No Look Alikes in Helm Show

Milwaukee Journal

Sunday, August 16, 1970

By Don Lewis

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It shouts and whispers, rainbows and monochromes, the show of recent work by Mary Theisen-Helm in the UWM Union’s Fireside Lounge comes at you from all directions.

Mrs. Helm has a lot of things to say, and says them in many languages --- oil, watercolor, Cray Pas, charcoal and pencil. She says them best in the "lighter" media, which often seem to display a freedom and confidence sometimes lacking in the oils.

As secretary to the director of the union, Mrs. Helm must take up her art when she can find the time, evenings and weekends. This may account for the wide variation in subjects and their handling. It also provides the show with a multi-directional freshness and a "something for everyone" outlook.

The artist, a native of Loyal (Clark county) has lived in Milwaukee most of her life, and numbers among her teachers such well known names as Von Neumann, Schwartz, Colt and Gessert.

Studies in Moods

Most of the 40 or so pieces in the current show, which runs through August, were done in the last year or two. Each is, in itself, a study in mood.

Among the most fascinating are those dealing with motion. "Nocturnal Dance" for instance, is a watercolor treatment in black, yellow and orange, of strange ethereal shapes silhouetted against a vivid glow.

Rhythmic shadows flicker furtively and subside. The artist has caught the spirit of the dance and leaves the viewer to supply his own details.

In like style is "Theatre," a vibrant Cray Pas in hot hues of pink, orange and red that constitutes a lively commentary on this lively art. From the welter of lines and suggested forms the observer is free to find his own images or – the better choice – to look at the piece as a whole without searching for details.

Framed in Space

Mrs. Helm has the happy ability to impart a sense of motion even to what for another painter would be a still life. In "Autumn Fantasy" she has assembled a bouquet that oozes October, even though there is only the hint of a leaf or two among the graceful, sometimes shell-like lines that wind and curve in and out among the warm colors.

In this piece, more than in most others, Mrs. Helm makes wise use of open space to frame and accent her subject.

Completely apart in size, subject and media – but still employing strong linear and formal accents – is the large oil, "Don Quixote," one of the most powerful and successful works in the show. The knight of the windmills is beautifully depicted among the dreams with which he surrounded himself, his hauntingly expressive face shining like a beacon in the sea of make believe.

Off on another tack altogether, Mrs. Helm draws a somber, straight-on portrait of "Two Defendants" with something of the hidden fierceness of a Van Gogh self-portrait. Here are Red Beard and Black Hair, the fever of their revolution subdued, encased and framed by the establishment.

It’s done in Cray Pas, open and direct, and a highly suitable treatment of the subject.

Inward and outward

In glistening contrast is a wistful, much washed, pastel watercolor, "Lagoon," spacious and serene, with the greens, blues and whites evoking images of placid sails and blooming trees.

And just as inward as that painting is outward, is the oil, "Cathedral," with a stained glass feeling of depth in its blueness. Gothic arched windows, spires and pillars half appear from inner surfaces as Mrs. Helm has succeeded in putting on canvas not so much the look of a place of worship as its personality.

That’s no easy accomplishment and the artist doesn’t always attain it. "Dancing Children," a large oil, evokes neither childishness nor musicality in its heavy blues, purples and white. But where success is achieved – "Don Quixote," "Autumn Phantasy" and some of the others – it is well worth the effort, both of the artist and of the viewer.