Mary Lou Helgesen

Mary Lou Helgesen, NAN Honors Grad, passes away

Mary Lou Helgesen was a highly regarded national needlework teacher, famous for her delightful crèche figures, but widely admired for her artistic designs, too. She was fast friends with the acclaimed Chottie Alderson, and the two were regular fixtures at most of the national and regional seminars for many years. Although Mary Lou’s designs were sometimes whimsical or playful, she was serious about her art, and studied in England on an annual basis.

She had an undergraduate degree from Carnegie Mellon University, in art and design, and taught art in public schools in Pennsylvania and Ohio, before devoting her creative impulses to needlework. Once she joined the guilds she embraced their programs with great enthusiasm, earning Senior Master Teacher with the American Needlepoint Guild, and going on to chair that program, as well as serving ANG as Vice-President of Education.

She is best remembered at NAN for her Honors Presentation in 1983. Mary Lou had created some three-dimensional, free standing crèche figures, beginning, of course, with Mary, Joseph, and Baby Jesus, and going on to add Wise Men, shepherds, animals, angels, etc. These were received with much pleasure by the stitching community, and many guild chapters invited Mary Lou year after year to add to their nativity scenes.

Eventually Mary Lou began looking for other nativity figures in the cultures of Europe and was able to add many more to her collection. She researched Christian communities around the world, studying their legends and Christmas traditions, and adding them to her own stitched nativity.

Along the line Mary Lou realized that this would be a perfect project for the NAN Honors program, and so she enrolled, and continued to investigate Yuletide traditions, and to design figures which reflected her research.

Her presentation in 1983 was most impressive, and totally captivating. She regaled us with tales from long ago, and far away, some we were familiar with, and many we were not. Each story was accompanied by a slide of her stitched piece, and often a main character had on the reverse side some other player in the saga.

Lined up across her table were all the stitched figures–at least 30 of them, human and animal. and at the end of her oral presentation Mary Lou presented to the Academy a new Virgin Mary, St. Joseph, and Baby Jesus for the NAN collection. These figures now reside in the NAN collection at North Carolina State University, but occasionally visit us in Kansas City during Assembly.

Mary Lou Helgesen made great contribution to the needlework community, with her creative designs, her impeccable stitching, her strong skills as an educator, and her mentoring of newer teachers through the education programs at ANG. Her passing is a loss for all of us.

And here is what her daughter Kathy Fuller-Seeley tells us about her mother:

Mary Louise Carnahan was born in Canton Ohio September 28, 1936. She learned embroidery, needlepoint and knitting at a young age (she was an only child) from her mother Bernice and grandmother Erma Steiner. She always loved art and being creative. She earned a BFA in Fine Arts from what was then Carnegie Institute of Technology in 1958. and married my dad, Peter Helgesen, that same year. She had 3 children, Kathy, Jay and John. She taught art for a while in the public schools, and in 1972 she opened the first of a succession of needlepoint, crewel and knitting shops. She became a needlepoint designer known (I would think ) for her exuberant use of color and texture, her needlepoint nativity series of figures, and her love of cats. She unfortunately suffered a major stroke in October 1997, and I have been caring for her since. Even as limited as she was, she still longed to create, and she worked in watercolors and paper collage the past 8 years. She died on June 25, 2006, at age 69, in Decatur, GA.