Mary Theisen-Helm: Working on Vision

Note: The following article was written by Bob French from interviews with the artist. Some biographical details are in error, but I have chose to leave them 'as-is', as I think the article overall is an excellent one. EH

If you could visit Mary Theisen-Helm at her apartment in the Catholic Home on N. Prospect Ave. in Milwaukee, you would say there is something inside of her. You can see it in her dark, bright eyes as she smiles at you. You can see it spread about her apartment, in the many art books, their covers frayed from years of constant use, leaning to and fro on her bookshelf. It is visible in the newspapers and magazines scattered haphazardly on the coffee table, and in the lush green plants in the windowsill, their tendrils and vines shooting every which way onto her living room table. The same life force that animates her paintings is here, and in spite of the decades that have passed since she first took up a brush, shows no signs of waning.

A magical window into the ordinary. That would be one way to describe Helm’s talent, who has been painting for fifty years, and whose work is now on exhibit at the Charles Allis Art Museum.

Growing up in the small town of Loyal in central Wisconsin, where she was born in 1924, Helm was not exposed to art at all. She never saw an art exhibit, in fact, until she was twenty years old. Following the advice of her father, who ran a local hardware store, Helm went to business school. "We had a lot of music in our home. There was plenty of creativity, but we were told that we should find something we could earn a living at."

Helm has never had a formal art education. When she first learned painting it was in night school at the Layton School of Art in Milwaukee, which was open from 1920 until 1974. Helm also developed her technique with Friday night drawing sessions at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, an open session where two rooms full of models sit once a week. "If you have to finish a painting in three or four hours, you learn to paint rapidly," says Helm.

Night school, however, didn’t automatically make one an artist, as Helm found out. There wasn’t enough time to really learn technique. So she went to library after library and checked out every book she could, learning techniques from the old Masters—Rembrandt, Vermeer, and other greats.

In a way, Helm is glad she never got an art degree. Learning from books on her own time gave her the freedom to explore many different styles. She alternately jumped form pencil to pastel, from pastel to watercolor, watercolor to oil and back again. Helm is also surprised at the ignorance of students who have had more educational opportunities. "I would mention something and they (the students) had never heard of it. I was surprised how little they really know about art."

During all the time she was painting, Helm worked. And worked hard. Helm was the administrative director of the University of Milwaukee Union Art Gallery for twenty-two years, a job she calls a "seven-ring circus." She left the gallery to work at advertising agencies for twenty-four more years. Her first advertising job was with a small agency where she did everything, from maintaining balance sheets and profit and loss sheets to answering phones and making photocopies. Helm then worked at the prestigious ad agency Kramer-Kraseldt until her retirement. She does not remember when she retired. "I don’t want to remember those jobs," Helm says. She would not describe herself as a businesswoman, but an artist.

"I would do junky jobs all day," Helm says, "Then I would paint."

Helm married her husband Fritz in 1963, and her son Erik was born in 1964. Painting continued. Sometimes she would paint until very late at night. Before she started working in a studio, Helm would paint anywhere she could, in the basement under the wash lines, in the attic, or anywhere there was space. She stuffed painting everywhere, she says. Now Helm has a studio crammed full of paintings at Pittsburgh Ave. Todd Plotkin, a volunteer at the Allis Museum, says there are about two thousand paintings there. Helm says that number is high, but admits there are "hundreds."

Helm doesn’t think it remarkable that she has done all of these paintings, even while doing full-time work and raising a son. "I never wasted time," she says. "I can’t fritter it away like other people do. I produced while other people sat around talking about art. I denied myself other things."

And Helm has never stopped learning about what she loves. At the age of sixty-four, during one of her Friday night sessions, she was shown a brochure about a trip to Assisi, Italy, and decided to go. She spent three months studying, viewing, and painting in the hill country of Italy, and also visited museums in Amsterdam, Paris, and Rome. "I saw the Van Gogh exhibit in Amsterdam," she says. "Ohh!" Helm exclaims wistfully.

Asked to describe her art, Helm has a hard time defining it. Her "Artist Statement," hanging upstairs in the exhibit hall of the Allis Museum, reads, "As a student of color, light and form, I search for emotional content through direct observation using representation, abstraction and symbolism to reflect my reaction to sensations and metaphor."

"I had to scratch my head to write that," says Helm. In fact, her family told her that it was rather "heavy." According to Helm, "Painting is not meant to be articulated in words; it’s meant to be felt."

"It’s hard to express your inner self," says Helm. "You’re not aware of it while you are working. A painting is a translation, from head to toe, to one’s own person. In a model setting for example, you’ll get differences in the way someone is painted." Helm mentions an old man she painted at one of her Friday night sessions who just came alive for her. "The model who was supposed to come didn’t show up, and somebody just shoved him into the chair."

"It was easy to get in touch with his sadness. I could feel it."

This ability to connect with her subjects is the defining quality of Helm’s work, and follows her through every medium, whether graphite, watercolor, pastel or oil.

One of the works hanging in the exhibition, a pencil drawing called "Reflections," depicts an old woman with disheveled hair wearing a loose fitting, tattered coat over a nightgown. She has the look of a mental patient—angry, tired and bewildered all at once. The soft graphite lines and hairline shading bring out the myriad wrinkles and folds and the bulging, frightened eyes of her tragic face. Helm never saw this woman, she says, but drew her from a book of photographs.

In the watercolor, "Mexico, Mexico," also at the Allis, we see an old woman dressed in a shawl, sitting on the ground. A basket of flowers that she is selling sits in front of her, along with a newspaper, a bottle of wine and some theatrical masks, wearing expressions that starkly contrast with the skeletal grimace on her face. The woman’s blue shawl extends outward, blending with the mountains behind her. Two white crosses stand in the distance. Somehow, without being heavy-handed, pretentious, or depressing, this painting conveys the reality of death, the poverty of the Mexican peasants, and the grandeur of the countryside.

"Mexico, Mexico," came out of two trips to that country, Helm says. She was struck by the reminders of death she saw everywhere. While she was riding through Mexico with a friend, she recalls counting nearly two hundred crosses. "You would ride up past the edge of a cliff and see a cross. And beyond it, nothing." Skulls and skeletons are everywhere in Mexico, she says, a fixture in popular culture. Helms recounts that her nephew married a Spanish doctor and there were skeletons on the wedding cake.

Looking through her exhibit, however, it’s hard to imagine, "Mexico, Mexico" being painted by the same person who created "Garden Edge—Poppies." These flowers resemble exploding stars, riotous in their red and white glory. Next to the poppies is "Garden Edge—Nasturtiums," an almost psychedelic extravaganza of brilliant blues, glowing greens and fluorescent yellows.

For Helm, the variety of moods she expresses in her work is just part of bringing out what is inside the subject. "If it’s a sad subject, I will paint sad. If there’s joy in what I’m painting, I will bring that out."

Knowing that a work as vibrant as "Poppies" was only painted last year, one finds it hard to imagine that Helm will ever stop painting, although "Last Rites," also painted in 1999, shows her in a frumpy black hat, wearing what looks like a monk’s cassock and looking thoughtfully into the distance.

"That’s the only bit of humor in the exhibition, says Helm, chuckling wryly. "They misspelled the title. It was supposed to be called ‘Last Rights.’ " The title is indeed a fitting description for an artist as determined as Helm. Also characteristic of her indomitable attitude is a child’s drawing hanging next to the front door of her apartment, showing a large mouth with a gap-toothed smile, above it the question, "Got teeth?"

Helm certainly does.

Written by Bob French, M.A. Communication, Marquette University, 2001.