March 11, 2024

Hearing the Life, Artwork, and Environment of Artist Helen Torr

The multidisciplinary project helps center women’s stories through the work of women and girls.

American modernist painters Helen Torr and Arthur Dove lived in Huntington, New York from 1924 to 1946. During that time the couple made art together where they both embraced nature and depicted nature.

While Torr was a talented artist in her own right—having studied under William Merritt Chase—during her lifetime she was best known for championing her husband’s work. In the decades between when Dove died in 1946 and when she died in 1967, she carefully preserved his work and his legacy.

Exterior view of the Dove/Torr Cottage in Centerpoint, New York.

photo by: Dove/Torr Cottage

Exterior of the Arthur Dove and Helen Torr Cottage

After Torr passed away, her sister, Mary Torr Rehm, set about preserving Torr’s legacy working with the nearby Heckscher Museum of Art to acquire Torr’s drawings, other works, and the Dove/Torr Cottage, where the couple lived on Mill Pond in Centerport, New York.

More than half a century later, thanks to innovative funding from the National Trust for Historic Preservation and a creative vision from the museum, a new multidisciplinary audio and visual experience (which is available via the Bloomberg Connects app) is introducing more people to Torr, her work, and her life.

A woman sitting in a chair at a yacht club in Huntington Harbor, New York.

photo by: Estate of Arthur Dove.

Helen Torr at the Ketewomeke Yacht Club.

A man feeding some ducks at the cottage.

photo by: Estate of Arthur Dove.

Arthur Dove feeding ducks at the cottage in Centerpoint, New York.

Building a Connection with Sound

In 2022, Heather Arnet, then the relatively new executive director and CEO of The Heckscher Museum, was working with museum staff about how to commemorate the 25th anniversary of stewardship of the Dove/Torr Cottage. Anyone can walk by and see the exterior of the Dove/Torr Cottage at any time, but because of the small size of the cottage (limited to about ten people at once), it is only open by appointment.

It was a challenge, said Karli Wurzelbacher, chief curator at the Heckscher, “to bring the sights and sounds of the cottage into the museum” and to engage folks who hadn’t physically visited the cottage, which is about three miles east of the museum campus.

When they heard about a grant opportunity from the National Trust, the Dorothy C. Radgowski Learning Through Women’s Achievement in the Arts Grant, a joint effort of Where Women Made History (WWMH) and Historic Artists’ Homes & Studios (HAHS), they knew they could come up with something different.

“The grant was a wonderful inspiration for the project,” Arnet said. The team developed a proposal for two separate Soundwalks, one at the cottage and one at the museum, that allow the public to interact with the words and sounds of Torr and Dove, and appreciate what the couple saw in the landscape and how that inspired their art. They tapped the expertise and creativity of sculptor Susan Buroker and sound engineer Evangeline Knell, artists with whom the museum had previously worked. The two women worked with middle-school students from Girls Inc., who participated in a week-long camp to experience Torr’s world and help communicate it to others. Buroker and Knell then helped turn the girls’ work into a public sculpture, audio, and text-based displays (including braille).

“Even just hearing a 9-year-old say the name ‘Helen Torr’ is meaningful to me,” Wurzelbacher said. “I’ve taught college classes to people who were not familiar with her. So, to have these girls say her name and know she was an artist who made art 100 years ago where they live now means something to me.”

A black and white image of a sailboat in New York known as the Mona.

photo by: Estate of Arthur Dove.

Dove and Torr's boat the Mona.

Bringing a New Creative Vision to Art History

Wurzelbacher is careful not to talk about Torr as a victim but acknowledges that it must have been difficult for Torr to be surrounded by famous friends such as Georgia O’Keefe and Dove. The professional artists were inspired by the engagement of the students.

“The week was amazing, intermixing art, science, and technology,” Knell said. “And the technical nature of some of the sculptures that some of the kids were really impressive.” She and Buroker had planned to play music from the 1940s to 1960s to get the girls into the spirit of the time and the project, but ultimately didn’t because the girls were gung-ho and ready from the get-go. Knell believes Torr and Dove would have appreciated the enthusiasm and interest of the participants, as well as the art they made.

Through art and photos and being at the cottage in person, the girls could see how the coastline at the now-fragile cottage had changed over the years and were quick to understand the effects of climate change, Buroker said. Indeed, Buroker said, she “felt all the ghosts in the cottage. You knew you were part of history.”

View of a two people looking at a tall metallic sculpture.

photo by: Dove/Torr Cottage

Sculpture by Susan Buroker at Dove/Torr Cottage.

View of Dove/Torr wayfinding signs to access the soundwalk.

photo by: Dove/Torr Cottage

View of the signage describing the soundwalk at the cottage.

Buroker started the Girls Inc. project by having the students read from some of Torr’s diaries. Not only did they learn about how the landscape affected the couple’s day-to-day lives, such as walking four to five miles to town after a large tree fell during a storm, but what life was like for a woman at that time. They discussed how women were not permitted to have bank accounts on their own and how Torr’s work was overshadowed by Dove’s. That resonated in the work that the girls created. As they learned to use different materials to make different sculptures, which Buroker used to create the final sculpture, they talked about learning to have confidence in your own work.

“This is how history changes,” Buroker said. “I tell one person about Helen Torr, and they tell ten people, and those people tell 20 people. We just keep telling the story.”

“Every place has a woman’s story to tell, but there is very little funding available to support that work. Just 2 percent of all philanthropy in this country is dedicated to women’s causes. We established this new grant program specifically to encourage new, creative student programs that make women an integral part of the story at these historic places,” added Chris Morris, senior director of preservation programs at the National Trust and manager of WWMH.

“The Soundwalk is a fantastic example because women and girls not only learn about the life, artwork, and environment of Helen Torr, they are actively involved in telling her story. These are exactly the kind of projects we want to support and showcase as a model for other historic places.”

Beyond Dove/Torr Cottage

The Heckscher was granted $18,000 for this project in February 2023. The camp and art creation took place over the summer and fall and the Soundwalk opened in November 2023. Arnet and Wurzelbacher look forward to summer, when they expect to see more people outdoors interacting with the pieces.

“My goal is for the space not to feel like it is for ‘other people,’” Arnet said. “I want people to feel like Helen Torr and Arthur Dove are their neighbors.”

A man and a woman standing outside a cottage in a black and white image.

photo by: Estate of Arthur Dove.

Arthur Dove and Helen Torr in 1924.

The National Trust sees the impact extending far outside Long Island, where the Heckscher is based. “This project is a wonderful example of the ways in which art and preservation intersect, and the multidisciplinary storytelling that can happen at sites centered in artist legacy. The Soundwalk illustrates the power that results from women and girls coming together to activate stories and histories that are meaningful to them.“ said Valerie Balint, director of HAHS.

Thanks, in part, to the success of grantees like the Heckscher, WWMH and HAHS, are readying for their next round of grants, with support from the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation. “This project was not only about Helen Torr, its impact on young women or activating the next generation through STEAM education,” Balint said. “It speaks to the needs in the community and shows how an entire community can serve as a catalyst to bring agency to women’s history in ways that benefit a wide range of audiences.”

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Margaret Littman is a Nashville-based journalist who tells the stories of people and places. Follow her work on socials @littmanwrites.

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