“My studio is my science lab. It’s my place to play and experiment.
It’s packed with work and stuffed with supplies
and it is truly visual overload. I feed on that intensity.”
—KATY HELMAN, artist


interview by NANCY GORDON

Artist Katy Helman in studio / science lab.
24 x 24 inches
Routered drawing on birch plywood
Studio wall with works in progress.
After Rodney
30 x 40 inches
Pairs and Idioms, 2021
This painting was done by my grandmother,
Sarah Bockholtz. Clearly, she was exploring
cubism and I am blown away by her handling
of the glass vase and how the stems appear
through the glass.
Under the Influence: SD
40 x 40 inches
Sink or Swim
24 x 24 inches

How did your nose lead to your interest in painting?

My nose got me hooked on painting. My grandmother, Sarah, was a Sunday painter. Her studio was a sun-filled second bedroom and I was intoxicated by the smell of turpentine and linseed oil, both of which she kept in tiny tin cups on her easel. And, I was intrigued by the crusty wads of paint arranged from light to dark on her wooden palette. When the paint blobs dried the surface became skin-like—it shrank and pulled, creating wrinkles. On the outside the blobs were hard but underneath the skin the paint would remain gooey like pudding. I loved to poke them and make them ooze. Now, I build my surfaces by using my canvases as palettes until I get the perfect depth of crust. Once the surfaces are built up, I work in layers by painting back into them and by making smaller components, which I move around, then secure, when they “click” with the whole.

Did your parents support your interest in art?

There was a lot of pressure from my parents to get top grades and get into a good college. Education had been their ticket to success. I wasn’t particularly scholarly and often felt defeated by their badgering. Art was something that my folks knew little about, so I used it to rebel against their expectations and to carve out an identity. There was a lot of tension around school until I applied and got accepted to a fine-arts program, at which point they abandoned the idea of my becoming “a professional.”

How do you describe your studio?

My studio is my science lab. It’s my place to play and experiment. It’s packed with work and stuffed with supplies and it is truly visual overload. I feed on that intensity. There are layers of images on the walls from different time periods and different bodies of work. They have become an archeological site of my former selves. My partner says that the colors and shapes remind him of a toy store, which I love. Deer Isle provides the tranquility I need to counterbalance my overactive visual life.

Is “play” important to you? Was it encouraged when you were young?

I’m not sure what you mean when you ask if “play” was encouraged when I was young. Not in relation to art but I had two older brothers and we were hooligans—we roamed far and wide. On weekends, we left in the morning and didn’t show back up until dinnertime. We rode bikes everywhere, dug up worms, played football and ate sandy egg salad sandwiches at the beach. My father loved sports and coached us whether we wanted him to or not. I think I can still spiral a pretty good football.

How do you describe the type of artwork you create?

Whether it is evident or not, my work is about me and whatever is going on in my life at any given moment. In the past, it has been about divorce, anxieties, teaching, loss. Currently, it is about home and how the meaning of home changes as we age. They seem to be universal topics to which people can relate. I like to have fun and much of the work has humor to it even when the subject matter is a little dark. I don’t tackle social issues unless you believe the personal IS the political.

Tell us about your Haystack experience.

I have taken many classes but the two workshops that have had the most impact on my work were an embroidery workshop and a printmaking workshop. I like to make lists, record observations and compile information which describes pieces of life—mine or that of others. I sometimes embroider those lists onto cloth or router the lists into wood. I draw with the router as well.

You taught high school art in Maine. Did teaching influence your own work?

I was the high school art teacher at Deer Isle Stonington High School for 18 years. Before that, I taught foundation arts and painting at two small New England colleges.

Teaching on the island certainly influenced my work. I would often ask the kids to collaborate with me. Years ago, I did a show called “Island Couture,” in which I assigned island-themed drawings—lobster boats, clammers, traps, hunting season, etc.—and then used their drawings to print fabric, which I distributed to about a dozen artists who made mostly clothing from the fabric. The artists could make whatever they chose and I ended up with fabulous and imaginative garments, which were exhibited at Dow Studio here on the island. Sometimes I asked them if I could use discarded artwork to collage into my own work. Neither are exactly collaborations because we didn’t make decisions together.

You talked about your work as a “process of working in layers.” Please tell us more …

As I described earlier, each painting starts as a palette—the repetition of mixing paint builds up the surface until it has a thick crust. The next layer is often a pattern or striping which helps to unify the background, acting as wallpaper, and then I will paint an image on top, or collage my subject onto the background. From there I usually cut out the center of another painting and use the remaining edges as a frame. Having said that, I’m known to go rogue. There are no hard-and-fast rules, I just work each piece until it feels complete.

“I don’t commit until the end.” Can you say more about this?

I am always mixing and matching components—I can recycle and upcycle endlessly—there are so many combinations and possibilities. My friend Ellen Wieske periodically tells me that I need to have a show so I will actually finish something!

Where do the words come from?

I am dating a retired English professor. We both like words and like playing with language. It was a game we played for our amusement during Covid—generating common pairs of words or occasionally sayings.

“Hard tellin’, not knowin’” is a local expression which typifies a Mainer’s ability to be both droll and precise. After generating a long list, I simply chose the pairs or sayings that appealed to me. It’s a little nerdy and addictive. Even nerdier was that I started doing nautical pairs such as Search and Rescue using Semaphore.

You are now collaborating with artist/jewelry designer/teacher Sarah Doremus on a project involving arcade things. Sounds like endless possibilities. … What direction are you taking?

Right now, it’s just a plan. We send each other images to trigger ideas but we haven’t made anything. Sarah makes a lot of kinetic art so we had an idea to make the images and words on my paintings move. I used the word “arcade” because I imagine them being animated and game-like, but Sarah may see the pieces differently. I think we have agreed that the pieces will have to be irregularly shaped so it doesn’t look like pieces jutting out of a square canvas. Sarah teaches art at the Sedgwick Elementary School so we may recruit her students to make some drawings to be included. We haven’t had much time to discuss it but winter is coming…

When you need a self-esteem boost, what do you watch?

Lion in Winter … Katharine Hepburn puts up a good fight!

Has living on Deer Isle influenced your art?

It’s funny: For years I looked high and low for fluorescent oil paint, which I use as a base color on my canvases. It was hard to find in Massachusetts but when I moved to the island it was everywhere, because the fisherman use it to paint pot buoys. Other than working with my students, I’d say no, but it’s been my home for the past 23 years and now I’m making paintings about “home” so the island will likely creep in.

What do you hope to give people with your art?

Something they may think is visually interesting and possibly different from what they’ve seen.

What’s next?

I would like to participate in more residency programs, here and abroad. Living on an island limits my contact with the greater art world and I have benefitted tremendously from my experiences at each residency I have attended.

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