If you walk into a business in Teton Valley, Idaho - there's a good chance you'll see Helen's artwork on the walls. Her style is easy to pick out: the thousands of tiny details all forming a beautiful, colorful final piece. Her illustrations and paintings often feature birds and animals surrounded by geometric shapes.
I spent a lot of Fridays working adjacent to Helen's summer farmers market booth in Driggs, ID. With our similar interest in art, good stickers and coffee, we became fast friends. Helen's warm, friendly energy is contagious. Each person who would walk up to her space was warmly welcomed. It wasn't uncommon to see groups of people walk up and all given Helen hugs.
Q: I know “how did you get started?” is a really typical question, but I’d love to know about your creative journey. When did you start creating & when did you decide this was the career path for you?
Helen: I have always been creative, since I was a little kid. I started drawing, painting, taking art classes and then I actually followed up and went to college for graphic design and scientific/medical illustration. Well, actually graphic design first. Towards the end of it, I realized how much I hated sitting in front of a computer. So I tacked on the major of scientific/medical illustration. I added another year and took all these really cool classes and learned how to draw in a very technical style. When I got out of college, I moved to Montana and put my art on the back burner. In Montana, I pursued my love for the mountains, skiing and rock climbing and traveled a bunch. I always kept doing art but very secretly. I knew that I wanted to do it and I knew that I could do it, but it wasn't my focus at the time.
Starting in about 2010, I started painting again. I actually painted this owl piece and everyone was like, wow, you should show your artwork. And I thought, no, you're crazy. So I just started making art but not showing it. And then about a year and a half ago, I had a little art show and people bought stuff! I was like, woah, people want to spend their money on my art. That's crazy. And then I painted a mural in the bathroom at Bates bridge. I don't know if you've been there.
Shannon: I have! I knew it was yours right away.
Helen: So, I did that and that put things in motion for me locally. It really gave me the momentum to get over my fear of rejection. I don't know what it was exactly, but it was definitely a fear based of failing. Then I realized it doesn't matter if I'm accepted art wise, I'm still gonna do it and I love to do it. Then I quit all my jobs and I've just been pursuing my art since that!
Q: Was anyone a pivotal mentor in terms of how or why you create?
Helen: I don't think so. If I did when I was a child, I don't remember. I just remember that I always would draw. I do remember that when I was in my graphic design classes, I saw a painting by Alex Grey. I then researched him and found out more about him. This was before Google, I believe. It was like early 2000s, maybe even like 1999. It was before Facebook or Instagram or any of that stuff. So I had to go to the library and look up stuff on the very archaic internet. Then when I saw his paintings and his creations, I was like, okay, this is it - it can be done. This is the route I want to go down. Especially in the vein of drawing and painting stuff that you see but don’t always see with your eyes. He was definitely an inspiration of what I wanted to do, but as far as a mentor, I would say no.
Q: Talk to me about working with Alex Grey in New York!
Helen: It was amazing. I really didn't know what to expect at all. He's just this amazing human. It was him and his wife Alyson - they're both such a great team and they're both some of the coolest people I've ever met in my life, to be honest. It’s really nice to meet your idols and they’re not stuck up artist jerks or you know, like rock stars who just think that they're the shit. They’re these amazing humans that would probably give you the shirt off their back! They’re present with you and laugh and make jokes and are just incredible humans. It was really good to work with them. I actually ended up working on a self portrait the entire time -- which, we were supposed to do two paintings. I just focused on the self portrait, I realized I've got a lot of self work to do and they held that space for me while I did that. It was so cool to be in there. It’s really neat what they're doing, what they got going on. It's transformative and they're definitely putting their mark on the planet in a creative, positive way.
Q: There’s a lot of background work -- as we both know -- to being a self-employed artist. Talk me through what your day to day or week to week schedule looks like.
Helen: Right now it's - gosh, I need to be doing more. (laughs) There’s the stuff for my business like you know, website, keeping track of the boring accounting stuff. Mostly, right now I am trying to get back into the creative flow and just start creating. I've got another bathroom mural to complete that's what I'm going to go to tomorrow and start laying down color.
Day to day is I get up, I make my tea, do my thing and just try to get back into the creative flow right now because summer is over going into the fall. Day to day is so seasonal, so it depends on what season it is.
Q: That actually brings me into a question that's not necessarily in order, but I feel like it fits with what we’re talking about. So let’s talk on and off seasons, you have them so: do you feel like it's convenient for you to have ebbs and flows? How do you prepare for them?
Helen: So this will actually be technically my first real off season! I've spent the last 12 years having seasonal jobs. I loved them. At the end of the season, I was always like, yes, time to take a break! Right now, I actually feel very similar. But instead of taking time off, I'm ready to dive in and go back into my studio and just focus on putting all my ideas that have been bouncing around my head back onto paper. So I'm really excited, but for different reasons. Instead of oh I’m gonna go travel and take some time off I'm like, okay, I'm going to dive in deep and start creating some new stuff. It's shifted for me since I've worked for myself.
Q: What is your favorite part of your process?
