A portrait of me at 16 by Dennis Helm. Fall,1971. Oil on board with wooden frame. Visible part of painting 15 1/2″ by 19 1/2″. I took this photo outdoors in full, direct sunlight. 40 years ago, the overall color palette probably looked more like this.
This photo was also taken outside in full sunlight, this time using my camera’s ‘white balance preset’ option. I liked how this one came out. It better shows the textures, colors and planes of the painting as you see them today. The white balance preset helped make the process less subjective.
In 1971, I was 16 and living with my mother and two siblings in Lawrence, Kansas. My mom had my portrait painted by her friend, Dennis Helm.
I was uncomfortable sitting for the portrait, self conscious. I felt that way a lot, back then.
This painting has always been, and continues to be for me, charged with emotion. I didn’t think much of it, at one point, and was going to throw it away.
Some of the impressions I’ve had when I look at this painting have been: cynicism, hurt, resentment, worry, fear – maybe even a bit of a pout. Is that the way I looked, back then; how I felt? Is that what Dennis saw in me; or were they his own projections? Is it simply my subjective experience, looking at the painting? I thought it would make an interesting departure point for a blog piece.
Fear, hurt, resentment, alienation, confusion, self-identity – they’re common enough adolescent themes. My own memories of that time are fraught with them. They were volatile, druggy times.
Then again, like some that I know, I can be my own worst critic. It can color my critical, objective thinking.
Looked at another way, through kinder eyes, I see: awareness, maturity; innocence; sensitivity; intelligence; even beauty.
Yes, call it what you will – the beauty of youth, male beauty, transgender beauty… At that age, place and time, I rejected the very notion of myself as having any beauty. It simply wasn’t an option. It wasn’t something I ever tried to cultivate.
I sometimes wonder – if I could’ve seen the ‘beauty’ in myself, how would it have changed me? It can still be hard to ‘look at myself’ kindly, see the strengths that got me through that difficult time. Mostly, I just shut down any part of that side of myself.
Someone commented to me that perhaps I was uncomfortable with the androgynous quality of the painting. Too true, too true. The gender binary seems to be rooted deeply within me. Not that it’s necessarily a bad thing. I think it can also be a choice or preference. For me, it’s rooted in sensuality.
I know I had issues with androgyny back then; but I thought that I had outgrown them by now.
What do you see in the painting?
Okay – I have to admit it. I was uncomfortable sitting for Dennis, partly because of these issues with my own sexuality and/or gender. Dennis’ way of speaking was kind of ‘identifiably gay’. Or as we’d say today, he was perhaps more ‘out’ in that regard. Heavens only knows all the indignities he must’ve suffered. What courage and wisdom! Back then, you really had to believe in yourself, have a lot of self-knowledge, to show up like that. I can see why my mom liked him.
Things were so different back then. I wish I could know him as a friend, today. What a fascinating person he seems to have been.
I decided to photograph the painting so that I could write about it on my blog. I Google’d the artist and was thrilled to find some of his artwork on the Spencer Museum of Art’s website; though I felt grieved when I learned that he had passed so young. Some of his later work was gay-themed and erotic. There were no oil paintings. And nothing like this – a simple portrait, done on commission for a friend. I felt pleased and honored.
You can see the works in the museum’s collection by going to this page on the Spencer Museum of Art website and scrolling down to his works. (Click on the name of individual works to see details; then click on image to see enlargement.)
My friend Abby encouraged me to do some further research. Other information about Dennis and examples of his artwork were, at least initially, elusive. As I researched him further on the web, I learned a lot and thought it would be nice to compile some of the artwork and information that I found. The Lawrence Journal-World online proved to be an excellent source. I appreciated their scholarly coverage of the Lawrence art scene over the years.
Judy Geer Kellas – a close friend and colleague of Dennis’ – was also very helpful. She generously shared her experiences and perceptions; and contributed several beautiful photos of Dennis’ works, which gave a considerably wider overview. Learning of their friendship and relationship was inspiring.
About Dennis Helm & his art
It turned out that Dennis is well known for his portraits – readers sent me photos of some others that he did.
He’s also well known for his landscapes, still lifes and murals. He studied under and worked closely with his friend Robert Sudlow, a noted Kansas landscape painter and art professor.
Of his later work, Lawrence Journal-World arts editor Mason King wrote in 1995, quoting Robert Sudlow: “In the mid-1980’s, his work took an expressionistic turn that mirrored serious changes in his life.
