Artist profile: Michael Helfen
“It’s like falling in love,” Michael Helfen says of the moment when his paintings finally begin to match the vision in his head. Helfen met his wife in college when he bet a friend he could guess the name of a pretty girl. “I had never seen her before, and I said, ‘Hello, Donna. What time is it?’ And she turned around.”
It’s exactly that type of sublime moment—the moment he guessed the name of his future wife in a sea full of people—that Helfen tries to recreate through painting. He calls them his “Donna paintings.”
“That beauty and that thing that makes me happiest when I’m painting is that it’s like I discover Donna again in the painting,” he says. “When I see something that I want to reproduce and it starts to happen, it’s like that day I met her and I guessed her name.”
Helfen spent many years as a teacher and after-school theater director. It wasn’t until later in life that he became inspired by painting. “My wife said to me, ‘The stage is nothing but a large canvas.’ And all of a sudden it made sense to me,” he explains. Ever since, Helfen has kept himself busy in his basement studio, often waking up well before sunrise to be alone with his art. After a lifetime involved in the humanities—from writing to teaching to directing—Helfen calls this his “final stop” in creativity.
Helfen recently had an operation on his hand due to carpal tunnel, but he claims that the only time he isn’t in pain is when he’s painting. “I lose myself in the painting, and the pain goes away,” he says. As a self-described observer, his goal is to capture the uniqueness that the Cape has to offer, to reinvigorate his viewers and teach them not to become complacent with a place simply because they’re used to it. “Whoever said you have to stop and smell the roses is absolutely right,” says Helfen with a wry grin. “I realized that as many times as I’ve gone to the Sandwich town beach, every day had a different sunset.”
As is ever the challenge for artists, Helfen has a hard time knowing when to walk away from a piece. He explains that his work is always evolving, and often he’ll lay a piece on the living room floor for himself and his wife to ponder over. He jokes that she’ll usually catch him with paint in his beard as he muddles over his most recent works. “I never get bored,” he says. Each day, each painting is a new adventure. “I want to try it all,” he says, laughing.
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