Painting Outside of the Box
local artist Helen Peterson
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!”
While some use bright splashes of pastel colors, others utilize calm, natural colors. Some are a complex hodgepodge of marine or mystical creatures, interacting and weaving around a central object; others are simpler, like a cow jumping over the moon. “I think you can pretty much tell it’s mine, because it’s always whimsical. I’m into doing a little bit more design rather then just making it look realistic. I like to put things together that wouldn’t usually be,” Peterson said. “Although, lately it’s been a lot of fish, and frogs, and turtles, and geckos. A lot of them are fanciful. My husband always says, ‘there’s a story in that. Someone could write a story about that piece.”
Aside from decorating furniture, Peterson has tried her hand at a myriad of the other art mediums. Back in the day, Peterson did some drawings, which she had made into prints, and had framed. Before that, Peterson made traditional, ethnic-inspired jewelry with large, tribal-looking beads and stones. Other than that, it’s been a lot of weaving and crocheting, because Peterson liked to, “make unusual shapes with the fibers.”
While Peterson is situated locally, her work is seen across the country. After struggling to break into the art market in Eau Claire, Peterson started to display her work at the prestigious American Craft Council shows in Baltimore and the Twin Cities, where for two days galleries and specialty shops from all over the country come to buy wholesale from her, and another four where the public is allowed to shop. Peterson said, “those are pretty much the only two shows a year I do, because it gives me more than enough work.”
Although the art market has grown more fickle over the past few years, Peterson said she continues to do it, “because it’s what [I] love to do. Art keeps one sane in such a complicated world.”
Feel free to peruse Helen’s work and set up an appointment at her gallery via www.helenheinspeterson.com.