great in their special lines of work! It just makes one want to learn all she can!
During her undergraduate years she experimented in many different techniques and media, using leather tooling, carving, stencilling, and pottery to create works including a leather portfolio, a ceramic vase, a wooden salad server set, and a metal jam pot lid. Helen kept many of her projects and used them throughout her life. For example, each year the red vase would hold spring pansies, then lily of the valley, followed by summer flowers. Her jam lid, and the glass container she purchased for it, were often set on the breakfast table.
A metal jam pot lid handmade by Helen, (between 1930 and 1936).
A red glazed vase handmade by Helen, (between 1930 and 1936).
A tooled leather portfolio handmade by Helen for her sister, Vera (between 1931 and 1936).
Helen engaged in many aspects of university life: playing in the College orchestra, participating in the Student Health Council, the Lutheran Students Association, and the Home Economics Club where she took part in the annual Rite of Spring festival Vodvil (or vaudeville) show. Classmates and professors recognized her leadership capacity when they chose her to serve as vice-president of SAI and secretary of DPhiD, as well as the representative of her dormitory on the Women’s Dormitory Council. She was also invited to, and joined, two honorary fraternities.
One of the fraternities was Delta Phi Delta (DPhiD), a national art fraternity open to men and women, which designed hand-blocked Christmas cards in 1935. The other was Sigma Alpha Iota (SAI), an international music fraternity formed to uphold high standards of music as well as contribute to the development of music throughout the world. In a letter home Helen explained her excitement at joining Sigma Alpha Iota:
Ames is the only school that has an S.A.I. chapter where the members do not have to be music students—that is, taking music as their main work—like Home Ec is my main line or major. That’s something too—if you ask me.
A newspaper article announcing Helen's graduation from Ames, 1936.
Upon graduation in 1936, Helen was offered a fellowship to continue her work in home economics at New York University but declined it. Instead she earned tuition money towards her master’s by teaching art at Burlington High School in Burlington, Iowa.
A lapel pin in the shape of a pan flute from the Sigma Alpha Iota music fraternity, (ca. 1930).
In 1937, between her bachelor and master’s degrees, Helen studied painting during a summer session at the University of Colorado in Boulder, Colorado. The course emphasized the differences in effort and time required when using various techniques such as oil, watercolour, pencil, and charcoal. An untitled oil painting from that period showcases Helen’s talents, depicting a road, buildings, and mountains with a skewed perspective.
An untitled oil painting on board made by Helen, 1937.
To see some of Helen’s work from her master’s degree, click here.
Updated June 27 2019 by Student & Academic Services