Few works of art speak to me more than the passionate and gestural paintings of Helen Durant.
Now in the early 1970s, fragile and graceful as a bird, delicately boned and softly spoken, Durant’s southern accent and distinguished appearance belies the daring and intensity she brings to her work.
It was a teacher at her Baltimore boarding school who first recognized Durant’s gift for drawing and encouraged her to apply to art school.
However, her noble Atlanta parents didn’t think it was “appropriate” for their southern daughter to go to New York on her own, and instead she enrolled at the University of Georgia “for a very. short period “. She says, “I don’t think I got along really well with academia. I was a restless mind. Instead, I came back to Atlanta and took lots of different classes with lots of different teachers.
A trip to Europe exposed her to the works of the great masters and thereafter she attended the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston for traditional training.
But once again, she left, too young and immature to fully immerse herself in the life of an artist. Back in Atlanta, she “fell madly in love”, got married and started a family. “He was a law student at the University of Georgia and therefore I never saw him. I had a child and a child on the way. I drew and drew and drew the children from the moment they were born and I did portraits of my student husband. He was still studying. It was really my school.
Durant gives credit to his brother-in-law for suggesting the Museum School in Boston and later encouraging her to attend the Cape School of Art in Provincetown, Massachusetts.
There she spent a formative summer studying with the famous Henry Hensche and expanding her world and understanding of color. Durant considered this time to be “an incredible experience. Finally, in my early forties, I learned about life and what it was like to be a serious artist. The light bulb went out and I fell in love with the painting.
As Durant’s children grew older and her time became more hers, she found herself becoming a very different person from her lawyer husband, ultimately letting him make a living as an artist.
Represented by prestigious Atlanta galleries like Pryor Fine Art and Lagerquist, she mainly sold still lifes and figurative paintings.
After the divorce, Durant eventually moved into a studio on the undeveloped west side of Atlanta at the former Murray Mill (now called Goat Farm), a cotton ginning factory built in 1889.
Craftsmen, furniture makers, glassblowers and artists made use of the six-acre “waterfront” space surrounded by a herd of poorly maintained goats. “One day Mom and I were there, and we heard what sounded like a baby crying. It was a newborn baby abandoned by his mother. We picked it up, named it Kudzu and brought it home. And that was the start of my love affair with goats.
The owner of the property, Robert, eventually gave me five. He didn’t care for them. He would give them leftover Einstein bagels!
Caring for Goats has inspired a long series of works: “I tend to paint my surroundings. I started to draw them. Then I started to paint them. I was so full of ideas then! I took pieces of wire, I found objects and I made three-dimensional representations. I sculpted them in wax and even cast a few in bronze. An exhibition of goat paintings at the prestigious Fay Gold Gallery in Atlanta really put me on the map.
Durant’s love for animals has always been evident and his concern for the environment and its wildlife has evolved into a passion for conservation. The plight of wolves and the concern for the struggles they face due to misconceptions have led her to produce quite a bit of work on the subject. She talks about the “cruel, horrible and barbaric ways” in which wolves are trapped and killed. After seeing the wolf paintings, a collector in Wyoming asked Durant to paint a huge elk canvas, which then led to it being picked up by the Diehl Gallery in Jackson, WY and “she was running away.” .
Today, she depicts deer, bears, crows and horses in her signature style of expressive charcoal drawings covered with washes and drops of acrylic paint, splashes of bright color and often with a layered collage incorporated. of torn paper. “I like to tear up the paper. The paper speaks. But drawing has always been my first love. There is something so exciting about how it flows. If I want something delicate I can start with a pencil. But for strong pieces, I always use charcoal. You can get such rich lines with it. And of course the lines are what I like.
Durant’s method is to go through big pushes of work, then put the pieces aside and come back to them later.
“Unless I have a concrete idea or order, I’ll start making marks on the canvas with a brush. Then something will speak to me. “Oh, that looks like clouds”, for example. And then I will start to develop it. Then it will get too busy, and I’ll start painting stuff. I’m going to put it aside and then come back and see what it needs. I try very hard to do abstract painting, but I will always see something. I continue to work towards abstraction, but my first love is drawing and making lines.
Drawing is her lifelong love story – gesture and movement are her main focus. It’s no surprise to learn that she took modern dance lessons for a decade; that freedom and security of expression is reflected in every brand it makes.
A trip to New Mexico in 2003 and a safari in Kenya in 2008 sparked her mind and added some exciting new materials to draw from. She describes Africa as “life changing. I did a show after all the animals. And she will never sell the daring triptych of paintings of three life-size Maasai warriors made from her imagination. In rich reds, it hangs in her living room and is simply stunning to see.
Drawing and painting every day, Durant currently works in a room in his apartment by the marshes on Wilmington Island. Moving here four years ago, she found Savannah an art market difficult to penetrate. Although locally represented by Roots Up Gallery and Thomas Dean Fine Art in Atlanta, gallery owner Mariam Diehl in Wyoming provides the most sales and commissions.
Looking to the future, Durant says, “I would say I always want to experiment. I don’t have as many ideas as I used to but by drawing the lines and tearing the paper, something will come to me. I am now interested in the surface, in the layers. I keep exploring new things, but if I have to keep doing commissions and having topics dictated by galleries, my God, I’m still lucky to do that.
As mentioned, Helen’s work is available locally through Roots Up Gallery. Contact her via Instagram.com/helenydurant and at [email protected]