Helen Mary Hastings (1871-1953) was the granddaughter of James Seymour and Myra (Hill) Seymour who settled in Brockport about 1823. Helen, born in Rochester, was the youngest child of Evelyn (Seymour) Hastings and Albert Hastings who owned a paper manufacturing plant on Rochester’s lower falls. Unfortunately, Helen’s father died when she was only eight-years old.
Not long after his death, Helen’s family moved to Brockport, possibly to be closer to their extended family. According to Ancestry, Helen attended school until eighth grade and there is no indication that she ever continued.
In 1933 when Helen’s first cousin, James Horatio Seymour, inherited his family’s home, Helen convinced him to donate it to the Village of Brockport for the purpose of establishing a Seymour Public Library. Later, Helen convinced him to allow her the use of five rooms on the second floor in which to create a local history museum.
Other than Helen’s contribution as a member of the D.A.R. in researching and writing histories of the area’s historic homes, the museum staff had little information about her life.
That all changed in January 2016 when Emily L. Knapp Museum staff members opened a trunk in the museum’s attic with the words Helen Hastings scrawled across its top. Underneath piles of old newspapers, pamphlets, books, and paintbrushes, they uncovered 105 oil paintings layered one upon another and 135 illustrations tucked in folders. The staff’s excitement level was beyond containment as they unloaded their find and spread amazing paintings throughout two rooms on the museum’s third floor. Since Helen and her family never owned a home and often lived in the Seymour house, it made sense that her belongings would be stored in the attic. The fact that no one apparently had discovered her art since her death in 1953 amazed us. If they had, they left no indication of its existence. The group had many questions and few answers until they began researching Helen’s background.
Fortunately, along with the art, Helen left seven detailed notebooks and numerous pages of other notes regarding her studies at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Art from 1898 until 1904. She and her mother rented apartments in Philadelphia, frequently moving from one to another, while Helen pursued her art passion. She studied under America’s premier teachers and artists–William Merritt Chase, Cecilia Beau, and Howard Pyle.
The oil paintings were invariably covered with blooming giving her pieces the appearance of being covered in fog. Blooming is caused by improper temperature and humidity controls. Her illustrations on paper contained water stains and deterioration from age but that did not diminish the quality of Helen’s work.
Almost more valuable than her paintings were her seven notebooks in which she detailed her instructors’ critiques and suggestions for improvement. She also left page after page of pencil sketches of everything from buildings, young children, buggies, horses, and animals.
In our research, we learned that Helen submitted her work in the 1901 and 1903 Art Institute of Chicago exhibition. She attained notoriety as a landscape artist as she is listed in the Dictionary of Women Artists Born Before 1900 by Chris Pettey, is mentioned in Volume 6 of the Benezit Dictionary of Artists, and in the Annual Exhibition of Paintings and Sculptures, Volume 11-17. She was considered a landscape painter.
Although the museum’s staff was excited about their find, it took months and hours of work to document, measure, clean, and wrap everything in archival paper and place each item in an archival box. In order to properly display Helen’s work, every piece needed restoration by a qualified professional, which our small, local museum could not afford.
Fortunately for the museum, a local photographer captured every piece in its original state and put each item through PhotoShop before printing it on canvas to allow for the display of some of Helen’s work. The museum’s second floor now has a Helen Hastings’ Art Gallery.
It may someday happen that a wealthy donor will bequeath money to the museum for the restoration of Helen’s original work. In the meantime, Helen’s name and art is on display for the public’s enjoyment.
Photographs by Chris Martin.