Jules Heller, 88, was York’s founding dean of the Faculty of Fine Arts

Pioneering printmaker, educator, author and administrator Jules Heller, York’s dean of the Faculty of Fine Arts from its inception in 1968 to 1973, died Dec. 28, 2007, in Phoenix, Ariz., after a long illness and complications from cancer.

Jules Heller, founding dean of the Faculty of Fine Arts, York University, TorontoWhen Prof. Heller arrived at York in 1968, he headed a small team of teachers, scholars and artists who developed an interdisciplinary curriculum in fine arts. By 1969-1970, under his direction, four programs had been established – in film, music, theatre and visual arts. That same year, two support courses in dance were offered in what would become Canada’s first university dance program. Prof. Heller was also largely responsible for seeing through the development of the Joan & Martin Goldfarb Centre for Fine Arts, one of the campus’ most interesting buildings.

Right: Jules Heller

Prof. Heller received an honorary doctorate from York in 1985 and was made a member of the University’s Founders Honours Society during Spring Convocation in 1999, during the University’s 40th anniversary celebrations. A number of his personal papers are held in the Clara Thomas Archives & Special Collections in York’s Scott Library.

Born in the Bronx, raised in Brooklyn, and a lifelong fan of the New York Times crossword puzzle, Prof. Heller was a groundbreaking artist, art educator, author and arts administrator who wrote several classic textbooks and was a professional jazz pianist. He was also an avid fisherman, and danced a mean tango, said his daughter Nancy Heller, who teaches visual arts at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia.

Jules Heller, first dean of fine arts at York University, with his wife Gloria (left) and York President Murray Ross and his wife.
Above: From left, Jules Heller, Gloria Heller, Janet Ross and Murray Ross, former York president and vice-chancellor, in 1974 (Toronto Telegram, Clara Thomas Archives & Special Collections)

Prof. Heller first learned to make prints at the prestigious Townsend Harris High School, in Flushing, NY, where he contributed illustrations to the yearbook. During the following seven decades he experimented with all the traditional printmaking techniques, producing wood and linoleum cuts, lithographs, etchings, and serigraphs, plus a large variety of monotypes, including one-of-a-kind images created via computer. His works range in style from social realism to pure abstraction and from dramatic black-and-white to unexpected combinations of vivid colors. His prints have been displayed in solo and group exhibitions in more than a dozen states, and several countries.

Always interested in experiencing different parts of the world, in 1939 Prof. Heller received his undergraduate degree from Arizona State University but returned to his native city to earn a master’s degree at Columbia University.

After serving for five years in the military during the Second World War, he went back to the west, where he received a PhD from the University of Southern California in 1948. A remarkable affinity for teaching brought him into academia and eventually his teaching career included visiting professorships in Thailand and Argentina.

After serving as head of the USC Fine Arts Department, Prof. Heller was invited to become founding dean of the College of Arts & Architecture at Pennsylvania State University from 1963 to 1968 before coming to York where he continued offering courses even after becoming a dean. In 1976 Prof. Heller returned to his undergraduate alma mater, to become dean of the College of Fine Arts at Arizona State University, a post he held until his retirement in 1985.

For the next 20 years Heller continued exploring new areas of creativity – constantly learning to use new kinds of software, researching and writing more books (notably about the Mexican printmaker Leopoldo Mendez and the Uruguayan artist Antonio Frasconi) and putting together an outdoor event that combined outsize projections of his prints with music he had composed for the occasion.

Prof. Heller’s Printmaking Today (1958; second edition 1972) was the first studio handbook ever published on the graphic arts and influenced many generations of artists. Papermaking (1978) was also an important effort, as was the extensive manuscript about the history of women artists that he began preparing in the 1950s, long before this subject had achieved academic credibility. His notes were eventually published in another important book, co-written by his daughter Nancy, titled North American Women Artists of the Twentieth Century (1997).

Prof. Heller received many honours, including the College Art Association’s Distinguished Teaching of Art Award, a Fulbright Fellowship, and the Southern Graphics Council’s Printmaker Emeritus Award from the Southern Graphics Council.

He is survived by his wife Gloria, a political scientist who served in Arizona’s state government, his daughters Nancy and Jill, a set dresser on Broadway, and two grandchildren.