‘He knew he was HIV-positive. He knew he would probably die… I think anyone in that situation would do a lot of soul searching. And changes in the way you look at life influence what you do with your work.’ “
“…his work over the past 10 years has changed drastically from these landscapes. He showed some abstract work in 1988 that was influenced by the artist Albert Bloch. If Sudlow was a father in his creative life, then Bloch was the grandfather. Helm said he painted a whole series of portraits of his friends and others on commission.
His most recent work includes several colorful paintings of male nudes and frequently positive, explosive abstract images, sometimes suggesting medieval etchings or stone figures.”
[Albert Bloch is an American artist associated with the German Expressionist movement who became a long term resident of Lawrence and a professor at the university.]
“In recent years, his painting became more abstract. In works he kept at his home, lithe, sensual figures danced across a canvas.
‘Artwork has to be pulled out by some sort of deep need or interest,’ Mr. Helm told the Journal-World in a 1988 interview. ‘You have to be caught up in it. I didn’t have any choice but to change.’ “
Dennis was a vital part of the Lawrence and Kansas artistic community. He advocated for a museum of Kansas artists, writing and testifying before Kansas legislative committees. The love and esteem with which he’s held by his peers is a testament to his own sense of community. His beautiful, visionary murals for the restored Lawrence opera house – Liberty Hall – have been enjoyed by countless people that have attended and performed there. He regularly donated his work to benefit auctions.
Dennis received a Lockwood Scholarship to study in Western Europe in 1972 and a CETA grant in the 70’s – as a result of which, many of his paintings now hang in public buildings in Lawrence.
Tragically, Kansas Governor Sam Brownback this year eliminated the Arts Commission, making Kansas the first state without an arts agency; in the process losing $778,000 in matching grants from the National Endowment for the Arts (NETA). Read more: there’s an excellent quote from the chairman of the Commission here and a broader view of the economic impact here.
Checking out the guide to KU’s collection of Dennis’ writings, I was struck by: Dennis’ scholarly perceptions and understanding of art; the similarity in ‘off’ color’ tonal qualities of my portrait and those of the paintings of Albert Bloch, whom Dennis studied, wrote about and was influenced by (as quoted above); and the playful influence of Henri Matisse on his Liberty Hall murals and some of his other work.
In researching this article, I was also struck by what a vital, important hub of art that Lawrence and Kansas University has been, over the years.
I hung the painting on my living room wall and reflected on it.
I think Dennis felt free to experiment with some things in this portrait; to be a bit more expressive or interpretive, since it was itself done for an artist (my mother) who would have been fairly open to or appreciative of such.
The painting looks different depending on the quality and amount of light; and depending on the angle and distance from viewer. It appears muted and dark.
It seems to respond to my mood; to interact with it. It’s amazing how alive the painting is!
Photographing the painting (techno stuff)
Photographing the painting was a whole ‘nother ball of wax. I became aware of certain aspects of the painting – its colors and contrasts; their interrelationships; and their relationship to light, geometry and perspective.
At first I photographed the painting indoors.
It seemed that the photos I took were merely representations of the painting. It really changed the way I think about photography!
It was quite a challenge, trying to get the various values of a photo to correspond to the painting’s values. I’d never tried to photograph something so complex, before.
Color, contrast, brightness and focus are all possible variables for me in photo editing. I tried to make all sorts of changes in photo editing. The results still seemed to be too subjective. Was I trying to make something different through sheer willpower?
The difference in size between the photo on my computer screen and the painting itself was a factor. Digital viewing has another aspect that must be considered – lit as it is from ‘behind and within’; rather than from ‘in front of and outside’.
Finally, I took the painting outside in bright sunlight to photograph and view it. The only editing I did to the photo was to crop it and add 13% brightness.
I compared the results and looked at the painting again. Despite my best efforts to get it right, the difference when gazing at the actual painting was striking.
What I saw as I gazed at the painting was this:
My focus was not solely drawn to the features of the face; there was a softening effect. The colors appeared less bright; yet perhaps in a way, more vital. There were definite, distinct blocks of color. It broke the different sections of the painting into form. The colors themselves became rather flat and drab slabs, variations on a tone. There was a symbiotic relationship between color and shape that gave the painting life. The photo, by comparison was flat, subjective and static.
