Artist Helen Oliver brings ‘The Open Road’ to the East Village

Helen Oliver at the Howl ! Gallery, site of her solo show.
Helen Oliver at the Howl! Gallery, site of her solo show.
Photo by Bob Krasner

“My mother was a painter,” the artist Helen Oliver begins. “We grew up surrounded by her paintings.”

The “we” refers to she and her brother Edgar, with whom she shared a rather unusual childhood. Mr. Oliver, a playwright and performer, has documented in his work their upbringing in an isolated old house in Savannah, Georgia with a mother who we will refer to charitably as, well, eccentric. Their father passed away when they were very young, leaving the siblings under the guidance of a woman who shunned neighbors and relatives, but encouraged them to be proud of who they were.

In the Howl! Gallery where she currently has a solo show, Ms. Oliver is sitting near one of her very first paintings, a portrait of her mother made in 1977. Oliver recounts how her love of art led her to study art history, but not to painting initially.

Although their mother encouraged both of them to sketch on almost daily drives through Georgia, it wasn’t until she was required to take a technique class while studying at a college in Paris that she discovered that she “adored painting.” She adored that city as well, but joined her brother in NYC when she “was driven out of Paris by the rats!”

The pair ended up living in a rooming house in the East Village with a number of elderly neighbors who slowly left the building, one way or another. The landlord didn’t bother to rent the vacant rooms, leaving the duo as the only tenants.

Oliver snatched the opportunity to use the available space for her studio and many of the paintings in the current show were created there. She “managed to scrape by” while designing stage sets for her brother’s productions at the Pyramid and La Mama and producing oil paintings of some of the more prominent members of the Downtown scene, including Penny Arcade, Lenny Kaye and Kembra Pfahler.

Her style seems to have been in place since the beginning, a vision that “vacillates between the hallucinatory, bordering on Surrealism, and a raw pragmatic quality that makes them appear utterly truthful,” according to Art in America’s David Ebony.

Siblings Helen and Edgar OliverPhoto by Bob Krasner
Helen Oliver with one of her more recent worksPhoto by Bob Krasner
Helen Oliver pointing out a detail in a painting of her motherPhoto by Bob Krasner

Mr. Oliver attempts to explain the origins on his sister’s art, explaining that, in their youth “we didn’t live in a specific time period, we lived in a world of the three of us. We didn’t have many friends. The one thing that mother was determined to teach us was to take pride in the solitude of being what we ourselves were and not be like anyone else.”

Ms. Oliver, having married and moved to Tarquinia, Italy with her husband (now deceased), found herself in a beautiful house (which she christened the Lunar Landing) surrounded with olive trees but with fewer subjects who were willing to sit for her, as she painted from live models.

“It was sometimes hard to find someone to sit,” she said, “so I began doing landscapes.”

Perhaps unconsciously repeating the pattern learned from her youth, she would go for a drive on empty country roads, pull over and sketch what would later become a painting. For the past 17 years she has created sculpture as well, working with clay that is sometimes cast in bronze.

It’s all part of the same journey for her, which led to gallery director Jane Friedman to title the show, “The Open Road”.

“All the people,” Oliver muses, gesturing to the canvases around her, “are like places on the road.”

As for her technique and vision, Oliver can’t really explain her style.

“It’s like handwriting,” she says. “I have no control over it. It’s just the way that I do it.”

Info about the show is available at howlarts.org/event/helen-oliver-the-open-road. Edgar will be performing a live play at Howl!, with sets by Helen, on Feb. 5.