I first discovered Helfen's work through Facebook in the Quintessential New England Painters art group. His work stood out to me because of it's sheer energy and freshness. Just by looking at Helfen's work, one can almost hear his brush moving across the canvas as he lays down the paint and almost seems at the ready to start the next painting. Helfen is primarily a self-taught artist and his work is unhindered by the formal training of an art school education. Helfen's work has a freedom, a sense of spirit, and an innocence like that of a child, which why I enjoy seeing in his work. Because of Helfen's late discovery of painting, he is extremely prolific and has a confidence which exudes a lot of energy and, sometimes almost unpredictable brushstrokes and handling of paint; albeit in his watercolors, acrylics or oils. For the past 6 years, Helfen's work has appeared in the Cape Cod Art Association, the Cultural Center of Cape Cod, and the Chatham Creative Arts, all the while making a name for himself on Cape Cod. Helfen is also an active member of some important painting groups on Facebook which include: American Impressionist Society, Inc., and Seascapes, Dunes, Marine, and Coastal Painters.
And now without further adieu here is Helfen's interview along with selected works.
Artist on Artist Interview with Michael Helfen
Polly: Hello Michael and welcome to my studio blog. It's a pleasure to have you here. Would you mind telling us where you are from and why you choose to paint?
Michael: I live on Cape Cod, more specifically East Sandwich, Massachusetts. I have spent my life as an English teacher (44 years). During that time I have always dabbled in my avocations: writing, directing theater, acting, playing musical instruments. Then I started taking lots of photos. Always did, from the time I was a little boy and owned my own Brownie Kodak box camera. I did craft fairs with my photos, and one day, my wife Donna who was taking a watercolor class at the local high school decided she didn't like the way the course was being taught and offered me her watercolors. I told her, “I can't draw or paint.” She said why don't you take one of your photos you like and try to paint it. I had taught a course in the humanities at the local community college for many years and knew just enough about the theory of painting to get into trouble, so I did. I tried my hand at a little five by seven. When my wife saw it, she said it was pretty good. Donna is my muse. I trust her judgment. She matted it up and I took it to my next photo show. Someone saw it and said they liked my “cat under the deck.” My wife and I knew that cat under the deck was a muddied shadow I didn't know how to handle. The nice woman asked, “What do you call this painting?” I said, “Cat Under Deck.” She bought it, and I have been painting ever since. Sorry for the long response. That was sixteen years ago. But how I got here is probably the true nature of how any artist gets where they are going. Art is such a layered experience.
Oil on Canvas. 6" x 8". 2011.
Polly: Would you please describe your earliest memories when you realized you were an artist?
Michael: I think my response to question 1 says most of it. But I might add that I have always been a cloud reader and a tree reader, not a tea leaf reader. I see faces and objects in everything. Even as a little boy, I had more fun creating my own reality. Don’t get me wrong. Sports have always been a large part of my life, but my imagination and how to express it goes back forever.
'Chatham Shore Road Cottage'
Oil on Canvas. 16" x 20". 2011.
Michael: I have no formal background in painting or the visual arts. When Donna, my wife/muse offered me her watercolor materials, she said, you write, you direct theater. You have a sense of design, color, order, balance, symmetry. There were all the elements of art that repeat themselves in music, theater, acting, writing, so why not at least give myself the chance to see what I can do. After I sold that first little watercolor, I started reading every magazine article I could. I got magazines from the library. I went on line and read articles, went to You Tube. Then, I started going to local art guild demos. When I wasn’t immersed in learning that way, I bought more materials and just painted and painted. Then I wanted to know what oil was all about, so I did the same thing with oils. I guess I felt a little like Forest Gump, now that I think about it. Run Forest, Run. Paint, Michael, Paint. Didn’t know enough to stop, and I kept being reward by locals compliments. And every now and again, I would sell something. So, the carrot was always out there. After a while, I wasn’t ashamed of being self taught. I thought most successful artists have their own skill sets and are self taught. A class improves the skill set. The art classes don’t give the artist a skill set. Same with athletes or actors. Athletes have their skills and organized spots help hone those skills. When I directed, I gave young actors the chance to get better, but they came to me with talent. Am I off topic here?
'At the Harbor'
Watercolor. 16" x 8". 2013.
Polly: In your own words, please describe your style?
