This is an essay about me written by Peter McLaughlin. Peter interviewed me by phone, and later he told me that he was glad I didn't do "artspeak". I said I was just a plain old regular girl from the midwest and never did quite figure out how to talk like that.
If you saw a Tracy Helgeson painting in a window in San Francisco, or Fort Worth or Chicago… you’d know immediately who painted it. Her vibrant pink barns and fuscia colored trees leap to the eye and stick to the mind like images from a pleasant dream … the kind you can’t forget even after you wake up.
Helgeson’s landscapes – inspired by the old barns and farm lands around her home near Cooperstown, New York – are original, distinctive and surely unconventional. Where others see green trees and weathered barns, she sees them as magenta, purple, orange or even blue. But in her hands – despite the unorthodox treatment – the colors seem perfectly plausible.
When Helgeson moved to upstate New York in 2003 with her husband and four children, she was deeply affected by the beauty of the area and decided to start painting nature for the first time in her life. “Until four years ago,” she says, “I had never painted a landscape.” Helgeson admits that before moving to the little village of Fly Creek she was thoroughly a city girl who had lived and studied in Minneapolis and Philadelphia and whose forte was figure drawing. “Not having any preconceived notions of what a landscape painting should be gave me great freedom to explore and experiment. At first I just wanted to paint simple trees and horizons and skies. But then I started to notice and include the structures I saw on the local farms. I became intrigued by barns. With their strong sturdy shapes and dramatic angles they became focal points for many of my paintings. Barns served the purpose of hinting at human presence in a landscape without having to show humans.”
“When I started painting landscapes, ” says Helgeson, “ I thought the traditional paintings of that genre were rather dark and moody -- for me anyway -- and I felt a strong urge to break out of the conventional landscape tradition by using brighter, livelier colors. So I started experimenting with colors not usually seen in landscapes.”
Although they’re done in an abstracted fashion, all of Helgeson’s paintings are of real places. They may or may not be recognizable, though, because she freely changes what she sees… eliminating doors and windows from barns, putting in tree lines where they didn’t exist and, of course, changing colors. Helgeson calls her paintings a combination of observation and imagination. “In each painting I struggle to leave out details. I fight to keep my paintings simple, which goes against my natural instinct to be representational. That’s why I paint from memory or photographs and not from life. If I’m looking directly at the subject while I work I’m tempted to include too much detail. I often have to remind myself that I paint to express myself, not to depict something.”
Helgson’s paintings achieve their visual glow through a process that starts with an underpainting. “I put a big old glob of oil paint on a wood panel. (I won’t reveal the secret color but it’s of an orangish nature). Then I coat the entire panel with the paint using a cotton rag. It’s messy. I use my fingers and cotton rags to do a basic drawing, using my fingernails to scratch in the sharper lines on, say, the roof of a barn or the edge of a road. At this point I have created a full and recognizable image (it’s called a reductive drawing) that I let dry for several days. Then I apply the colors, by brush, in thin layers of transparent and opaque glazes that allow the image and the texture of the underpainting to show through.” Large areas of pure color define the simplified forms of structure, land and trees. However, closer inspection reveals many subtleties and variations within the color field. Pink is never just pink, green is never just green. Fiery orange and reds may be undercurrents, while deep blues and greens are subtle overtones.
“ I get a visceral thrill from the process of doing the painting. I delight in the texture of the surfaces, the smell of the paint, the softness of the brushes, the color of the underpainting and the process of applying each layer of color. This makes every painting a sensory pleasure for me and – I hope – for whoever else sees it.”
Despite her success with landscape painting, Helgeson would still like to add to her repertoire and do more figure drawing, the skill she developed at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design and the Philadelphia College of Art (now the University of the Arts). “While in school we drew the unclothed figure nearly every day and I became quite good at it.” To that end, Helgeson has accepted the offer to do a month-long residency in February at the Vermont Studio Center in Johnson, Vermont. As artist-in-residence she’ll be free to pursue any art form she likes. “I’ve decided to do figure painting with the same technique I now uses on my landscapes. This will be a huge challenge because as an illustrator I did the figure in a conventional way. Now I’ll have to do it in a totally different style. The results should be very interesting.”
- Peter McLaughlin