Neoteric Art: Give some background history on yourself.
Helen Oh: I was born in Korea, and grew up in Seoul. In 1979 my family immigrated to the US, and settled in Queens, New York. The following year I passed the vocational high school entrance exam, and was accepted to Manhattan’s High School of Art and Design. To a teenager from Asia (where public museums are rare), the bustling metropolis was a treasure chest of art. The Metropolitan Museum offered Caravaggio and Balthus exhibitions, the Art Students League had open figure sketch sessions, where I saw actor Peter Falk sketching — a talent of his memorialized in Wings of Desire. I remember a heady afternoon in the Drawing Room at the Metropolitan Museum, viewing Michelangelo’s red chalk drawing in a double-sided frame. When it came time to select a college, I chose to stay in the city with my family, and was fortunate to receive a full scholarship to The School of the Visual Arts. I chose to major in illustration, and received excellent training in representational drawing and painting techniques. During my college days in the 1980s the New York art scene was exploding, and I saw many unforgettable shows, including one-person exhibitions of contemporary realist painters Antonio Lopez-Garcia, Odd Nerdrum, Richard Maury, and Charles Pfahl. I have a vivid memory of meeting Lopez-Garcia briefly at Marlbrough Gallery. As I stood before his life-size sculptures of a nude male and female, (a modern Adam and Eve), he walked up to me, tapped the back of Eve’s thigh, and said, (through his translator standing alongside) “so you like my Eve.”
After SVA, I attended the National Academy of Design, where I met my future husband, Andrew Conklin in a painting class.
After two years at NAD, I left and began to pursue work. As a student I became fascinated with the materials painters used, and set a goal to learn all I could about the traditions and methods of painting, frame-making and conservation. I was determined to learn from the best, which wasn’t difficult — this was New York City after all. So, when an apprenticeship was offered by a Mid-town frame maker, I jumped at it. Shortly thereafter I was taken on as an apprentice to a successful paintings conservator on the Upper East Side. I stayed with this employer for ten years. It was during this period that I got to experience every aspect of picture conservations, from removing discolored varnishes and overpaints, to repairing tears and relining canvases. I learned about painting structures, pigments, and became familiar with stylistic changes in artists palettes. In the studio, I participated in the conservation of works by the Old Masters, including Rubens, Frans Hals, Canaletto, Delacroix, Chardin, as well as later artists such as Pierre Bonnard. In addition, I was encouraged to travel to Europe to study works by the artists I was conserving, and visited numerous galleries and conservation labs across the continent.
NA: You teach at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago and also at The Palette & Chisel. Does teaching effect your own work?
HO: For the past seven years, I have taught Oil Painting Materials and Methods and Copying at the Museum in the School of the Art Institute’s Continuing Studies Division; at the Palette & Chisel, I teach Still Life Painting.
In Oil Painting Materials and Methods, students create various grounds on panel and linen supports, make paints using egg medium and linseed oil, and try various paint layering techniques. Besides in-class projects, they produce their own work using the methods investigated. The final session, a critique, is always rewarding, because of the varied individual styles and point of views.
Teaching is an enriching experience because the process encourages me to continuously experiment and develop my own painting techniques. In the upcoming fall semester, I plan to have the class grind emeralds to make green paint. This recipe comes from the Hermitage, and was inspired by a comprehensive show I saw a few years ago at the Guggenheim in New York.
NA: Describe your working/thought process.
HO: I paint in oil on panel or prepared archival paperboard. I find the smoothness of these rigid supports ideal for small-scale work. The supports are sealed with glue size or layers of natural gesso (not acrylic), in order to cut the absorbency of the panel.
I work with a layered procedure. For the first layer, the composition and essential shapes are developed using a limited palette, mainly earth colors and lead white (Raw Sienna, Mars Violet, Raw Umber, and Mars black, and Flake White). I choose the these colors for there quick drying time, since each layer must be thoroughly dry before applying a new layer.
