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These are basically four note chords. Open strings to be played are indicated.

Okay, I feel like bragging. I’m gonna just put it out there. This is something I’m proud of. Whether I’m wrong or right – life is too short to not want to make a few mistakes now and then; too short to not want to have the dialogue. So here goes…


I’ve been brushing up on my mandolin and guitar a little bit, recently.

For many years I played the guitar as a ‘lead’ instrument – meaning, for me, that I’d play mostly single note melodies, patterns and riffs.

When I realized what huge dimensions of the instrument I’d been missing – as accompaniment; or even as a more rhythmic, chordal or harmonic instrument – I was crushed. Crushed, I tell you! I pretty much put it down for some more years.

And, you know… it seems like any simpleton that ever actually tried to go out and interact with other players would’ve long since realized their limitations. It shouldn’t have been such a shock…

When I saw how beautifully some piano playing friends of mine accompanied singers, it really opened my eyes…

I was more of a loner; trying to do it all on my own. I was kind of ashamed when I realized how much of a loner I actually was!….

I don’t know. The stories we tell ourselves about ourselves.
The way we shame ourselves


For me, then, trying to learn the mandolin – after years of that kind of guitar playing – was counter-intuitive. It seemed like a completely different instrument.

Be that as it may – or not.

Eventually, having a nice mandolin around; learning to appreciate it’s portability; listening to other mandolinists; trying to dig what their ‘thing’ is; and, well, just trying to grok the instrument – gave me a slightly more engaged perspective.

My guitar playing has also since been evolving into a more harmonic, chordal and rhythmic style.

So recently… having both mandolin and guitar close at hand – I found that learning things on the mandolin, just plinking around – opened up the guitar for me in a nice way, too. When you have to re-learn where to put your fingers on the new instrument, it brings a different focus on the first instrument, too.

That’s really all I want to say about the mandolin! Don’t let me confuse you! I’m really talking here about the kind of things that inspire me! The muse


I have my guitar sitting out in my room. That’s supposed to be important; having your instrument close at hand for when the spirit hits you.

This morning I glanced over at it and visualized or heard a three chord progression. I picked up the guitar and tried to play something resembling what I had imagined. And – voilà – there you have it. (Although it demanded the fourth chord for resolution.) I’m not sure if this is exactly what I heard… But the fact that I could come up with something from out of the blue was very satisfying.

Don’t ask me what these chords are. I just think they sound nice together.


Mandolin signed by Tom Rozum (top); David Grisman (Dawg, center); and Chris Hillman (bottom). Three of my inspirations, for sure!!

Mandolin signed by Tom Rozum (top); David Grisman (“Dawg”, center); and Chris Hillman (bottom). Three of my inspirations, for sure!! At Wintergrass, Tacoma, Washington, February 2001

One of my favorite David Grisman albums is Mondo Mando. It’s really atmospheric. It reminds me of a fall day – nice traveling music! Check it out.

Tom Rozum’s work with Laurie Lewis – The Oak and the Laurel and others – as well as his solo Jubilee – is very emotive.

D’oh!! [slaps forehead] And, oh! Ry Cooder’s mandolin playing is not to be missed!

Steve Earle! Don’t forget Steve Earle!!

Here’s something else I found inspiring – it’s a Josh Homme tutorial on YouTube featuring the man himself. I found the section from 2:27 minutes to 3:05 – about his use of octaves – to be especially interesting. There’s also some humorous comments – with a lot of humility, too – talking about guitar players’ ‘styles’ from 8:25 to 9:05

Yes! I do recommend that you join Goodreads.

Share your thoughts about books; find out what your friends are reading; follow and find out what your favorite authors have to say.

I started getting particularly enthused when a Facebook friend invited me to join (even though I was already a member.) I accepted the Facebook application (one of my very few) and soon I started getting emails about what some of my other Facebook friends were reading. Nice!

I’m a writer that has trouble knowing what to write about. I’ve found this to be a great motivator!!!


poetmcgonagall said: “….you must get up at an incredibly early hour, given the time difference.”

me:  Thanks for your remarks about my early rising. It made me think a bit about my habits.
No, I’m not an early riser – I hadn’t gone to bed yet. I tend to go through several days of sleeping a lot and then a day or two of not much. In the summer I tend to work more and sleep less.

