At first glance, the subject of the photographs in Patrice Helmar’s new exhibit, opening May 14 at the Juneau-Douglas City Museum, may not be immediately clear to viewers. The colorful, large-scale works, printed on aluminum, are abstract rather than representational, and look as much like paintings as they do photographs.
However, it would be a mistake to dismiss the photos’ common source material as unimportant; in addition to being unusual, it provides a lens through which to view Helmar’s experiences, both as an artist and as an Alaskan. And she’s not keeping it a secret.
The title of the show provides a strong initial clue: “Honeymoon Tonight” was the name of Helmar’s parents’ fishing boat. The titles of the photographs themselves also offer hints. One is called “Amarcord,” a title borrowed from Federico Fellini’s 1973 film about growing up in a seaside town. Another is “Odysseus,” named for the Greek hero who spent 10 years at sea, trying to get home.
With these clues in mind, the images reveal themselves to be close-up shots of the sides of old boats. For Helmar, a fifth-generation Alaskan, the subject calls to mind the intense bond between Alaskans and the water, and, more specifically, her own childhood memories, as well as ideas about home and family.
“Even though they’re abstract, it’s a really personal show,” Helmar said.
“Amarcord,” for example, was her father’s favorite film, and the title, a phonetic version of “Mi ricordo” which, in the dialect of Fellini’s hometown of Rimini, means “I remember.” Her father, Paul Helmar, was a well-known local photographer who died in 2002. He had a tremendous influence on his daughter, teaching her the basics of the craft at his downtown shop, Juneau Photo Works, when she was a teenager, and providing critical feedback of her initial efforts. Helmar’s mother, Kim Metcalfe, is also a photographer.
“Odysseus” also has a multi-layered meaning for the artist. It references her Greek heritage on her father’s side (Helmar’s middle name is Aphrodite, after her Greek grandmother) and her childhood interest in Greek myths. And the reference also has a literary connection: Helmar recently fulfilled a lifelong goal of reading James Joyce’s “Ulysses,” a work with many connections to Homer’s epic which she remembers hearing read aloud on the boat as a child.
“I think my parents read us either the ‘Iliad’ or the ‘Odyssey’ while we were fishing one year, because we were so nerdy and into it.”
Helmar and her brother Leo lived on the family boat, which was set up for hand-trolling, with their parents during the summers until 1989 or 1990. Soon afterward, Helmar’s dad opened the photography store.
Helmar said she began the boat project a few years ago, not knowing where it would lead. A chance encounter with an art gallery owner from Vancouver, B.C. helped bring focus to the series: When Helmar showed her her portfolio, the boat pictures immediately drew the woman’s attention.
“The thing that stuck out to her was this group of photographs,” she said. “I was surprised because I wasn’t really sure what they were, necessarily, I just knew I really liked them.
Helmar’s previous shows, which have included solo exhibits at Annie Kaills in 2009 and at the Juneau Arts & Humanities Council gallery in 2010, featured travel photography, portrait work and “street photography” that often included images of people. Letting go of the figural side was frightening at first, Helmar said, but ultimately taking that risk has been hugely rewarding.
Helmar said in creating something abstract, she was inspired by the color field painting of Mark Rothko
“For some reason, I don’t really love a lot of abstract art work, but when you’re in front of a real Rothko painting, it’s this really incredible experience, and you ‘get it.’ The color is so vibrant, and it’s not just shapes and abstract expressionism, it’s this idea that color creates these moods in us, or that you can put your own narrative into these pieces.”
The images in this show have involved more critical thinking, she said, and in some ways represent her most mature approach.
“I feel more proud of these images because I feel like I found them,” she said.
“And I’m sort of trying to make people realize the beauty of something they would think was maybe ugly or not look at or think of.”
The fact that in most cases the boats had been left to rot, or were about to be painted over, made them even more interesting.
“I find beauty in abandoned things. There’s something gorgeous about old buildings or things that people leave behind — there’s a story there.”
Helmar said her work continues to be influenced by her father’s training as a documentarian; Paul Helmar, who had a degree in anthropology, was hired to photograph the construction of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline for a state historical project in the early 1970s. Although he was an artist as well as a visual anthropologist, he took a craftsman’s approach to photography, Helmar said, helping her learn how to view her work with a critical eye.
She is also grateful for the art he left behind.
“I think a lot of times that’s what art comes down to, leaving something behind, part of your human experience,” she said. “I see that with my dad’s work. I look at his photos every day that I have on my wall, and I’m still able to experience his point of view, his way of seeing things thorough his work.”
Helmar’s show will be on display at the city museum from May 14 through Sept. 24. An opening reception will be held Saturday, May 14, from noon to 5 p.m.