Michael: I wish I could say, I have one particular style. If I had to put a word to it, it would be impressionistic. I am more intrigued by how something I find beautiful or attractive makes me feel. When I see it, I feel it, and I let it go on the paper or canvas. It was the same way I directed a play, acted a part, and played my music. There is a lot of improvisation in my soul, I guess. So that makes me an improvisational impressionist.
Helfen at work in his studio ...
Michael: You might not believe this, but I get up between 3:00 a.m. and 4:00 a.m. almost every day. I think I am one of those short sleepers. Because I fell in love with painting so late in life, 50 years of age, best I can remember, I figured I had a lot of making up time and experience to do. I believe in what Malcolm Gladwell said in “The Outliers.” He said every successful person had put in 10,000 hours to get where they were: be it sports, music, art. I believe in that theory. If I hadn't felt myself getting better, I might have stopped, but people keep making me feel good about what I was and am doing, so I typically get up at 3:30, stop in the kitchen, make a pot of coffee, go to what used to be the walk out basement with lots of windows for when the sun comes up, put on my overhead lights and my art light with high intensity bulbs to recreate daylight (In theater we call them fresnels or Kliegels), putter around with my reference photos, take out my oil paints which I seem to be doing more and more of, and decide whether I will first put a ground on a canvas or two or a board, then touch up a detail on a work in progress, chalk or charcoal details for a new painting on a canvas from my reference photos, turn on the radio to my FM classical station. That kind of music settles me, excites me, swallows me up. I do not want words when I am painting. I sometimes might put a sound track of a film on the CD player, but then I get preconceived images of what was going on in the movie. I just want my body to react to what I am painting and the rhythm of the music gets in sync with my process. I always have to have several pieces going on at one time. That way I don’t get too down, bored, squirrely. I just keep changing up when my attention span or mood wanes, and with me, it will. Some people can work on one thing forever. Hats off to them. That’s not my style, not me. I do not know where my inspiration comes from. I have always been in love with life. I have always thrown myself into things completely. I think it is the child in me. I cannot shake him. He’s my forever friend.
'Fishing Boats at Rock Harbor'
Watercolor. 12" x 16". 2011.
Polly: Is there anything specific you look for in your painting, or do you just let things happen in their own nature?
Michael: I have an idea, more a feeling when I begin each work. I guess that is where the inspiration is, and I have little epiphanies as to what I want. I don’t try to out-think it. I don’t want to outguess myself. My wife is always amazed that I can get up in the dark, sneak off to my basement studio at that ungodly hour and find something special that excites me. I have never been threatened or afraid of the blank canvas or the blank page. When I acted, if I forgot a line, I improvised. When I teach, which I still do as an adjunct, I try to never repeat myself. My wife and I are yin and yang. She is “Look before you leap.” She is very organized. I am “He who hesitates is lost.” So, she balances me out, as I do her. By the way, she is a doll maker, a very successful one whose work has been displayed in the Smithsonian in Washington D.C. She asks me about color for her doll clothes and accessories. Her studio is right next to mine. We can work for hours next to each other with hardly a word between the two of us. When she gets up in the morning at a human hour, she will come down to my studio and flick the lights behind me so as not to rattle me or give me a heart attack. Usually the sun has come up and is pouring through the windows. I don’t even notice. She examines what I have done, offers her suggestions, critiques, and usually says: "Are you done with that?" as if to say I am not done. Or she will say, "Put the brush down and step away from the canvas."
'Black Row Boat'
Oil on Canvas. 6" x 8". 2011.
Michael: I think I answered this already. It is whatever Steve Murphy is playing on FM 107.5. Ironically he was one of my students where I taught high school more than thirty years ago. I thought he was nestled somewhere on the outer Cape from where the station transmits, but he contacted me through Facebook and told me he lives in Southern California and creates his programming for several stations and send them over the air to them. The other day I sent him a FB message and told him the colors are mine but the strokes are his and Vivaldi’s (the red prince), Mozart’s,. Beethoven’s Roderigo’s, Wagner, Offenbach’s etc.
Helfen's studio ...
Polly: Who are your top five favorite artists (dead and or alive) and why?
Michael: The impressionists are where my heart is. Van Gogh: I love his colors and strokes; Cezanne: I love his pastel like colors and his geometrics; and Renoir: I love the way he paints people, in particular. I also like Lionel Feininger for his unique sense of color and geometry; Andrew Wyeth for subject and mood. And a local guy still very much alive with whom I have been fortunate enough to paint several times at his Monday Night Painters group: Paul Schulenburg. Toss in Picasso and Marc Chagall for their child like presence, and you have a good idea where my heart lies. Oops, that's more than five, isn't it?