Another interesting note about people who work at night: several years ago I heard  an interview on public radio with either a monk or someone who had done a study of night-dwellers.

In it they talked about the monks’ habits of praying/chanting in the wee hours of the night. It seems that at that hour, there was a better, more clear connection with the cosmos. How wonderful! and something that I’ve found to be true, re: my own connection with the muse. I don’t necessarily make a point of it or recommend it.

However, neither do I try too hard to resist the calling, if it happens at that hour. I’ve learned to trust myself. Particularly as my blogging has begun to blossom into something that gives me real spiritual sustenance.

I take note of my level of excitement and concentration. If I’m becoming too excited, then I may not heed the call, if it will interfere with a period when I really need sleep. If I’m well rested and don’t have too many pressing demands the next day, I may proceed.

And if I’ve been working for hours on something, then consequences be damned – I will try to finish it before quitting. I feel that it’s important to sustain the level of thought. I think it makes for more integrated, better writing.

If it’s an email I may give it a period of gestation to see if I want to send it, as is; change it; set it aside; or honor my own clarity, beliefs and expressive impulse by following through and sending it. If it’s something on my blog, I will usually just post it.

With thanks to my friend poetmcgonagall!

check out his blog “Beautiful Railway Bridge of the Silvery Tay” here



When the muse whispers in your ear, you must answer. I was going to do my nails, but I knew that if I delayed writing this for too long, I would forget. “I better go craft my words,” I thought to myself.


I walked outside yesterday evening to do some errands. For whatever reason, I am too often locked away at home, inside, in my own world. Miracles have been in short supply, hereabouts.

When I stepped outside, I was nearly bowled over by a wave of the most delicious smell. It was sweet and intoxicating.

The rain had just begun to sprinkle down. As it hit the asphalt, the residual warmth of the day released a pent up sigh of scent. I love that smell! It brings back so many memories; whispers of  possibilities – the open road;  new vistas; the country; fresh, clean air. There’s an enchantment, a nostalgia; like a long-lost  friend or lover.

The grass, the leaves heavy on the trees and the many rhododendron blossoms joined in the sigh. The rhodies are coming into their fullest bloom – they’re all blooming together.

As I went on my way, the sweet smell was everywhere.

As I went down one of the roads in my neighborhood, there came the familiar annual cloud of cottonwood seed balls, drifting in that heavy, perfumed air. It’s a sight that fills the senses, heralding the arrival of summer. I remember with pleasure the cottonwoods of my youth; another time and place, so far away. What a blessing; what fulfillment.

I thought about that wonderful, sweet air. It is as if all the green things had been holding their breath, praying for just a littttle more rain – even the asphalt and concrete. In gratitude they all breathed a deep sigh of relief; one collective exhalation that filled the air, my thankful lungs and very soul.



Patti Smith and Robert Maplethorpe at Coney Island in 1969 – the cover of her autobiographical book “Just Kids”

I was 20 years old when Patti Smith’s album “Horses” came out. If you walked into a hip record store back then and heard that album playing, you knew that the world had made a seismic shift.

Just Kids is the kind of book that is nice to have around. More than a page-turner, it’s the kind of book that’s nice to pick up again, to be once again inspired by. You want to savor it, not try and soak it all up in one go. Patti is detailed about her influences, for example – a nice quality in any biography. Her story is thus imbued with layers of meaning, showing intention.

Yet there is space within it in which to imagine one’s own interpretations. It works very simply – it is good storytelling.

She tells of the close personal, creative and spiritual collaboration she shared with Robert Maplethorpe; of their ongoing dialogue. It was/is timeless. No one can speak of Maplethorpe’s work with more authority – their story seems essentially and inextricably linked.

It is at times a very plain, simple story of poverty and struggling to get by. Humble, waif-like beginnings, humility; and deep within the core of that, an essential understanding, confidence and belief in one’s self.

Simple, aesthetic pleasures – aren’t they the best kind? Choices had to be made about money: food or art materials?

