In retired Deer Isle-Stonington High School art teacher Katy Helman’s work, different elements and ideas collide and pop out from the thickly applied oil paint. PHOTO BY JENNIFER OSBORN

Retired art teacher rediscovers, revels in paint

DEER ISLE — Planning to visit Deer Isle artist Katy Helman’s studio? Visitors are forewarned not to wear anything they’re attached to.

The oil painter’s studio, which is a patio away from her modern, light-filled home, oozes with colorful oil paintings.

Canvases, some still wet with paint, line the walls, the walkway and nearly every flat surface. Big paint tubes are bunched together. Jars full of brushes are nearby.

“I just sort of slather it on,” Helman said. She paints on canvas but won’t pass up a good piece of cardboard. “I’m a very casual applicant of whatever material I’m using. I’m not a precision person. I like to think with my hands.”

Helman says she’s “not a precision person. I like to think with my hands.”

Many know Helman as the former and beloved Deer Isle-Stonington High School art teacher. She retired after 18 years in 2016.

That’s given Helman time to refocus her energy on her art. Her goal for retirement, if one can call it that, is painting and doing artist residencies.

“Even though I always had a studio practice, you can’t divide your energy,” Helman said of her teaching years.

Helman is currently showing in an exhibition titled “Eye Feel” at a gallery called Room 83 Spring in Watertown, Mass. The show runs through April 28. To learn more about it, go to

Helman is right at home in the show, a description of which states, “straight from the tube, paint stick, or finger, paint is built up, slathered, and encrusted, often with colors colliding serendipitously on the surface.”

“I think in many ways I’m invisible to people here,” the Deer Isle artist said. “On the island, people still want to see things they recognize.”

At Room 83 Spring, the Deer Isle artist is in good company. The other five featured artists pile on the paint too. Lavaughan Jenkins sculpts figures with paint while Tatyana Gubash scribbles on loaded canvases. They all revel in the goopy possibilities.

Helman’s colorful paintings pulse with life. She plays with the oil paint and different forms creating thickly applied, tactile compositions that vibrate on the wall.

“It’s sexier to me than acrylic, It smushes. I like juicy, fat paint,” she said.

“Sometimes, I’ll paint for components and cut them up,” Helman said. She uses a utility knife to cut pieces of the canvas to create another look.

“I’m very low-tech,” she said, laughing.

“Sometimes I live with stuff forever,” Helman said. “I’m always constantly playing around. I’m constantly cutting and re-arranging.”

Helman’s studio bursts with color.

Helman’s palettes have morphed into paintings.

The beginning layers of a painting are usually poured. “I’m mostly moving it around with a brush.”

New York artist Joan Snyder has been a mentor for Helman. Snyder’s work hangs in The Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of Modern Art, The Whitney Museum of American Art, The Jewish Museum, The Guggenheim and The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.

Last year, Snyder chose Helman for a three-week residency at Atlantic Center for the Arts in New Smyrna Beach, Fla.

“I think she’s a terrific artist. There’s a serious lack of sophistication in her process,” Snyder said. “She’s as happy with painting on a cereal box as she is on a canvas board. Her work is so smart and clear and simple all at once … and yet I find it powerful and iconic. She’s definitely creating her own language and speaking it well.”

Deer Isle artist Buzz Masters also understands Helman’s work.

“There is no hesitancy in Katy Helman’s use of color and texture nor in the passionate narrative that is the substance of her imagery,” she said. “She involves us with multiple things happening all at the same time, some louder than others, some interrupted, some delicate, and all are a non-judgmental, hedonist union between things that are and things that are imagined.”

Originally from Brookline, Mass., Helman earned her bachelor’s degree and Master of Fine Arts at Massachusetts College of Art.

“My grandmother was a Sunday painter,” she said. “She was painting flowers. She got a little Cubist towards the end.”

“My parents were pretty traditional in their goals for education for us,” Helman said. “Art was something that was sort of my own.”

Jennifer Osborn

Jennifer Osborn

Reporter and columnist at The Ellsworth American
News Reporter Jennifer Osborn covers news and features on the Blue Hill Peninsula and Deer Isle-Stonington. She welcomes tips and story ideas. She also writes the Gone Shopping column. Email Jennifer with your suggestions at [email protected] or call 667-2576.

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