Monday, July 18, 2011

Helena, Phillips County - An Impromptu Paintout!

Helena, AR

On Sunday, July 10, I traveled east to the very edge of the state and the mighty Mississippi River.  Helena Arkansas was at one time instrumental in the birth of the grandfather of many forms of American music, the Blues.  Helena was the voice of the Blues starting in 1941 when King Biscuit Time debuted.  King Biscuit Time was a radio show which played the Blues exclusively, giving a voice to African-Americans during a time when they were afforded little to none in the popular media, especially in the South.  It was the first of it's kind.  In 1941, in Helena, Arkansas, Southern African-American culture began to be disseminated to the masses.  And the culture of America was forever changed.  One could certainly argue that this was bound to happen somewhere.  If not Helena, then Memphis.  But the simple fact is, it began in Helena.

 Helena was chosen as the subject of the day by Matt Lee, an artist whose acquaitance I had made via the Wetcanvas online artist community.  He also made arrangements for us to meet and paint with the curator of the Delta Cultural Center, Mr. Bill Branch.  We arrived at 10AM and met at the DCC visitor center.  Bill gave Matt and I a tour of their impressive facility.  Not only were the interpretive exhibits of the history of the Blues and the delta top notch, there was also some fantastic art on display from Hearne Fine Art in Little Rock.  After this, Bill gave us a tour of town.  Helena straddles the very end of Crowley's Ridge.  This landform is unique in North America, it a long ridge of fine soil that runs north-south from southern Missouri to the Missisippi River at Helena in the middle of the pancake flat Delta.  When I was in high school, I went on a gifted and talented program which spent 4 weeks touring the entire state.  At that time, the prevailing thought on the formation of Crowley's Ridge was that is was a deposit of windblown loess.  That seems to be in doubt these days as some sources say it as fluvial in origin or possibly that it is rising due to tectonic forces.  I still subscribe to what I learned many years ago, that it is windblown loess.

Helena is a far different place today than it was in 1941.  Most of the industry is gone and Cherry Street (Helena has no Main Street) is populated with ghosts of the past.  Empty store fronts are much more common than those with tenants.  Still, there is something different to Helena than other towns with this same problem.  There's a strong desire in Helena to rebuild the community.  There are thriving churches downtown and more history than you can shake a stick at.  Some of it is in sore disrepair but some of it is being restored.  I would say that the source of this palpable energy is in large part due to the Delta Cultural Center.   I feel that Helena is the front line of a decades long fight against the decay of small town America.   It has had one of the steepest declines in population in the entire country.  If this town can turn things around, then so can others.  With it's rich history, I think they have a chance.

We started the painting for the day on a boardwalk by the river with the US 49 bridge providing a backdrop.  The heat index was probably already well over 100°F.  I set up in what was a smattering of shade that lasted about 15 minutes at best.  We planned on working for about an hour and with that time constraint in mind, I chose a long-view that cropped out all the foreground.  As the sun moved out from behind a few leaves and fell directly onto my palette, the paint began to slump and all but refused to stick on my simply prepared panels.  I found myself wishing I used linen!  I made do, however.
Matt's first of the day

Close up of Matt's first

Bill's first of the day

My first simple little painting of the day

After this, we returned to the DCC for a light lunch and to refill water bottles.  Then it was time to hit Cherry Street and do some urban landscape.  I chose a building with a nice little striped canopy that Matt pointed out.  It was next door to a building with rusted iron features that I thought would also have made a great little painting but I wondered if I could get that in the amount of time I wanted to spend and from across the street where the best shade was.  The building currently houses Gist Music store and is on the west side of Cherry.  The sun was past zenith and cast a nice shadow across the first third of the canopy.  I quickly built my shadows and I'm very glad I did because the shadow on the canopy crept quickly across the full face of it and by the time I was done had engulfed the entire front of the street.  Both Matt and Bill chose much more challenging, full block scenes.
Bill Branch's second of the day

Matt Lee Works on his 2nd of the Day

Gist Music

In all, I'm very happy with the day.  I don't know if I've ever had time to even try to paint two paintings on location before in the same day, let alone make two that I would be willing to show!  My camera has suddenly decided it's done with it's life.  As soon as I get a new one, I'll post the cropped pictures of these completed pieces.


  1. Thanks for the great post John...... next time let's bring a big water cooler like contractors use!
    So where's you next county for paintin'?

  2. My pleasure Matt and thanks for a great location to paint! A BIG cooler is an excellent idea.

    I did Faulkner county from photo reference last Friday night at an Art Walk. It still needs a bit of studio work. I also have photo refs of 4 or 5 others I want to finish up on. Next new plein air county location I think will be Monroe. The wife of the mayor of Clarendon has invited me out. They have a very nice old courthouse as well as a lot of the abandoned store front type stuff. How far would that be for you?

  3. John - Thanks so much for this nice article! It's a history and geography lesson, a travel promotion, and a record of what crazy artists do outside on one of the hottest days of the year.
    Please lets all get together again, there's lots more to paint in Helena!
    Bill Branch

  4. You're very welcome Bill. When I have good material to write about, entries like this are pretty easy! I'm definitely looking forward to getting back over that way. I'll certainly need to if we do King Biscuit Festival!

  5. John,
    Good post here and a very interesting read. Out here, and growing up in Pasadena, CA, I can remember back in the early 80's we had a rock and roll radio station that on late Saturday or Sunday night would host the King Biscuit Flower Hour show which played rock and roll. This was actually a spin off of the King Biscuit Time show you had. The name came from the King Biscuit Flour company who sponsored the show you had....trivia, haha.

    Really nice to see you guys out there painting it up. That must have been a lot of fun painting with friends and your version of the bridge came out great. Very cool.

  6. Thanks Ron! In spite of the the heat, it was a very good day and there's so much there that sparks my interest, I can't wait to get back! I'm starting to think about a bigger version of that bridge painting...