Holding struggle sacred, as a part of artistic process; or alternatively, simply stating the reality of the way that it was. She makes that kind of commitment to art seem attractive and noble.

The value of having a muse, of collaboration. One is struck by the belief that they had in themselves, and in each other; how their combined vision gave them strength and maturity.

Contrasted with this was their unique position within the eye of a dizzyingly glamorous, historic cultural  and artistic milieu – New York in a time of incredible ferment. The Chelsea Hotel, Max’s Kansas City, the Andy Warhol scene; CBGB’s, punk rock, new wave, rock ‘n roll, poetry, art – they were there at the center of it all, participants. There was a change occurring in human consciousness…

She doesn’t candy coat or glamorize anything. She doesn’t need to – she was there. I liked her everyman/common man sensibility.

I like her perception and insight into Robert Maplethorpe’s early work – how it portrayed male gay sexuality in an entirely new aesthetic – with a simple, factual plain dignity.

Her narrative voice – her eye for detail, the movement of time and discernment of what’s important – makes herstory engaging.  She shares her artistic process and struggles. One gets a sense of integrity, spirituality and honor. It’s nice to learn the many sources of her inspiration and vision.

As autobiographies go – indeed, biographies – this one is a gem. It is good that she’s been able to share this story with us. It’s not something that’s easy to do. It takes a big heart – love, understanding and wisdom.


I’m unable to categorize my “about this blog” page, on which I also talk about one’s muse, art, writing and social commentary.


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.




My adolescence

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.


Doing research

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.’ “

Arts editor Richard LeComte wrote in 1991:

“…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.]

And he wrote in 1992:

 “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.

More paintings by Albert Bloch



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.


More photography

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


Another portrait by Dennis Helm, sent to me by one of my readers; date and subject unknown. It was purchased at a gallery in Lawrence c. early 80′s – probably Judy Geer Kellas’. Interesting muted tones / color palette.


Portrait of James Sleeper, by Dennis Helm.     James was a friend of Dennis’. Photo courtesy Judi Geer Kellas


“Yellow Self Portrait with Artists Names”, by Dennis Helm, 1989, watercolor and ink on paper, photo courtesy Judi Geer Kellas


Self Portrait by Dennis Helm (at 19?), Sylvia, Kansas, 1965, pencil on paper, photo courtesy Judi Geer Kellas


A poster done by Dennis Helm for a production of the play “Woeman” by playwright, writer and professor emeritus Paul Stephen Lim, as seen on his excellent website. Photo courtesy Paul Stephen Lim

Paul Stephen Lim’s website

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.


“Potter’s Lake”, by Dennis Helm, oil painting from Baker University’s collection of art of the Midwest

Baker University’s superb collection of art of the Midwest


“Pear Tree” by Dennis Helm, charcoal, 18″ X 14″ , courtesy Judi Geer Kellas


“Donald Duck Stamp” by Dennis Helm, watercolor, 16″ X 20″, courtesy Judi Geer Kellas


untitled still life by Dennis Helm, from

“Dancing With the Moon In Eclipse Surrounded by Stars”, by Dennis Helm, photo courtesy Judi Geer Kellas. I love the boldness and simplicity of the lines of the figures. There’s nothing tentative there – it just flowed out.


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

“Family Portrait #43, Native Son”, acrylic on paper, 40″ X 30″, a portrait of Dennis by Judi Geer Kellas. Photo courtesy of Judi Geer Kellas. It’s part of a series she did of family portraits.

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 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.

the “celestial fiddler muse” mural at Liberty Hall. photo by Daniel W Coburn,

the “clock figure muse” mural at Liberty Hall, photo by Daniel W. Coburn,



online sources for photos:

“Potter’s Lake”

“untitled still life”

“Clock figure”, Liberty Hall mural documentation 5/10/07

“Celestial fiddler”, Liberty Hall mural documentation 5/10/07

thanks to

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”

Photos of Vietnam War protests in Lawrence here and here. I was in one of those marches!