Aging of the painting; and more reflections
The painting is now 40 years old. So it may have accumulated a film of dust, dirt, grime – what have you. Like me, perhaps it’s faded a bit…
I would say that it’s altered the painting, lending a sense of it as a bit more dark and muted. Perhaps the paint itself has aged and/or interacted with the dark board. I think the elements are yet all there. Maybe the aging process has even been beneficial; as an intrinsic part of the art. Is the aging process sometimes a test of paintings, revealing hidden qualities? It’s an interesting question. And if so, how much of that has to do with the medium (i.e. oil paint vs. acrylics?)
I do feel compelled to say that the emotions I see in it seem rather heightened or exaggerated. Is that my subjective perspective? Is it a bad thing? Comparing it to my school photo, 6 months to a year earlier, I see… trauma. Or – I see a powerful transformation. Thank you, Dennis and Mom, for leaving me this record of myself.
It’s a powerful depiction of emotion. I think that Dennis had his own point of view. I like that in a person. The emotions do seem iconic to that time of my life – it’s the reason that I felt moved to write about them.
At any rate, after so many years, I feel like I’ve finally made peace with the painting and its mysteries.
My digital camera is a Nikon Coolpix 2200. It’s rated as a novice’s camera, though it has a lot of features. I’ve had it about 7 years and am still trying to get the hang of some things.
Only a few hours after I wrote and published this article, I discovered a new function on my camera which helped a lot. It’s called ‘white balance preset’. It matches the ‘white balance’ to the light source, by using a gray object as a reference point. According to the manual, it’s used “to compensate for light sources with a strong color cast” (perhaps in this case, the painting itself.) You select that option; it takes a reading of your subject; you take the picture; and voilà! there you have it.
I took another picture under similar conditions and was pleased that the results were at least fairly representational of the painting as it is today. And since the color balance had been measured by the camera automatically, it took the subjective guesswork out of the equation.
Still, the wide discrepancies in color left me with questions.
Photography and conservation: Why two such different color palettes?
What can I say about the first, more colorful photo of the painting? During the process of 4 weeks of experimenting with photography and writing about what I was seeing (this is the umpteenth revision), I wrote that, “Paradoxically, it’s a textbook example of the limitations of photography – when it becomes flat, two dimensional – and perhaps also of its usefulness as a tool for analysis.”
I wondered if the first photo is truer to the colors that Dennis originally used, before any aging process occurred. It’s difficult, all these years later, for me to remember the painting exactly as it was.
There’s certain elements of the first photo that I think are a more accurate representation of the painting 40 years ago. I remember that shirt well – it was one of my favorites. It was diaphanous and colorful, as you see in the first example. My skin tone and hair color also look more natural.
I certainly don’t think Dennis set out to make a painting that looked like something by Albert Bloch; I think that is more a result of the painting’s aging. Also, my original impressions of the painting were never that Dennis had worked in a radically different color palette. It was the emotional content that was unsettling to me.
Then again, maybe it was the color palette that created the impression of emotion. Or some gradient between the two. I celebrate the mystery! I don’t like things too perfect, too cut-and-dried.
Could photography be an aid to art conservation? I must admit that I know little about conservation. Here are some examples of conservation from the website of Barry Bauman, a Fellow of the American Institute for Conservation. Remarkable stuff! Based on my painting’s age and on the color differences of the two photos, it seems likely that the painting has changed over time.
If you know something about this process (color aging in paintings and photography’s use in analysis/conservation), please leave a comment. I welcome your thoughts.
At any rate, I’ve been told that art conservation is not cheap. So maybe this is a useful alternative way to analyze paintings.
There is quite a debate over art “restoration” as opposed to “conservation”. In this Wikipedia article on the restoration of Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel frescoes, in the subsection ‘Criticism and praise’, the author states that, “Any restoration, as opposed to conservation, puts an artwork at risk. Conservation, on the other hand, aids in the preservation of the work in its present state and in prevention of further deterioration.”
Of course, fresco painting refers to a very specific method of painting on wet, fresh plaster. But in this case, restoration may have been a process that changed certain elements, leaving a result that was more two dimensional. That would certainly be counterproductive and unfortunate.
I won’t try to summarize the article and its other arguments. I’ll leave further debate to the interested reader. It’s an interesting article, though, and an interesting subject.
Do you have photos of other works by Dennis Helm? I’d love to see them and post them here!
