Mia Gjerdrum Helgesen
Mia Gjerdrum Helgesen is an artist who has turned moments from a life lived into images that are beloved by a broad public. Throughout her artistry, the term “indefinable existence” has been a guiding principle. Now Mia has originated relief* painting, a distinctive technique that fits hand in glove with her artistic temperament. This is a combination of painting, wood engraving, and forming of the relief in which the artist works both under and on the surface. It is in relief painting that the two most significant trends in her artistry intersect.
This book presents a selection of the art she has created with this new mixed-method technique. It also features sculptures, paintings, prints and drawings. In the book’s essay, art critic Lars Elton tells the story of an artist who has encountered both trials and success. He attempts to uncover the meaning of “indefinable existence”, as well as explain what is exceptional about Mia Gjerdrum Helgesen’s relief paintings. The book is designed by Henrik Haugan. The art and the artist are photographed by Vegard Kleven.
When we think about it, life is really defined by big events. It is those landmark experiences that become the hooks on which we hang the timeline of the mind.
It’s not difficult to argue that the same applies to art. Just as in life, it is art’s exclamation marks that we remember. Famous pieces and life-changing discoveries stick in the memory – those exquisite works of art about which we speak and think.
But nothing exists in a vacuum: Most of us live ordinary lives. No tree grows to heaven. Very few of us hop from branch to branch in lives brimming with extraordinariness. On the contrary, life is fleshed out with everydays – and, just as in life, great works of art come about as the result of years of repeated experiments and persistent toil.
This is how art enriches life – and how life can lend art perspective. Surely nobody could dispute that art is an element of life. Some will even say that art is the very stuff of life itself. In any case, there is little doubt that extraordinary experiences can emerge from the encounter between life and art. These may be practical, emotional, or philosophical. If we are fortunate, art moves us to the depths of our souls. One thing is sure: Certain artists are capable of making art that stirs the emotions; their art puts life into perspective and makes it worth living. And there is an ample audience that thinks Mia Gjerdrum Helgesen is just one such artist.
Mia Gjerdrum Helgesen has always been an artist, but it was only in her thirties that she cleared the decks so as to tackle the urge in earnest. To give it the simplest of outlines, what we will see is the life of an artist in which her work becomes the air she breathes, interacting with joy, pain, and illness, and in parallel with a rewarding family life. We will be given an opportunity to investigate art’s terms in Helgesen’s life, and the constraints of that life on her creative activity. Does art become trite and commercial when life is ordinary, happy? Does the act of making art become a fulfilment of others’ expectations in preference to making art for art’s sake? Or does the act of making art become a mechanism for the survival of the mind and a fillip to future journeys? I’m not so sure whether these questions are going to be answered here, but they do reveal something about what this text is aiming to uncover.
The text will also touch upon how, over multiple, extended periods of illness and pain, the artist has been denied the opportunity to create. In the aftermath, what rises to the surface when art, once again, can be made? Is it a myth, or is the underlying theme really art and pain? One of the issues to tackle is how these events affect her ability to fulfil what she wants to achieve.
Independent of life’s adventures, artistic level, or statements of philosophy, at the bottom of it all we find an essential contrast. It exists in art as it does in life: the distinction between those extraordinary events and our ordinary experience.
So what is more important? Those exceptional events, or the everyday reruns? Answering the question is no simple task – although it would be easy to argue for the former. It is these one-off events that lodge in the memory. The flurry of ordinary days melt into one another. It is the outliers that stick in the mind, that lend life its contours, dividing up the days either side of them. Unhappily, tragic events also embed themselves in the memory: when loved ones pass away, illness strikes, misfortune occurs. These are the events that really affect a person. It is the extraordinary events that sear into the memory.
On the other hand, everydays are the substance of life. It is here that we find out who we really are. It is here that we evolve, and hopefully perfect, those traits upon which our personality is constructed, those characteristics that buttress our ability to interact with others – so there is every reason to celebrate the ordinary, even though there is every cause to enjoy deviations from it.
It is thoughts such as these that, while working on this text, best coincide with what I have been looking for. In a way, my encounters with and perception of Mia Gjerdrum Helgesen’s art can be characterised as being caught between two extremes. The most immediate reason that my thoughts regarding the ordinary vs the extraordinary arise is my perception of her art and her artistry as dealing with the spectacular and the mundane.
