Prelude: When I was a sophomore in art school, I had a disagreement with my painting instructor about how I was approaching an assignment he had given our class. At the end of our discussion, he compromised, but left saying, “Miller, if you think you’re so damn good, go try to make a living as an artist.” To say the least, it was my biggest inspiration to prove to him that I could do it.
Rachel Hellman is a professional artist. What does that mean exactly? It means she makes her living as an artist. Her Terre Haute roots brought her and her family back to Terre Haute where she works out of her studio behind her house creating sculptural and two-dimensional paintings. She is making a name for herself in galleries and with exhibits from the East to the West Coast. To find out more about her and her work, go to her website at www.rachelhellmann.com. Here is Rachel Hellmann…
Brian: What brought you to Terre Haute?
Rachel: I grew up here. After high school, I left and went to college. I lived in a number of places and most recently lived in Boston, Massachusetts. My husband is from Cincinnati, Ohio, and we were looking to relocate to the Midwest to be close to family. So, we moved back here about three-and-a-half years ago.
Brian: Where did you go to high school?
Rachel: Terre Haute South High School.
Brian: Did you have Rod Bradfield as your art teacher?
Rachel: I did!
Brian: I understand that you did your undergraduate work at the University of Dayton.
Rachel: Yes, I received my BFA degree from there.
Brian: Why did you choose the University of Dayton?
Rachel: My older sister went there. I visited it and liked the community and the atmosphere on campus. At that point, I was looking for a liberal arts school where I could study art and have access to other programs.
Brian: From there, did you go for your MFA?
Rachel: I did, but not immediately. After I graduated from the University of Dayton, I was in Latin America for almost four years. I was in Bolivia for a year and El Salvador for two-and-a-half years.
Brian: What did you do while there?
Rachel: I volunteered part of the time and worked for the non-profit organization CRISPAZ (Christians for Peace in El Salvador). It was an incredible few years. I was able to learn about a whole different part of the world and met some really interesting people.
Brian: After that you went to get your MFA at Boston University. Why did you pick it for your MFA?
Rachel: They have a fantastic program. At the time, they had a relatively small painting program; it was somewhat affordable and had a great reputation. I was able to work with John Walker who I always had an interest to work with.
Brian: When you did this was your ambition to become a professional artist and painter?
Rachel: Yes, I wanted to push my studio practice forward and be in a rich and engaging environment with other artists to be able to do that.
Brian: I read in your bio that you also have taught. Can you elaborate?
Rachel: Yes, I taught for almost 10 years, mostly at the college level but also at some museums and continuing education programs in the Boston area. I was also a fulltime faculty member at Northern Essex Community College.
Brian: Can you describe your sculptural paintings?
Rachel: My background is in painting, but more recently I’m interested in bridging the world between painting and sculpture. I create structures out of wood that jut and bend off of the wall and use painted bands and shapes of color to playfully alter perceptions. I am influenced by simple forms such as kites and origami – objects that are light in physical weight yet command and shape the space that they occupy.
Brian: How are your sculptural pieces made?
Rachel: The sculptural pieces that I make are first designed out of Styrofoam and cardboard. I use these designs as templates when I go to the woodshop to create them out of wood. The construction is much like putting together a puzzle. I have to problem solve on how to create the angles and forms out of poplar wood. Boards are glued together, planed and sanded and eventually joined together and then painted. My goal is for the finished piece to appear effortless and light, however the process is rather slow and laborious.
Brian: It looks like you often work on different projects at the same time. How do you manage that process?
Rachel: I often have multiple bodies of work going on at one time. The majority of my time is spent doing my personal work in the studio. This consists of both sculptural and two-dimensional work. However, I also periodically have collaborative projects going on with a long-time colleague, Jennifer Caine.
Brian: Can you tell us about the experience of working collaboratively?
Rachel: Jennifer Caine and I met in graduate school. Over the past 10 years, we have exchanged numerous studio visits, have exhibited together and curated together. About three years ago, we began collaborating together to create site-specific installations. Our painter’s background heavily influences the installation. In our installations, we create immersive environments created out of cut and painted paper. Last year we created a piece for the Christel DeHaan Fine Art Center at the University of Indianapolis.
Brian: Can you describe a specific project that was particularly satisfying to you?
Rachel: In 2015, Jennifer Caine and I were invited to be Edward E. Elson Artists-in-Residence at the Addison Gallery of American Art in Andover, Massachusetts. During a six-month period, we created a site-specific piece for the museum. The project was an ode to women poets of the 20th Century. The piece consisted of 30 ten-foot paper panels with hand cut marks throughout that created a sieve of light. The project was immensely laborious – each of us spent hundreds of hours cutting and sewing the panels together. The project was meaningful, ambitious and gratifying.
Brian: What has influenced you the most as an artist?
Rachel: I have always loved making things ever since I was a child. I didn’t spend much time in museums or galleries when I was young (I do now), but I was often around the hand-made, whether that be clothing my mother sewed or a project that my father was working on (he is a carpenter and continues to advise and assist on my more complicated projects). Looking back, I think it was through those experiences that helped shape my care of the craft, love of tools and pride with working with my hands.
Brian: What inspires you?
Rachel: I get inspiration all of the time. I love looking at art, and I sneak into museums and galleries whenever I can. I also get inspiration by looking at how things are made and put together. This might come in the form of watching my son play with paper airplanes or something as simple as putting together a puzzle. I also love architecture. I visited Frank Lloyd Wright’s studio and home this past year and was completely mesmerized by his acute attention to detail and craftsmanship.
Brian: What are you working on right now?
Rachel: Right now, I’m working on a series of large sculptural pieces that were partially funded by an Indiana Arts Commission Grant. I look forward to exhibiting them here at the Arts Illiana Gallery in May 2017.
Brian: Anything else coming up that you would like our readers to know about?
Rachel: I have a solo exhibit at Galleri Urbane in Dallas, Texas, in November. I’m in the very beginning stages of planning for the exhibit, so stay tuned.
Brian: Finally, what do you like most about being a professional artist?
Rachel: For me, being an artist is one of the most challenging things that I can do. I get to learn new skills everyday and apply them depending on the project at hand. It’s an occupation where I get to wear different hats. I’m a maker, problem solver, businessperson, writer, a researcher and bookkeeper. It’s rarely monotonous.