Several years ago during a visit to Santa Barbara, we stopped at our friend’s gallery (Sullivan Goss) to see a watercolor by the photo realist artist, Robert Townsend. Needless to say it was superb, so we bought it on the spot, and were encouraged to meet Rob in L.A. where he was living and working in the artist’s co-op at The Brewery. It was the beginning of a wonderful friendship, and of “the community that is Rob”.
Through Rob we have come to know Dave Lefner, a brilliant artist whose pop art prints are made using linoleum reduction techniques, and Charles Phoenix, uniquely (and marvellously) known as “The Ambassador of Americana.” Charles is an author, mid-century clothier, and raconteur par excellence. He also happens to be the best tour guide for modernist architectural history and kitsch that Palm Springs can boast. (“I KNOW”).
The community of Rob is not limited to the living, and through him we are learning about and living with Helen. “Helen” is the kodachrome treasure that inspires Rob’s ambition to paint one hundred life sized portraits of this midwestern, mid-century muse. She is also a very personal symbol of a time and place gone by, and will consume the next 20 years of Rob’s artistic life.
Who may you ask is Helen, and why should we care? Shameless plug here…the tender documentary “My Indiana Muse” by the film maker Ric Serena answers that question beautifully. In it, he traces Rob’s journey from finding slides of Helen and her husband Roy on ebay, through to meeting her neices and visiting Helen’s home in Indiana. Sadly, Helen died six months before Rob found his first picture of her, but with the support and permission of her surviving family he is creating an artistic vision that is her life, and to some extent, all of ours as well.
In popular lore the artist is a loner, an outsider, or simply someone existing on the fringes of “the real world.”I have come to find instead that artists are storytellers, and for them to be effective they must reside front and center to witness and record what is going on. If taken from that perspective, what makes a good storyteller and good art? There is no right answer of course, but it is a decent question. What makes Helen special to me is how she lived her life with her husband Roy. Married, but unable to have children, their travels were far and wide; they made their way across the Midwest and the west, and even flew (leis in place) to Hawaii, documenting the flight with a stunning photo opportunity. The Kodachrome slides show a real person, always dressed to the nines – with the occasional slip showing – enjoying life with her family and friends.
What makes Helen even more special is that she is Rob’s singular focus and inspiration – a woman he laments having never met, and wishes had been his own aunt. The “Helen” series is monumental storytelling. But, isn’t that the beauty of art?
Welcome to Sujac Studios – enjoy the view!