Helen McAuslan painted the victims of the Kent State shootings mostly devoid of figurative detail. These works illustrate the modern techniques of abstract expressionism in order to elicit somber emotions from viewers. Helen McAuslan, Untitled [Kent State shootings], 1970. Courtesy of Fine Arts Collection, Museum of the Rockies.


Later in life, Helen McAuslan wanted to use her modern artwork to critique the modern warfare state. McAuslan received that opportunity on May 4, 1970. The Ohio National Guard opened gunfire on college students at Kent State University who had been marching against the United States’ expansion of the Vietnam War into Cambodia. Sixty-seven rounds over thirteen seconds killed four protesters and wounded nine others.[1] McAuslan retreated to the studio room of her newly-constructed house in Bozeman, Montana, to recreate these intense scenes on canvas. Painted on a dark palette, human figures lie stretched over the ground, hands clutching chests, dying a slow death. Just as each of her brush strokes blended somber colors together, the Kent State paintings represented McAuslan’s blending of modern art, modern architecture, and social activism, all of which rejected the past in hope of a better future.[2]

From a line-up of Montana’s progressive women artists, including Lela Autio, Gennie DeWeese, Frances Senska, and Jessie Wilber, Helen McAuslan stands out for the many ways in which she embodied “modernism.” In the art scene, McAuslan helped to create a tight-knit community of modernists who largely eschewed traditional forms of creative expression. McAuslan also defied dominant gender roles, pushing against the stereotypical domestic housewife of the Cold War era to fashion herself as a modern, independent woman. McAuslan’s house spoke volumes about modernism, too. Large glass panes, exposed laminate beams, and a sleek roof line generated a desirable aesthetic that contrasted with standardized parcels in postwar suburbia. Bozeman’s modern architects shunned classic design principles for new materials and new styles. In essence, McAuslan became a modern medium: click on the headings tabs above to explore her artwork, her house, and her feminism.[3]


[1] George C. Herring, America’s Longest War: The United States and Vietnam, 1950-1975, fourth edition (New York: McGraw-Hill, 2002), 293-94.

[2] H. Rafael Chacón, “Rediscovering Helen McAuslan: Montana Modernist,” an essay companion to Rediscovering Helen McAuslan: Montana Modernist Exhibition, Missoula Art Museum, (accessed 28 October 2016); Helen McAuslan, Untitled [Kent State shootings], 1970, Fine Arts Collection, Museum of the Rockies, Bozeman, MT.

[3] David Cottington, Modern Art: A Very Short Introduction (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), 3-14; Joanne Meyerowitz, ed., Not June Cleaver: Women and Gender in Postwar America, 1945-1960 (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1994), 1-11; Mark Gelernter, A History of American Architecture: Buildings in their Cultural and Technological Context (Hanover, NH: University Press of New England, 1999), 260-92.