'Water on the Rocks'
Oil on Canvas. 8" x 10". 2013.
Michael: I have a small house by all standards. Some of my friends have larger work spaces for example; one artist friend who has been in New York galleries and taught at Parson’s has converted his garage. He has pieces 6 feet by 8 feet. He has to rent a truck to transport them to a show. We were both showing in the Arts Foundation juried winter show. I had a 20" x 24" piece. He had the 6' x 8' piece. Who do you think had the easier time transporting the work, never mind the framing and storage expense. If someone hires me to do a much larger painting, I will find a way to get it done. I am quite inventive with space. It is part of my theater director experience. I adapt well. The largest piece I have done is 30" x 30". I do have several canvases stacked away in the studio are that are 48" x 36" and 60" x 15", more like the size I see you work with. One word for that: Someday.
Acrylic on Canvas. 16" x 20". 2013.
Polly: If you could try your hand at another medium or genre, what would it be and why?
Michael: I have tried watercolor, acrylic, as well as water miscible oils. I like each for the subject. I play with watercolor first for its delicacy and lightness. Florals and some marine offerings. Then I go for the oils when I fell like I need to get rugged and masculine. I like to mix it up and make lots of changes; oil will forgive me. When I think really modern, I get down and dirty with acrylic. Donna says no ponies or pastels in the house. You can tell a lot about how messy I am. I know where some of my weaknesses are.
Another view of Helfen's studio ...
Polly: Do you consider yourself to be an extrovert or an introvert, or a combination of the two?
Michael: I am definitely a combination. I can mix it up with the best of them, but my job has always determined that. You cannot be an effective teacher as an introvert. Yet, I love my solitude. Living on Cape Cod is the right place for me if I can’t have Italy or the South of France. It’s funny, I never feel alone when I am painting. I am always talking to myself with my inner voice. Lots of conversation going on there. I usually feel more vulnerable at art shows and openings. So, maybe I am more an introvert. But once a week this semester, I instruct a writing class of 22 students for three straight hours, and I enjoy it. Go figure. Ironically, I remember the head of guidance telling students where I taught: Have Mr. Helfen write your letter of recommendation if you know him. He paints portraits of his students with words. Maybe she was the first to know where I was really going with this painting thing.
'Big Red Poppy'
Acrylic on Canvas. 24" x 24". 2010.
Polly: If you could have dinner with one person, dead or alive, who would it be and why?
Michael: I really do not know. I want to be profound here, but who really has the answers? And to what questions? Maybe Steve Martin, we were both born on the same day and in same year. We are both Renaissance men. We both like to tell a good joke or even a bad one. We both like philosophy. We both play musical instruments, write, act, direct. I don’t really know if he paints, but he has become a household name. I’d probably like to know if balloon blowing made all the difference. But then there is always my father whose best advice to me was, “Son, if you want to be a good man, don’t do anything I've ever done.” He’s gone now, but I’d like to know what he’d done to say that.
'Cahoons Hollow Beach'
Oil on Canvas. 10" x 20". 2011.
Polly: Who has been the greatest support to you as an artist?
Michael: My wife Donna, no doubt. She has always believed in me. When my work is bad, she says so. She doesn’t want me to embarrass myself. When I need praise, she is there for me. She supports my efforts and gets as excited and sometimes more than I do when I make a sale or win recognition of any kind. And she recognized my talent and encouraged it from the day I painted the “Cat under Deck.”
Helfen and his wife, Donna ...
Michael: Developing patience with my work. I tend to run before I can walk. I have to take time to slow down. Painting has become an exercise is meditation. It has helped my blood pressure, I am quite sure. Anything is possible if I just give it time and don’t rush. Being free and loose. I am not afraid to make mistakes. I find mistakes find me, and that is how I learn. I almost have to do something wrong before I get it right, whatever right might be. Finally. realizing that art is a business and not just a hobby, trying to understand pricing my work. Early on, people were telling me I was giving away my work. I have to get used to the fact that my worth in the market place is increasing. I just have to constantly think about that worth factor.
'Catch the Wind'
Watercolor. 8" x 10". 2010.
Polly: Tell us what your thoughts are on being an artist?