My attempt to understand Helgesen’s expression “indefinable existence” is another reason behind my inquisitiveness. She has spoken of it for as long as I can remember – and for just as long, I have been wondering what it means. I like the expression because it puts into words a notion that I can’t quite grasp. There is an uncertainty in the first word; it won’t let itself be pinned down and accounted for. In the second, all of life unfolds, the fundamental experience of each individual’s being. When the two are placed side by side, a whole new universe unfurls.
As a term, “indefinable existence” is, I think, both complex and wide open. The fact that I am not quite wise to what it means – to what Helgesen is thinking when she uses the expression – has had a hand in making my work on this text an intriguing challenge.
We find one reason for Helgesen’s use of the term in her general condition. Its gravity has grown persistently clearer over the years that I have been watching her. The physical reality in her use of the term has become an explicit part of it. Its symptoms mean that she never quite knows how tomorrow will be; it is consequently difficult to make plans, or to lay herself open to great physical endeavours.
This insight has bolstered my respect for the motivation that she, as an artist, has had to gather in order to be in a position to be capable of making art at all. At the same time, it is too simplistic to restrict the term “indefinable existence” to the private realm. By way of the success that Helgesen has achieved as an artist, it is obvious that she has created something that chimes with many of us. Her pictures have struck a nerve that speaks to an individual’s perception of themselves as being inadequate, of living in a way that is not, perhaps, in harmony with what we often call “the good life”. In modern times, many of us have a sense of inadequacy – an expectation of success – that is inconsistent with how we wish that life really were. It is this perception that Helgesen’s art has touched upon.
I first came across Helgesen’s art more than a decade ago, and I’ve been following her ever since. It has been an interesting evolution and an enlightening journey. With her lack of formal art academy training, (she has other kinds of arts education), she belongs to a group of artists who have set out on their own. The great majority of them remain amateurs, achieving limited success. A few gain a wider audience; fewer still sell well. The slender few among these artists manage to make it beyond the trial stage, going on to develop a personal expression and an artistic sensibility. Mia Gjerdrum Helgesen has managed all of this.
Both her artistry, and my perception of it, needed time to mature. It was when she developed the distinctive technique of relief painting that things began to fall into place. The pictures that emerged from the process allowed me to develop an understanding of the term she had spoken of for so long. When the coronavirus struck, the last pieces finally fit. The term “indefinable existence” acquired a relevance that all could comprehend: the period of quarantine, social distancing, and fear of an invisible virus rendered existence indefinable, difficult to grasp. Life was put on hold. We all went through it, even those of us unaccustomed to giving our anxieties a second thought. But first a little about the technique that unleashed it all.
Relief painting is a seldom used hybrid technique that blends painting with woodcut – or, to be more exact, the relief effect is formed in almost the same way as when carving the block for a woodcut. The techniques are comparable, but relief painting is not woodcut. In woodcut, the wooden block is carved, or “cut”, as the name implies, in order to form the motif, which is then reproduced in a printing press. Since the motif on the printing block will be transferred to paper, in printmaking everything is done as a mirror image. On the print, the areas that are cut away end up white; the remaining surfaces transfer colour to the paper.
In relief painting, it is the other way round. The motif that is cut away works in its own right. It will not be reproduced or inverted. The carving that forms the relief in the wooden plate is only the first step – what comes next is what makes relief painting so special. In step two, the paint is applied. Helgesen can paint the surfaces, which have not been carved, and down into the “open wounds”. She may also perform further carving and cutting after painting. And she can paint again.
It is these possibilities that make relief painting so special: It affords a distinctive combination of the physical, carved wood’s three-dimensional relief and the two-dimensional painted surface. The character and qualities of the wood influence both the expression and the perception: growth rings, and the structure, hue and fragrance of the wood are all an essential element of the distinctive expression. The paint intensifies, underscores, plays with and accentuates the qualities of the wood. In relief painting, what one carves away becomes the motif and serves as the starting point for the process of painting.
The combination of painting, relief and wood results in something entirely of its own. By way of the many possibilities that arise, either the carved or the painted motif can take the leading role in the work. At its best, the two exist in balance and coherence. The qualities of relief painting are like nothing one can achieve with any other artistic technique.
