Painting Outside of the Box

local artist Helen Peterson

Bailey Berg, photos by Andrea Paulseth

AS COFFEE TABLES GO, ILLUSTRATED ART IS THE NEW BROWN. Eau Claire artist Helen Peterson makes bowls, tables, and boxes inspired by the art and stories of children’s literature.

Think of your favorite children’s book. One where the illustrations are wild and imaginative, as well as colorful and visually entertaining – something you can’t help but look at for a while. Now imagine those same illustrations winding up the legs of a wooden chair, nestled into a decorative bowl, or splashed across the surface of a coffee table. This may give you an idea of how Helen Peterson’s work operates.

Art is in Peterson’s blood. After an artistically active childhood, she majored in Art Education at St. Olaf College. Then, while her husband was serving in Vietnam, she put her degree to use, teaching at a public school in Washington DC. From there, they made a move to Illinois, where her husband studied architecture, and again she taught art. But it wasn’t until 1971 that Peterson moved to Eau Claire, where she was finally able to turn to art full time. 

Her basement studio is a testament to her lifelong work. Nearly every piece of furniture or decoration was made by Peterson, whether it be a chair, table, picture, or wicker basket. Her supplies – thousands, if not tens of thousands, of differently assorted markers, colored pencils, and gel pens, arranged by color – line a the back wall in an array of baskets, while even more are stashed away in the cupboards below. Rows of children’s books sit on the upper shelves. Peterson said that she derives a lot of her inspiration from children’s books.

“As you can see, I have a ton of them, and I’ve been looking for more, more from when I was a kid. I like quirky, whimsical stuff, and I think the biggest part of my whole thing is the color,” Helen said.

No two of Peterson’s pieces are exactly the same. “Sometimes someone will ask me if I’ll do another one the same as a certain piece. I say, ‘Well I can do something in the spirit of this, or something similar, but I want my work to be a little bit different,’” Peterson said. “I’d go nuts if I had to sit there and copy old work!”


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