Thanks for reading my blog. Comments?


all images and artwork © copyright the author 2011. may not be reproduced for commercial purposes without prior arrangement

“3 devil morning” – by amyeighttrack, pencil & watercolor, 1982.           This drawing came straight out of my subconscious. It is somewhat the product of being hung over and shamed.  It's a very scary combination - not a muse I would recommend. Still... this is one of my favorite drawings ever! So what's the lesson, in terms of 'the muse'? I would say: find a way to tap into the subconscious (sans alcohol/other 'substances') in an uninhibited, free-flowing way. Maybe it's about learning to trust yourself; your instincts, your point of view.  Find a way to draw because you have to draw. Let it be your 'diary' or journal.

“3 devil morning” – by amyeighttrack, pencil & watercolor, 1982. This drawing came straight out of my subconscious. It is somewhat the product of being hung over and shamed. It’s a very scary combination – not a muse I would recommend. Still… this is one of my favorite drawings ever! So what’s the lesson, in terms of ‘the muse’? I would say: find a way to tap into the subconscious (sans alcohol/other ‘substances’) in an uninhibited, free-flowing way. Maybe it’s about learning to trust yourself; your instincts, your point of view. Find a way to draw because you have to draw. Let it be your ‘diary’ or journal.

“design exercise – collage”, early ’80’s. Inspired by an art class design exercise. I think I tried to develop some design ideas; then chopped up and combined some of them with random stuff.

“Free” – collage – tempera & pencil, c. 2009. I had the materials available and wanted to try something different from a picture/word collage. You can’t see it in the photo, but I wrote FREE in pencil in the lower right corner

“nuclear” – pencil, felt pen, watercolor, 80’s. I think it was inspired by my art class design exercise and collage work.

“cassette player on ship cabin desk w/ checked tablecloth” – pencil and felt pen. Straight from the subconscious – I probably wanted to express how much music meant to me as a merchant mariner. It was like a splash of color on a grey, endless horizon; it made one feel a bit less isolated. It was a social thing, too; a broadening experience – sharing music.

“russian submarine bird” – ballpoint and felt tip pens, 80’s. Click on photo to see detail. Just doodles. I wish I still had that ability to just tap into/go into my subconscious. Or maybe I decided I didn’t like what I saw there.

“killer whale pod” – ballpoint and felt tip pens, 80’s. Doodles, as above.

“lonesome bird that looks like me” – xerox of original – collage, felt tip pen, c. 1984. Another doodle. Existentially lonely and kept company by a little bird outside my window that told me I’d be okay. Well, anyway – birds seems to resonate to something essential, within my life. This drawing may have been one of the first manifestations of that.

“scribbles” – pencil, crayon and watercolor. c. 1979. My mother and an artist friend were doing a whole bunch of these and invited me to try. I like the simplicity of the technique and its possibilities for spontaneous expression.

See watercolor and crayon art at Google Images here . There’s some schlocky ones, some nice ones, some by children… even some by masters like Camille Pissarro. This one was on page 16, lol  It’s nice to see how refined and beautiful some of them are; the skill; how far you can go with simple elements. Lots of great ideas and links!

“explosion” – collage with newspaper, pencil & pens, 80’s. Art class assignment to represent an explosion.

“Burroughs”  – collage w/ ballpoint and felt pen, 80’s. A doodle. I didn’t set out to draw Burroughs – it’s just what came out. I like the Folgers Instant Coffee label; it seemed to go well with it.

See a brilliant painting of Burroughs here by Roger Shimomura and an excellent article about Roger Shimomura here who did a series of paintings about the racial stereotyping of Asians.

“doll”     –     xerox of a watercolor by my mother. I wish I had more of her artwork, or even photos of it. Mom, you left us too soon… xoxox

One by my sister. My photo is blurred and doesn’t capture the richness & detail.

// //

I went to see someone’s crazy graffiti-inspired artwork being displayed at a bar. I loved it and wished I could’ve bought one or two. It inspired me to write this poem.


