Landscape and still-life painter Helen Alton Sawyer was the daughter of a prominent Washington, D.C. family. She spent much of her childhood in Spain where she was exposed to fine art and other elements of culture. Her father was painter Wells M. Sawyer with whom she studied as well as in New York City at the National Academy of Design and the Art Students League, and with painter Charles Hawthorne on Cape Cod, Massachusetts. Her talent manifested itself early, and she and her father exhibited in a two-person show in 1921 in New York City at the Babcock Galleries. Sawyer married artist Jerry Farnsworth from Dalton, Georgia, whom she met when they both studied with Hawthorne. He referred to his wife as a “born artist, while terming himself a made artist” (Sternberg, 107). She continued to use her maiden name of Sawyer throughout her career.
Her painting career is primarily associated with Cape Cod where from 1933, she and her husband founded an art school, which in 1940, they had near their home at North Truro. In 1943, they also founded an art school in Sarasota, Florida where the Ringling Brothers Circus had their headquarters. Both Helen and her husband painted circus scenes.
Sawyer evidenced a very personal style with elements of the the primitive combined with impressionism. She used both oil and watercolor. Her oil, “Road to Shankpainter Pond, Provincetown,” is a landscape depiction with two tiny figures on a road between clustered foreground cottages that contrast with one isolated in the middle distance. This lonely house appears to be their physical destination, but thanks to the artist’s handling, is also the symbolic goal of their emotional or spiritual journey. The artist’s seascapes also tend to be rich in mood, often expressing a certain loneliness.
She was elected an Associate of the National Academy of Design in 1937 and an Academician in 1950. She was also a member of the National Association of Women Artists, the National Arts Club, Washington Society of Artists, the Hudson Valley Art Association, Washington Art Club; Yonkers Art Association, New York; and Provincetown Art Association, Massachusetts. She regularly exhibited with those groups as well as venues including the Pennsylvnaia Academy, Art Institute of Chicago, Corcoran Gallery, Ringling Museum and Atlanta Museum. Her work was included in the “American Art Today” New York World’s Fair exhibit in 1939 and the 1933-34 Century of Progress Internation Exposition in Chicago.