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Portrait of a Pioneer

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A matriarch of Sanford’s art scene celebrates her 90th birthday in style.

Longtime Sanford resident Helen M. Hickey always dreamed of being an artist. Yet, like many women of her era, she set aside her career aspirations to marry and raise a family.

When her children were older, Helen was able to carve out enough time to resume her creative pursuits. She became an award-winning painter, a gallery owner, and a popular art teacher.

“I still don’t understand the drive that I had to be an artist; it was just there,” says Helen. “No one else planted it in my head.”

Helen’s family recently celebrated her 90th birthday with a soirée that showcased a collection of her beautiful artwork. The combo party and art show, held in late February in Sanford, featured a Hats & Flowers theme. Guests were encouraged to wear their own fancy hats or don some of the vibrant bonnets that were provided at the event.

The party and art show were a sequel of sorts to a similarly-themed exhibit that Helen presented years ago. The theme was also a nod to the fact that many of Helen’s paintings feature colorful flowers and women wearing big-brimmed hats. She also paints landscapes, animals, and other subjects.

“Helen was one of the pioneers who made Sanford what it is today with her gallery and community involvement,” says Leigh Crosser, one of her granddaughters.

During the 45 years that she lived in Sanford, Helen was quite active in the community. She was a former president of the Sanford Seminole Art Association, a singer in her church choir, and a founding member of the Sanford Historic Trust.

Helen, who grew up in the Buffalo, New York area, loved to draw as a child. In high school, she yearned to be a commercial artist. Helen ignored her mother’s advice to study home economics in college and instead majored in art education.

She married in 1950 after graduating and raised four children – two boys and two girls. Helen’s late husband, Jim, was an engineer who worked in the missile industry. The Hickey family moved frequently because of his career, bouncing back and forth several times between California and Florida. For years, they moved so often that Helen didn’t bother to unpack her art supplies. But, eventually, she started sketching again at home. Helen had never been satisfied with the art training she received in college. So, after the Hickeys finally settled in Florida, she took oil-painting classes while living in Titusville.


That positive experience spurred Helen to study other media, including pastels and watercolors. She began exhibiting her work at outdoor art festivals and galleries, winning many accolades. She also continued her art education with graduate classes at the University of Central Florida and workshops with nationally-known artists.

“I’m curious,' says Helen, who has also worked in acrylics and mixed media. “I’m really interested in process, and I like to experiment.” 


In 1973, the Hickeys moved from Titusville to Sanford, where they bought a historic house on Oak Street and restored it themselves from top to bottom. Their house was featured several times on the Sanford Historic Trust’s Holiday Tour of Homes.

Recently, Helen sold her Sanford home and moved to Chuluota to live with one of her daughters. That meant Helen had to pack up her art supplies yet again. However, she plans to resume painting as soon as she gets settled in.

Helen’s foray into teaching began in the 1970s when she became an instructor in the adult education department at Seminole State College. The popularity of her classes led Helen to open an art gallery in downtown Sanford in 1980, which showcased her paintings and work by 40 other artists. Unfortunately, she was forced to shutter the gallery just two years later after it was severely damaged in a storm.

Helen then focused on creating her own art and teaching – most notably at Crealdé School of Art in Winter Park – for 30 years. At one point, she was the director of Crealde’s painting and drawing department. Helen also taught classes at the Orlando Museum of Art and other venues.

Peter Schreyer, Crealdé’s CEO/executive director, has fond memories of working with Helen.

“Helen was a wonderful artist and teacher,” says Peter. “I admired her work and dedication to her students very much. She’s just a good person.”

Helen credits a keen interest in math with making her a better painter and a more effective teacher. She says her love of mathematics enabled her to analyze a subject, break the information down, and present it to students in an easy-to-understand way. She taught a variety of mediums, including watercolors, oils, pastels, and portrait classes.

“I loved teaching, and I really miss it,” says Helen, whose arthritis forced her to retire five years ago. “I’m a people person; teaching suited me. I just got a lot of satisfaction out of watching people grow and develop – some of them into much better artists than I am.”


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