and Shannon Logan
Foreword by Stan Lerner: when I received an email from Jennifer, that would be Helena’s publicist, I was impressed by what I saw—a picture of Helena. Being me, I called this Jennifer publicist and arranged to meet her and Helena at Helena’s loft wonderland. Jennifer turned out to be a nice counterpart to Helena and before I knew it there was another attractive publicist, more people / friends and drinks going on at Varnish. Helena was nice enough to drive me home, I was wounded from drinking and having a bad case of the flu, and although I was out of sorts I promised to send one of my best people to do a downtownster story as I had failed to do anything more than drink and jabber. Time whizzed along, but I did not forget about this incredible artist. Finally, I sent not one, but two of my best downtownsters to tell the story that I had promised to bring to our blog. It goes like this:
I am a lover of the natural world. Paradise to me is dozing off in a hammock after picking berries and walking my dog, surrounded by organic lines, fluid light filled spaces, and kinetic sculptures. When Shannon and I walked into Helena Gullstrom’s studio The Loft in the trendy Santa Fe apartment building on Main, it was a stark contrast to the natural paradise I found years ago in my backyard. Helena’s creative space was a strange, manmade world of angular shapes and industrial materials. An urban paradise.
But we were a little too early for a tour of paradise that day. Certainly too early for artists who were peacefully sleeping off Memorial Day Weekend, while waiting for two nosy bloggers to arrive. Our eager knocks on Helena’s door were met with silence. So we grabbed coffee and a slice of pie at Blu Café, and a few minutes later went back up the elevator for a second attack.
Helena answered the door this time. Light from large windows illuminated the dual-purpose space, which functions as both a hair salon and artist’s loft. Flaxen haired mannequins and mirrors on one end, sculpture and paintings on the other. Helena, even on the tail end of a nap, was full of contagious energy.
The artist, who emigrated from Sweden13 years ago, informed us that The Loft is relatively new. When she moved into the Santa Fe community last August, she knocked out the walls in the apartment to create more open space.
While Shannon took notes, I tore myself away from the artist’s welcoming smile to look at what was on the walls. My first great surprise was the sheer size of her pieces. Each painting was at least 5 ft in height, and the silhouettes were just about life-sized. Even though I felt they challenged my small stature, they didn’t overwhelm me.
I noticed, offset to the side or the bottom of each piece, was a metal word welded to the painting, protruding six inches or so, making Helena the second successful sculptor/painter I’ve seen in the last two months. Each contained a dark figure, whether a building, sign, or a figure. All were bottom heavy, with slight accents to pull the weight upward, such as a bird, or a power line. Though the cool toned pieces were design heavy, smart, and intentional, each featured a playful lightness in the form of different kinds of birds. Her ‘urban creatures’, she called them.
The hook, the gold of Helena’s work, is in the medium. She paints with concrete.
“I love concrete, it’s such a simple material. I love the color and texture of it. There is an island in Sweden, everything in concrete. I was in heaven,” the artist said, giggling. “Maybe it’s a Swedish thing. It’s in my blood, the concrete and the metal.”
With this new knowledge of her strange choice in materials, I took a second lap around the studio. I got up close to the paintings, and then backed away; I began my dance of viewing art.
From a few feet away the paintings were interesting and fun. The playful concrete jungle was inviting. Up close however, these paintings were brilliant. Silhouettes revealed themselves as scraped concrete surfaces done with stencils. The texture was rough; little bubbles had popped all over the surfaces. They felt overwhelmingly heavy, and I wondered how she’d hung them.
Helena told us they weren’t heavy; she had experimented with many different mixtures to get a perfect one that was like clay. Adding on more concrete, sometimes taking it off, playing with the flexibility of the medium.
I gestured at a smaller piece on the wall, asking her why it was so different from the other metal pieces. The figure dead center was Picasso-like, with its head crooked to the side, pushing against the top of the painting. It was devoid of the negative space relationships she was working with in the other pieces. This was a piece from her previous collection, of which there were only three left.
Not that her current collection wasn’t stunning, but why the drastic shift if her previous series had been so successful? Helena smiled brightly, her answer the same for all artists in a continual pursuit of the new. “I hate doing the same thing over and over,” she said.
Aside from her paintings, Helena also makes one hell of an interesting sculptor. A back wall contained a metal barbed wire fence type grid, cluttered with metal birds. Many pieces were concrete figures from the knees up to the hipbones. Long figures with hips and skinny torsos, the head extending far above the viewer. Standing at eye level, you were left staring where one wouldn’t normally.
Taking a break from her Ed Ruscha-like words and Giacometti inspired sculptures, we headed to the back of the studio. We pulled the plastic and sheets away to reveal what Helena called her ‘dirty little corner.’ An area she created specially for spray painting, after previous attempts had covered her salon in a black dust.
Helena told us she throws parties for the salon clients, who often trek downtown from Beverly Hills to get their haircuts from her. She promised to invite us to the next one. She gestured to the nude brunette posed elegantly among the sleek gray toned tiles in her bathroom. Another denizen of Helena’s urban paradise, a mannequin whose body parts made a guest appearance at her birthday party last week. The artist burst into a staccato of Swedish accented giggles, her eyes glowing mischievously.
“Sometimes,” she said. “I hide her in the shower. You know, to scare my guests.”
We stayed there for a while in Helena’s loft, chatting about ArtWalk and downtown’s fetish for painting. We talked about her salon partner Joseph, her love of junkyards and rusty old cars, and her growing excitement for the completion of her 10-15-piece collection of concrete creatures.
Our interview ended on a lighthearted note. And just like the whimsical birds adorning her artwork, this statuesque blond with concrete and welded steel running through her veins, showed us a delightfully playful side.