I sat in the kitchen typing noislessly, communicating with no one
can’t construe my thoughts
wondering wordlessly; the why, the wuh –
sinking in abandon, wondering wuh?

the cat napping lazily
endlessly catnapping,
the coffee kept me up
at least the cat can sleep

cause I was so tired, and no energy
two cups too late
now it is too late
it’s so late, it’s early

worked hard   – and after,
when you’re done, there’s nothin’ left
the pride of a job well done
and sometimes you can’t sleep
’cause you’re too tired

back aching    – it’s sensitive
– lets you know when you
need to make a change
and after all, I still had something to do

So now here I sit
wondering about the art, the big art I saw
on display the other day
I felt so free
it unblocked me
there was big art and so much of it
all together in one place, in one space
you could tell they had it together

Oh, it was just too easy, and I liked it
cause it was all there, right where it was supposed to be
it was starting to come together
and I wanted some, wanted one, wanted something

cause it had possibilities
and I’m tired of looking at the same
old four walls
It’s making me crazy!


With a special thanks to Maia, a poet-teacher friend – a muse, even. She suggested that I edit out some harsher self-judgmental words – and leave in some of the ones I was squeamish about. It was a lesson in itself.

I tagged and categorized this under “muse” because it’s a good example of how I sometimes work out my grief/depression/confusion through prose or poetry. It often serves to clarify issues, codify ideas and concepts. Writing gives us time to reflect. We find ways to say things that we might otherwise be unable to express.

I have strong opinions about the romantic notion that art can only be produced  through great suffering.  From my own perspective as a survivor and Buddhist believer in the holiness of life, I came to the conclusion/rule-of-thumb that the art is never more important than the artist.

Which is quite different from saying one who suffers can’t or shouldn’t attempt art – there should be more art in our lives, not less. My love of classic reggae has taught me about that connection. One’s problems are often a great muse, a spark, a great starting point; as long as one doesn’t wallow in it; as long as it doesn’t become the object itself.

I question the wisdom of seeking the derangement of the senses as a muse (a la the popular conception about Rimbaud.) I’ve managed to do quite enough of that, without actually making a point of it. I suggest taking healthy risks as an alternative – like risking an unpopular opinion, or being thought foolish…

I seek for my muse to come from a higher life-condition, from more positive things – kindness and the sanctity of life. Art for me is a spiritual thing – or a function of spirituality.


Memorial Day

Driving home in my truck
on the Sunday of Memorial Day weekend, 2006
after a job
risking my neck for something that seems so silly –
Well… money’s not silly!

But for clean windows?

I caught myself, mourning the passing of the oil age
No one’s troubling with the design of new cars, as much…
What’s the point, for an object so soon to be obsolete?
But then, I thought – oh! A return, for us, to god’s green earth
– a chance at regeneration for our much-maligned planet
and thus, humankind’s inadvertent partial redemption

Then, shortly after that, the blues tried to sneak back in on me
oh! They’re so insistent!
What is it this time!?

On my way home – to what?
Loneliness? An awful aloneness, so unconscious of itself…
Another transition in the structure of my day…
Is this what my freedom – being self-employed – gets me?
– Because it will force me to look
– at where in life – my actions have led me…
Yes, alone with my own thoughts – how bleak is that?!

Now, making a detour of one or two blocks
so that I can see the horizon
and have a guess at tomorrow’s weather
I’m lucky to be able to see the western horizon,
so close to home…
There’s so precious few places that one can do that…
A treat for this grizzled old sea-bitch
How long before something so soulful as the horizon is gone?
Replaced by higher buildings – apartments and progress…

Oh, god! Remembering another Memorial Day,
so many years ago, when I was 19
a huge, tacky Iron Cross around my neck
I think it said 1914 on it
painted pink on one side from fingernail polish
catching a bus, downtown
accusing stares, that made me remember what day it was
of which I had been so oblivious…
Ah! I had much to learn!
You pay a price for such youthful folly!…
Oh! The awful uncomfortableness of myself!
The shame I felt, to be in my skin!
And oh! The awful ignorance of that cross, worn in the name of hipness.

Did those German hordes not yearn for glory, too?
Were they so unlike us, today?


footnote: one sign of my spiritual/personal growth/recovery was the day that the loneliness I felt when returning home alone changed into a pleasant realization that my home had actually welcomed me into its warm embrace…