Few works of art speak to me more than the passionate and gestural paintings of Helen Durant.
Now in the early ’70s, frail and graceful as a bird, delicate-boned and soft-spoken, Durant’s distinguished Southern accent and looks belie the boldness and intensity she brings to his 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 distinguished Atlanta parents didn’t think it was “appropriate” for their southern daughter to go to New York alone, and instead she enrolled at the University of Georgia “for a very short period”. She says, “I don’t think I get on very well with academia. I was a restless spirit. Instead, I came back to Atlanta and took many different classes with many different teachers.
A trip to Europe exposed her to the works of the Old Masters and thereafter she attended the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston to receive traditional training.
But 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,” married, and started a family. “He was in law school at the University of Georgia and as a result I never saw him. I had a kid and a kid on the way. I’ve been drawing and drawing and drawing the kids since they were born and I drew portraits of my husband studying. He was still studying. It was really my school.
Durant credits her brother-in-law with suggesting the Museum School in Boston and later encouraging her to attend the Cape School of Art in Provincetown, Massachusetts.
There she spent an formative summer studying with the famous Henry Hensche and expanding her world and understanding of color. Durant considered this time “an incredible experience. Finally, in my early 40s, 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 and her time became more her own, she found herself becoming a very different person from her lawyer husband, eventually leaving him to earn his living as an artist.
Represented by prestigious Atlanta galleries such as Pryor Fine Art and Lagerquist, she primarily sold still lifes and figurative paintings.
After the divorce, Durant eventually moved into a studio on Atlanta’s undeveloped west side in the old Murray Mill (now called Goat Farm), a cotton gin built in 1889.
Artisans, furniture makers, glassblowers and artists used the “waterside” space surrounded by six acres and home to a herd of ill-groomed goats. “One day Mom and I were there, and we heard what sounded like a baby crying. He was a newborn child 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, finally gave me five. He didn’t care about them. He was giving them leftover Einstein bagels!
Caring for goats has inspired a long series of works: “I tend to paint what surrounds me. I started drawing them. Then I started painting them. I had so many ideas then! I took pieces of yarn and found objects and made three-dimensional representations. I sculpted them in wax and even made a few bronze casts. 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 grew into a passion for conservation. The plight of wolves and concern for the struggles they face as a result of misconceptions have led her to produce a whole body of work on the subject. She speaks of the “cruel, horrible and barbaric ways” in which wolves are trapped and killed. After seeing the paintings of wolves, a collector in Wyoming commissioned Durant to paint a huge elk canvas, which later led to it being picked up by the Diehl Gallery in Jackson, WY and “she was running” .
Today she depicts deer, bears, crows and horses in her characteristic style of expressive charcoal drawings overlaid with washes and drips of acrylic paint, splashes of bright color and often layered collage of ripped paper. “I love tearing up paper. The paper speaks. But drawing has always been my first love. There is something so exciting about its fluidity. 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 spurts of work, then put the pieces aside and come back to them later.
“Unless I have a concrete idea or an order, I will start making marks on the canvas with a brush. Then something will speak to me. “Oh, it looks like clouds”, for example. And then I’ll start developing it. Then he’ll get too busy and I’ll start painting stuff. I’ll put it aside then come back to it and see what it needs. I try very hard to paint abstractly, but I will always see something. I continue to work towards abstraction, but my first love is drawing and making lines.
Drawing is the love story of his life – gesture and movement his main focus. It’s no surprise to learn that she took modern dance lessons for a decade; that freedom and safety of expression is reflected in every brand it makes.
A trip to New Mexico in 2003 and a safari in Kenya in 2008 stirred his mind and added exciting new material from which to draw. She describes Africa as “life-changing. I did a show after that of all the animals. And she will never sell the audacious 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 behold.
Drawing and painting every day, Durant currently works out of a room in his swamp-edge apartment on Wilmington Island. By settling here four years ago, she found in Savannah a difficult art market to break into. Although represented locally by Roots Up Gallery and by Thomas Dean Fine Art in Atlanta, it is the gallery owner Mariam Diehl in Wyoming who ensures the most sales and orders.
Looking to the future, Durant says, “I would say I still want to experiment. I don’t have as many ideas as before but as I draw the lines and tear 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 subjects dictated by galleries, God, I’m still lucky to do it.
As mentioned, Helen’s work is available locally through Roots Up Gallery. Reach her via Instagram.com/helenydurant and at [email protected]