Michael: When one’s entire life has been spent dealing with creativity and thinking outside the box, being an artist is not a particularly “in my face”thought. Funny little story. A woman who bought several of my pieces including a commission asked me to call her when the work was done. I called, not realizing I was getting her in her Florida home. I told her I was Mike, the painter. Her fiancé had a grown son named 'Mike' who was painting her Cape Cod house, and she thought I was THAT Mike. She said, I must call myself an artist, not a painter. Is an artist more talented than a painter, more creative, held in higher esteem? I let other people call me an artist. What I do is paint every day. The result is art.
'Welfleet Wharf and Fishing Boats'
Oil on Canvas. 11" x 14". 2013.
Polly: In your own mind, what characteristics constitute a good painting?
Michael: I am beginning to feel what my wife Donna senses when she looks at my work. There is a construct in my mind, I suppose. An image with the balance, symmetry, composition, light, focal point … all those good things. But it is more. There is a "gestalt", when the sum is greater than each of the parts taken together, where I can stand back and walk away content. What pleases me may not please someone else. Like the lady who bought the "Cat under Deck". I didn't think the painting was that good because of the muddied shadow, but in her eyes, it was what she wanted and admired. This is why I named my business 'Eye of the Beholder'. After she bought the painting, I called myself 'Eye of the Beholder'. I always say everything in my booth or on the walls in a show is sold when the right eyes see it.
'Waiting for the Tide to Rise'
Oil on Canvas. 8" x 10". 2013.
Polly: If you were conducting this interview, what one question would you ask yourself and what would the answer be?
Michael: At my age, with shoulder replacement concerns and more to come on my left shoulder, I worry. I would ask a painter:
- What would you do if you couldn't paint any more? If I couldn't do this anymore? I truly have found something that makes me happy and more complete. So, the question is: what if it ended today?
- Answer: All things happen for a reason. I try not to dwell on that. I am caught up in a very long moment with no end in sight. I love writing. I love acting; I love directing. I no longer do that with the passion I once did. I suppose I would either die or move on to some other activity, but I somehow envision myself as a male Grandma Moses or Monet.
A closer look into Helfen's studio ...
Polly: Would you mind sharing with us something interesting about yourself most people wouldn't know?
Michael: Gosh, haven’t I made myself vulnerable enough, yet? I would say, I love knowing I will be part of someone else’s life for a long time, even though we may never see each other or contact each other again. There is something egotistical, I admit, but deeply human about a piece of me living on outside of me. And, I guessed my wife’s first name when we were in college. That is how we met- pure luck (for me; I hope for her). We dated five years and will celebrate our forty-sixth anniversary this June. 51 years based on a lucky guess. What do you think? Personal and unique enough.? Enough of this.
'Sandy Neck Dunes View of the Bay'
Oil on Canvas. 11" x 14". 2011.
Polly: And lastly, what words of wisdom would you offer to young artists?
Michael: Do what you love, but be able to pay your bills. My mind is clear when I don’t obsess over my financial responsibilities. Do your art or craft, whatever it is. If it meant to be, you will get it done and be happy, but don’t follow false dreams expecting the world to beat a path to your door. Make sure you can afford your door and home.
'Provincetown Harbor View'
Oil on Canvas. 14" x 18". 2011.
Michael: I've met some really wonderful people because of my art work. Some in person; other on line. You, for instance. I think you are quite special, Polly. I would like to meet you in person one day. And there are some other Facebook friends and on line artists with whom I would love to share space and time.
Polly: Once more, thank you so very much, Michael, for a most enjoyable and insightful interview! And I, too, hope we get the chance to some day and Donna as well ... I would like very much! My very best wishes to you with your career!
Big cheers and Paint! Paint! Paint!
~ Polly ~
To learn more about Michael Helfen and his work, please visit his website ....
- Website: Michael Helfen
- Facebook: Michael Helfen Art
- Etsy Shop: ZenCar
Helfen's work is currently on display at the following locations ....
- Picture This Gallery, Sandwich, MA.
- The Grove Manchester by the Sea (Lynnfield), MA.
- All That Matters Belmont, MA.
Helfen's Current Exhibition Schedule:
- April 2014: Solo Show. Mashpee Library.
- Summer 2014: 14 Outdoor Shows in Sandwich, Osterville, Harwich, Mashpee and West Yarmouth. Please call 508-888-3133 or email for more information of dates and times.
- Helfen's Cape Cod home also acts as a gallery during the summer months. Helfen's home is located approximately 8mins from Route 6, the Mid Cape Highway. Please call 508-888-3133 for details.