For those of us who can remember the time of beehive hairdos, wildly colored baby-doll dresses, and the uneasy eeriness of rows and rows of perfect middle-class homes lining the suburbs of sixties America, then the work of Mercedes Helnwein might send you down memory lane. Or it might just make you realize how bizarre and unsettling that whole time was. Helnwein – visual artist, author, and aspiring banjo player – has resuscitated America’s past in her delicately crafted drawings with a cast of mysterious characters, vintage clothing, and the unexpected, oftentimes secret behavior that goes on behind closed doors; behavior to make your grandparents say, “What would the neighbors think!” With her rapidly growing body of work, thriving presence in the international art community, and as the offspring of renowned artist Gottfried Helnwein, it will come as no surprise one day when she succeeds her father in the ranks of the art world’s leaders to become the next great Helnwein.
DARYA KOSILOVA—Tell me about your first, most memorable, strange experience in America.
MERCEDES HELNWEIN—When I was a little kid I went with my parents to America and they told me that there are supermarkets that are open all night long. I could not believe that there was a store that never closed – it was unthinkable. So we went to a supermarket at about four in the morning, and sure enough, it was open, not to mention huge. It was the biggest store I ever saw.
DK—You use the word “strange” often when talking about the US, especially in context with your work. What is it exactly about America that you find so bizarre?
MH—Well, since I’m European things in the US might be far more intriguing to me than to an American. Ever since I was about 14 I’ve wanted to drive through America and see the middle of it. The first time I drove across the Midwest and South with my friend Alex, I was so happy.
But an example of strange… There is a store in Florida called Christmas Wonderland, which is open all year long. So in the middle of summer, when it’s so hot and humid that you can hardly move, you can walk into this store and hear Christmas music, and choose a Christmas tree in any color, and be surrounded by Christmas lights and moving decorations and everything else you can think of or not think of. Ultimately, “strange” is subjective, and to me very normal things are often bizarre.
DK—Tell me about your process. How do you realize an idea from the first thought to the final drawing?
MH—I might have no idea what I’m doing when I start, but under the right circumstances a lot happens during the shoot and that’s where all the ideas come from. Lighting is maybe the most important tool for me. I’m hopeless at organizing ideas in advance and planning things out. I try, because it would make the work easier, but things only ever happen once I start. After the shoot, I decide what image I like the best for what medium – oil pastel, pencil, etc. Then I try it out. And either it works or it doesn’t and I throw it away.
DK—Sometimes when looking at your drawings, especially the ones that have multiple personas in them, it seems like a game of Clue – everyone in the drawing looks like they have secrets. Is secrecy or mystery an important theme for you? Did you have a lot of secrets growing up?
MH—I think secrecy is important in any artwork. If you are told every detail about a work – even a song, or a story – then it’s dead. There is nothing for the audience to contribute. I don’t think I had an overwhelming amount of secrets as a kid. I was always really shy though. It was painful for me to talk to people who weren’t close friends of mine, so the biggest secret about me was probably that no one had a clue of who I really was in the schools I went to. I was definitely not the kid they saw. That could still be true now.
DK—Your drawings contain a lot of body language and precise gestures. It seems that certain figure placement, expression and movement is crucial in the way you tell a story. Tell me more about your explorations on the language of the body. What kind of movement engages you?
MH—I’m really fascinated by choreography. Not necessarily choreography of professional dancers, although that is an art form I admire a lot, but even of just ordinary people. Once I started making films for the art shows, I realized how interesting that was to me. You give a direction to a bunch of people, and every one of them will do something different. You get some really weird movements – things that I think I never would have been able to come up with on my own.
DK—Do you see the subjects in your drawings as being different people, particularly the women? Or are they a physical variation of the same person in your mind?
MH—To me they are probably different people. I like the idea of characters with different histories and different catastrophes to deal with.
DK—Although the majority of your work has an aesthetic that visually places it in a 1960s time capsule, I find it to be very timeless. People may have changed the way they dress or style their hair, but our feelings, secrets, and insecurities, especially among the youth, are probably just as current as they were decades ago. Why have you decided that the fashions and trends of the sixties are the best for conveying your stories? Do you think you’ll break away from that era some day?
MH—Using the sixties as a main visual aesthetic in my work came about kind of naturally. When I was a teenager, I was drawn to the really ugly sixties polyester, over-the-top patterned kind of clothes. I’d find them at thrift stores and wonder about what crazy person would wear something like this. So my interest in the clothes from that era didn’t really come from a cool place. I was fascinated by the middle-class, claustrophobic, ugly side of the sixties. The stories, the people, and the situations that must come from those scenarios interested me.
As I got older, that era became my personal style as well, because I saw the other side of it. At about 16 I got very heavily into old blues music, and from there into all the sixties music, and that lead to the discovery of the amazing aesthetic side of sixties clothes. I think if I used contemporary styling in my work it would date it much more. Keeping the scenes in past decades to varying degrees actually makes the goings-on more neutral and timeless.
DK—I’ve seen photographs of you wearing a certain dress, and then later I recognize it in a drawing. I like that you recycle your wardrobe in this way; it’s as if you’re a living character from your own drawings. Where is your favorite place to find vintage clothing?
MH—In LA there are lots of places to buy vintage clothes. Right next to my gallery is a place called American Rag, which is kind of convenient and annoying. But my favorite places I’ve ever been to for vintage clothes are random, almost accidental places in the South – where you walk into a coffee shop and then, trying to find the bathroom, you stumble onto an entire secret back room filled with vintage clothes that the owner hasn’t even sorted out or decided if they even want to sell.
DK—You’re also a published author. Recently, I was reading a piece of prose you wrote, and simultaneously looking at your drawings which tend to have a very narrative aspect to them, and I began to wonder what it would look like to read an illustrated book by you. Have you ever considered putting out a novel accompanied by your drawings?
MH—I haven’t thought about illustrating a novel of mine, no. Although my drawings are narrative, I try to keep them from being literal, which would be hard to avoid if I had to illustrate a specific scene. But I’ve often thought about making a book of drawings with fragments of writing to accompany it. In a poetic way, with the writing being more vague that could work very well.
DK—I’ve read in many of your interviews that you grew up in a castle in Ireland. Tell me more about your home. What does it look like? Did you have one special room that you felt the most creative in?
MH—I never take it for granted that I get to live there. Every day that I get to be in Ireland I consciously remind myself to notice everything. It’s not only the castle, but also the landscape around it and the crazy weather. I mean, the weather is like a theater production – you feel like you are constantly in a three-dimensional painting from the Romantic era. Clouds move in and out, sunlight, rain, breezes, storms, rainbows… this can all happen during the course of one day.
Oddly enough, I’ve always felt the most inspired in kitchens. And the kitchen in the castle is probably the only ugly room in it (we still need to rip out all the modern stuff the previous owner put in there). Maybe it has something to do with food being close at hand? It’s always been kitchens for me.
DK—Considering you come from a family of artists, it seems that you were destined to become one as well. Is there anything you would like to accomplish in the future that is outside the realm of the art world?
MH—I’d like to become a really good banjo player. And then I have a list of other instruments I want to learn.
DK—If your artwork could be fed into a magical device that turns it into music, what song would it play?
MH—Bad as Me (Tom Waits) or Catch Hell Blues (The White Stripes). Tom Waits and The White Stripes – I am powerless against them.