Summit County-based artist John Helton, former Park Record illustrator, makes name for himself in the art world
You feel the kinetic energy of the work at once. It is rather Calder-esque. Each line playing, resting, pushing off from another. Floating away from each other. Dissecting the space. The pieces are fluid and forceful.
I remember clearly the first time I met John Helton, when he showed up, long limbs swinging into my office, when I was editor of this paper back in the late 1980s. Straight from living in New York City, he had decided to spend a winter skiing in the West after graduating from his higher learning. We had advertised for a political cartoonist and John walked in with a portfolio of his work. Simple lines — but you could see his years at the Parsons School of Design showing through. We agreed, as the Brits might say, to “give it a go.” It started a decades-long collaboration and friendship, which has me celebrating the unveiling of his latest vibrant sculptural work in a show — on Madison Avenue in New York City — just last month.
At 50-something, John appears to be a bit of a discovery suddenly in the art world.
But here in Park City, we always celebrated his talent. Often quietly — often not knowing the work we admired was his.
When John started working at The Park Record, it was clear his abilities were giving us a new audience that appreciated his style. Think Al Hirschfeld — the famed New York Times illustrator. It was about this same time we decided to revamp the graphics of the paper and re-format certain sections. I decided to steal from the best and took a page from the New York Times. The cover of its arts section would have art take up two-thirds of the page. The story would start on the bottom third and lure the reader in. John would collaborate with Scene-section writer Alex Wells on stories and art. The visual and literary work was smart and clean and compelling. It was my favorite time as editor (hard-hitting investigative stories aside). Those guys loved creating new ways to showcase art in words and lines each week. And they loved skiing equally. Alex left the paper and has had a successful career writing non-fiction books about the West.
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John stayed with us for a couple of years as an illustrator but on his own kept honing his craft working in wood.
By then I had left the paper and landed with a group of folks building a joint-use facility with the Park City School District that would serve the arts community as well as the students. I asked John to help me create a work that would influence the audience before they ever entered the building. We were going to create the railings to look like a musical staff with giant colored resin balls that would become musical notes. We planned a logical kind of musical rhythm that John turned into a wild jazz composition. We had approval — and then we didn’t. We were undeterred in our desire to find some element that took us from “high school theater” to Performing Arts Center. So John created the now-familiar, oft-photographed lectern at the Eccles Center. The iconic wooden cello with the outstretched strings and the rippled wood-slanted top. Luminaries from Robert Redford to Van Jones to Garry Trudeau to Fran Lebowitz have rested their elbows and their notes atop it. Because of its prominence in the Sundance Film Festival, the artful piece has appeared in publications from the New York Times to Newsweek and in endless Facebook postings.
But back at his art studio in the foothills of the Uinta Mountains, here in Summit County, John kept experimenting with form and function, and somewhere along the way, the lines on the paper and shapes in the wood jumped off the page and the walls and he started working in bronze. He was still loving the time spent in the deserts of the West — creating plein air paintings of scenes that captured where the red dust morphed into the red skies. His sculptures — still mostly wood — were becoming showcase items in the homes of private collectors.
But the more he worked in bronze, the more he felt at home. The very nature of his pieces in such a solid, seemingly unbending form invited the viewer to see space and movement and a certain strength and energy. Think Calder — as the recent catalog of his work compared him to, and you have the right feel.
John started showing in galleries outside of Park City. And currently he is in the international collection of Opera Galleries (Paris, London, Dubai, Hong Kong) that presented him this month in New York City — a long journey home. His work was paired with other masters of line work — deceased artists Hartung and Mathieu.
He said the New York opening was rewarding because he had a chance — for the first time — to meet with so many people who had collected his work. “They are like family to me now.” He also had the opportunity to see folks enter the gallery and discover his work. “It is rare for me to spend any real time in the places where my works are displayed. I am still in my period of creation — not yet reflection — and so I am still producing the work and I am rarely in a gallery in person. It felt so good.”
I asked him what is next — besides some turns in the Park City powder. And he quickly responded in that deep, almost-always loud, baritone voice: “I have faith in the process and I am committed to change and growth. I see space and time and the physical all being part of the work and the flow of it.”
He accepts it is rare for any artist to see success and appreciation in their lifetime — so many artists become more important — or valid or credible — upon death. And he is grateful for being discovered in this chapter of his book.
Back in the ’80s, I’m pretty certain we stretched the budget and paid $25 for each of the illustrations he produced. Today his sculptures are listed in the six figures. So anyone who has a small piece he did for any one of those local art events — where John donated his talents — a giant carefully carved wooden bead, an illustration from those Park Record days, or even one of those first wooden sculptures — they should hang onto that art. As they appreciate it in their home, it is appreciating — each day — in the world.
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