The second layer uses an expanded palette, which allows rendering of subtle changes of form and texture in objects depicted. I find inspiration from Aert de Gelder (Rembrandt’s last great student), who created amazing texture illusions by scratching in the paint surface. (The Art Institute of Chicago and Boston Museum of Fine Arts have good examples of his paintings.) For the final layer, I introduce a thin glazing of pigments to local areas, increasing luminosity and intensity of color. When darkening large areas, I forego black, since is is opaque, I instead mix a transparent “black” using three colors, Ultramarine Blue, Crimson Lake and Indian Yellow) and apply to the surface to lower the picture’s general value.
While using a layered technique is not spontaneous, it allows me more time to consider picture making than does a single-layer, alla prima technique. In this way, decisions about color saturation and value range can be made gradually as I developing the image. I think this approach is helpful in rendering complex details and provides a heightened realism, similar to that of the masters, to my work.
NA: Why and for how long have you been interested in seashells as your subject matter?
HO: I have been collecting and painting seashells for five years. They are objects of primal quality and aesthetic beauty that have inspired humans as ritual objects, artistic symbols and structural forms. Throughout history, seashells have been closely related to cultural expression. In Late Stone Age burial sites shells have been found, sometimes stained with red pigment, arranged around human skeletons. In many cultures seashells had symbolic power. They were magical objects, promoting fertility, and aiding in life after death.
Vishnu, the Indian creator god, is often holding a conch shell in one of his four arms. Tribal dancers in Africa wear strand of cowries on headpieces, belts, and anklets. Seashells are identified with the female sex in Western paintings. Many European painters incorporated shells to illustrate Aphrodite and the Madonna. Some examples include Botticelli’s Venus, who stands on a floating clamshell, and Piero’s Madonna under a clamshell canopy. The aesthetic design of the Paper Nautilus was recognized by Aristotle; Da Vinci’s double helix staircase design was inspired by spiral structure of seashell. Even Frank Lloyd Wright was an admirer. He wrote, “Here in these shells we see the housing of the life of the sea. It is the housing of a lower order of life, but it is a housing with exactly what we lack—inspired form.”
In an effort to articulate these qualities, I draw and paint shells at a scale much larger than their actual sizes. Under natural light, the shells are rendered in chiaroscuro manner, and set against a neutral background. The image I create can resemble abstract sculpture and the muted, luminous quality resembles surfaces from marble to human skin.
NA: Where do you see your work taking you in the future?
HO: Like many people these days, I have been following reports that connect global warming with interest. In 2004, the National Geographic News website posted an article about the Earth’s natural carbon cycle and the management of carbon dioxide emissions. The study read: “while oceans are helping to mitigate global warming, the dissolved carbon dioxide is already having a detrimental effect on marine life.” The study predicted that large amounts of carbon dioxide absorbed in the ocean increase its level of acidity, a condition that makes it difficult for shell-forming animals to amass carbonate ions from seawater to form calcium carbonate. The article compelled me to read further and to consider how my own concerns for the environment could be expressed in a way that paid tribute to both the traditions of Western art that I admire — its abiding interest in exactitude and exploration— and to the lives of the creatures responsible for “sculpting” exquisite designs. I paint seashells from my collection and have created a portfolio reflecting the range of these creatures present in the planet’s oceans. I try to remain aware of environmental concerns, and visit to the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum when I can. The museum promotes environmental awareness through exhibitions such as the recent Lawn Nation and Mysteries of the Marsh. On a recent trip I met a curator who suggested I pursue my interest further at the Chicago Academy of Sciences, which houses a 151 year old malacology collection. There I met a malacologist who introduced me to two newly discovered shell specimens that have yet to be named. They were tiny. I was able to photograph them to use as references for new work I am doing. I hope my work enables me to continue practicing realist tradition of painting, and and to participate in educating an audience as to the environmental issues surround the lives of these exotic and mysterious creatures.