Helen: It’s once I feel that click, once it all comes together. The process for most of my artwork is a vision and then I start getting it onto paper and then it morphs as I start putting color to it or shapes and forms. The final product is my favorite because seeing it go from I see in a vision to how I translate that to paper through my hands and color and shape and form. It’s always almost exactly what I saw in my vision, but I didn't know it. I see it and then I'm like how the hell am I going to put that on paper? And then I do it and I'm like, oh! okay. I’m finally seeing it as a collective, from start to finish.
Q: What inspires your work?
Helen: A lot of what I've been working on lately has been from a vision. Lately, people have been wanting me to talk about my artwork, which has been a learning curve. It’s actually very good for me. I'm realizing it's all subconscious self portraits of myself or what I'm going through, what I need and what I am asking for. I do a lot of birds and owls and wildlife, so that definitely plays a role -- I'm guessing animal spirits. I didn't know that I had this insane connection with animals until very recently. It helps other people connect to it as well because we all can relate to animals in some weird way. We all do. Very few people hate animals, you know. Also just what I'm going through. I think a lot of people are collectively going through similar struggles and we need to know that we're not alone in those struggles, you know? So it's this connection point through the use of images that we can all relate to. And that definitely inspires me.
Q: Have you had favorite project or a job that gave you the feeling where you're like, woah is this real life?
Helen: I don't know if I've had that yet. I mean, other than people that want me to paint something for them and I'm creating and I have that thought like, oh my gosh, people pay me to paint. People want me to paint something for them that they'll pay me their hard earned money to do this and want something of mine on their wall. That happens sometimes, even when I'm selling stuff upfront that people just look at and they're like, I really want this on my wall. That's awesome. Holy shit, that happens.
Q: Let’s talk about work/life balance.
Helen: I'm working on it. (laughs) I feel like it's all so seasonal. In the winter I work a lot. Then in the summer -- this summer in particular -- my husband and I got married, I was making my own wedding dress and we're doing all our own wedding stuff here on the property. It was definitely more work towards something else and less creating art. It was more like, okay, we got to do this. Then we've been playing, we've been taking a lot of time playing. I feel like throughout the year, I get enough good play in and then I put my nose to the grindstone. And life stuff gets interwoven in it all.
I know that I don't want to work just to live and I don't want to live just to work. So, in a way, I've kind of nailed it because I don't consider this work anymore. I paint, I do get to do what I love. I'm not working, like that's not work. Work is when I'm doing my taxes, picking up shifts or if I have to go be somewhere where I don't really want to be.
Q: What is the most difficult part of working for yourself?
Helen: The most difficult part of working for myself is knowing when it's time to get to work. Especially because I work at home, which has been amazing because the last 12 years of my life I woke up to an alarm clock from five to six o'clock in the morning. And so now I'm like, screw that, I’m not setting an alarm. Then I say, Helen, you lost half your day. Keeping myself focused is hard.
Oh, and not wanting to clean the house before I do anything creative. I've been really working on just letting that go. It's not going to be clean and it's not my job to clean all day. If this was in the housewife era, that would be my job. But I'm an artist, so really just keeping myself focused and on task and creating is the hardest part of being my own boss.
Q: What are your thoughts on social media?
Helen: I use it begrudgingly. It's just such a time suck and also such a cool way to connect. So, for me it's a double edged sword. I see the benefit of it and I've loved that it connects people. You get to see all these other people are creating but then 20 minutes later I'm like, wait, where did 20 minutes of my time go?
Sometimes, I just get sucked into this black hole. I think there's a lot of -- this is kind of a vulnerable thing to say -- I don't know if there's a term for it, but for social media, I'm not good enough feeling. I’ve felt it. The comparison of what other people are creating and doing. I hate that feeling and the thought of, why am I even bothering creating art? I'm not doing anything like what these people are doing. And that sucks. I hate that feeling. It's a double edged sword for sure.
Q: Tell me about creative blocks, do you have any ways that you get through them? Do you experience them?
Helen: Yes, they do happen to me a lot. I want to say a lot, maybe more than anyone else I know. I put a lot of pressure on myself. I want to create something better than I created the last time or I want it to have more meaning.
So I've been working with this book called the artist's way. It's really good in helping with creative blocks. What I've really just been doing is pushing myself into my studio, whether I feel like it or not, and drawing something, even if it's just out of a picture book. But just getting the creative juices flowing helps. I'm trying not to listen to the inner critic of why, what are you doing? Why are you wasting your time on this crap? blah, blah, blah.
It’s normal. Almost every person out creating something or anything experiences it. And it’s what causes so many people to just stop creating. So for me, I think, I wouldn't say it's necessarily a block, cause I know it's always there. It's how motivated am I? Can I get past that critic and tell them to shut the hell up? I'm going to make this, even if it's not going to be my next masterpiece, I'm still going to create something.
Q: If you could give one piece of advice to someone considering commissioning you, or your general audience - what would it be? What is something you’d love to let them know before they walked into a conversation or purchased a piece?
Helen: That I see them and that I only want to send love to them. I know that's so cheesy and maybe played out, but when people come into my booth, I just want them to be seen and know that almost all of my images come from a place of love. I don't want to sound cheesy in saying this, but we're all one and I think a lot of people need that right now. A lot of people need to be seen and feel that they are valid and loved. Whether they do or don't buy anything, if they're in my circle of energy, I just want them to feel love.