Mia Gjerdrum Helgesen stands apart, relatively speaking, in making relief paintings. Little use is made of the technique, but there are some artists who have employed it to varying degrees. Helgesen has found her own way of exploiting its potential. To place her relief paintings in context, it is necessary to explore an offshoot in art history that has links to the decorative arts and the Arts and Crafts movement. In a historical context we can point towards the Norwegian artist Erik Werenskiold’s son Dagfin (1882–1977), who employed painted wooden reliefs in his decorative commissions for villas. This theme was brought up as an element of the exhibition Norsk modernisme og bygdenes dekormaling [Norwegian modernism and rural decorative painting] at Drammen Museum in the spring of 2019. Dagfin Werenskiold’s work must be viewed in context with the decorative wave of arts and crafts at the close of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth spearheaded by visual artist, designer, furniture-, interior- and textile-artist Gerhard Munthe (1849–1929).
Before them, the Russian painter Maria Yakunchikova-Weber also made decorative panels in which she burned the motif into wooden plates before painting on top. She was part of the Abramtsevo colony, a group of artists somewhat similar to the Lysaker circle to which Munthe and Werenskiold belonged here in Norway. Yakunchikova-Weber (1870–1902) was powerfully inspired by Russia’s first female artist, Yelena Polenova (1850–1898) and her carved furniture designs. Works from both artists went on display at the Munch Museum’s exhibition The Swan Princess. Russian Art 1880–1910, which dealt with what is often called the silver age of Russian art history. All those mentioned here were inspired by the Arts and Crafts movement in England, with William Morris at the forefront.
Contemporary artists also work with relief painting. Those of whom I am aware stem from disparate cultures: Nigerian Gerald Chukwuma (born 1973) and Ethiopian Ephrem Solomon (born 1983) both work with woodcut with painted details. In addition, the German artist Jörg Heikhaus (born 1967), who also goes by the name “Alex Diamond”, and Finnish-Norwegian Tommi Sarkapalo (born 1967) employ variants of the technique. Eivind Blaker (born 1983) is a Norwegian artist who makes painted reliefs on boards of MDF, often inspired by cartoons.
What all these artists produce – the results of the technique – is very different to the art that Helgesen creates. I have not found any other artist with an expression similar to hers. At the intersection of the artist’s temperament and the particular combination of wood and painting, she creates art that few others could.
For Helgesen, this hybrid technique has become a meeting point through which she can combine distinct trends in her artistry. Relief painting provides a physical expression for her interest in the human form. Her visualisation of the human in silhouette form is suited to communicating emotions and states, and hints at the placement of the individual in different relations, or the psychological state reflected in the “indefinable existence” with which Helgesen is so consumed. This is the very mainstay of her artistry. Previously this has been presented in a lightly abstracted, figurative form. Meanwhile, she has long strived to explore pure abstraction. Her artistic style has been drawn in two opposing directions. With relief painting, once the relief and the painting are pieced together, she has the opportunity to work on both. She has not achieved this to the same extent with other techniques.
As an added bonus there is the fact that her work with relief painting has led to Helgesen working with sculpture in a new way. She has worked with marble’s three dimensions and other “pure”, hard materials since discovering the stone’s magical powers around five years ago. She takes pleasure in striking away at the stone – it’s something about the physical resistance, the format, and the irrevocability of the choices one makes.
There is a paradox in this: She has a physique that sets strict limitations on what she can do, yet she also enjoys this resistance so much. It says something about her motivation, about her love for what she does. Nevertheless, it is no secret that her early three-dimensional works were rather tame, if I may be permitted to use the word. Her sculptures had a little too much of an air of being practice pieces. There were occasional glimpses of a personal touch, but by and large they too often resembled work by other artists before her. And there’s nothing wrong with that. No one begins their career in art as a creative genius. No artist has developed a consummate technique right from the very start.
But this simplicity would never last. Over the relatively short period she has been working with three-dimensional, sculptural pieces, she has developed a self-assured and distinctive expressive power with features that are hers alone. The evolution of her sculptural expression had proceeded so rapidly that it has not been easy to keep up, even as this text and the book’s visual presentation has come together. The final photographs were taken just a few weeks before the final deadline.
That being said, there is every reason to be reminded that Helgesen is no ordinary artist. In an age when “artist” has become a profession, a vocation for which expectations dictate (art academy) training, it is easy to forget that art is also a necessity. Those who flourish make art because they must. Helgesen is highly trained, but in the “wrong field”. And even though the urge to make art has always been in her, life’s practical necessities led her down side-roads that meant it took her time to find a way to a practice through which she could approach her art in earnest.