The art of Dennis Helm
Reading about Professor Lim’s genesis of the play, it turns out that David Moses – one of his inspirations for the play – had been a friend of mine. It was sad to learn what had become of my gentle, amiable friend. I was moved to see how Professor Lim had used the creative process to help introduce a difficult, taboo subject into the social dialectic.
untitled still life by Dennis Helm, from LJWorld.com
There’s a nice black and white copy of a 1974 self portrait by Dennis, “Myself With Eggs and Pallette” in one of the articles excerpted above. Dennis is known for his paintings of eggs. How wonderfully quirky!
A portrait of Dennis
AD ASTRA is a Latin phrase meaning “to the stars”. How nice, how appropriate. Of her painting, Judi writes:
“[This is a] painting that I did of Dennis Helm a couple years after he died. He was for many years my best friend & most insightful colleague. He understood my art work better than I did! Done from photos (of course): center image was one taken in my gallery in his prime; image to left of center is one taken only weeks before he died. Other images are of paintings that he did, including a self-portrait when he was 16 years old. Lower left is mutual friend, Jim Sleeper.”
From 1985 to 1987, Dennis worked on the renovation of Lawrence’s historic opera house, Liberty Hall, for which he created wall and ceiling murals. It seems to have been quite an ambitious undertaking and I encourage you to read the full article that I’ve excerpted below.
Quoting from “Kansas Murals: A Traveler’s Guide” by Lora Jost and Dave Loewenstein, Elliot Kort writes in his informative article on the renovation of Liberty Hall:
[“The piece, entitled “Starry Way”, depicts a celestial seascape on which two figures, muses, appear. The first, which appears to the left side of the stage, is swathed in an iridescent green dress and is playing a violin. Shooting stars and comets obscure the second figure, located on the right, as he or she manipulates what appear to be the hands of a giant lunar clock. The expanse above the stage and between the two figures looks as if the ceiling of the venue is falling away to reveal the heavens. The mural reaches so high to the ceiling that parts of it were painted by broom as the artists stood on massive scaffolding.
The piece is just one part of the overall grand design conceived of by muralist Dennis Helm and completed by Helm, Dalton Howard, Clare Tucker Bell, and Tamara Brown...
In his essay, “Sea Above, Sea Below”, Helm described the overall impact he had hoped for from “Starry Way”:
'Herein,' he writes, 'One is invited to move through a corridor of stars, past comets and endless nebulae, into the depths of space. Surely this is the image of the greatest ocean of all.'”]
Wow, muses! One of my favorite topics!
I was inspired and illuminated by this blogpost from Barbara Brackman on the murals at Liberty Hall. You can see other photos of the murals, giving you a better idea of their size and context.
online sources for photos:
I must thank my friend Rachel, who, more than 10 years ago, encouraged me to hold on to this painting. I was going to throw it out; such was my discomfort with it. One of the things I like about art is that it can get us to ask questions – sometimes, of ourselves.
My sincere thanks to my friend Abby, who inspired me to do some additional research on the web. She’s quite a scholar, herself!
Thanks to Professor Lim for his correspondence, encouragement and suggestions.
My special thanks to Judi Geer Kellas – gallery owner, artist, colleague and close friend of Dennis’. Her images of Dennis’ works and her story helped round out my picture of Dennis. I was moved to hear of their friendship. See the art of Judi Geer Kellas here
more about those troubled times in Lawrence:
The student union building was badly burned in 1970, which did a million dollars worth of damage and made the national news. See a short video about it and all the political and racial turmoil of those times here
Read about the police killing of two student activists in the contemporary underground press here (one of whom was black.)
A photo that brings memories flooding back for me, showing what the campus was like back then. The guy in the striped shirt on the bench looks like my friend Stan. I later met the very talented steel guitar player while hanging out with Stan and his wife Jeanie; I think they let him stay at their place for a day or two. A true minstrel, he was just passin’ through, sometimes sleeping in his van. He could really play that guitar! I seem to recall the four of us driving to Topeka to attend a black church with a great gospel choir that broadcast their services on the radio.
Also in the photo is renowned Lawrence artist and professor Roger Shimomura. There’s a funny and telling quote by him about those times in this excellent article about him in the LJW
History professor Rusty Hollohon wrote a book, “This Is America? The Sixties in Lawrence, Kansas” See article here: “Turmoil, Ideals of the Sixties led to diversity today”
Thanks for reading my blog. Comments?