Robert Helm, an acclaimed Northwest artist known for surreal imagery and exquisite craftsmanship, died October 21, 2008. He was 65.

Helm was born in Wallace, Idaho, and attended North Central High School in Spokane, where he met Tamara Kimpel. They married in 1966 and had a daughter, Brenna, and a son, Boone. He earned his M.F.A. degree at WSU in 1969 and taught at the University of Colorado before returning to teach at WSU from 1971-84.

Robert Helm, Iron Ground, 1991Robert Helm’s Iron Ground (1991)
From the collections of Washington State University Museum of Art

After leaving WSU, Helm and Tamara continued to live and work in their studios in their beloved wheat fields between Pullman and Moscow. From there, his art went to museums and galleries all over the world. His work is in the collections of some of the most distinguished institutions in America: the Whitney and the Metropolitan Museums in New York, the Hirshhorn in Washington, D.C., and others. But in true fashion, Helm did not seek out acclaim. More likely, he’d rail against it. He just naturally figured it should come to him.

Helm seemed to live in some other time of his own devising. He lived in a time when people read books, rang up their neighbor and just chatted about stuff, and wrote journals in a small neat hand. In his world, people tried to make it on their own and they had strong opinions. In his world, the car could still break down in a snowdrift and you’d have to high step your way in a white-out to some forlorn farm house two miles out. In his world, an outing was when he went to the grocery store and then came home and played with his granddaughter, Rowan.

We traded books throughout the time we knew each other. In Helm’s books, he would write on the title page the date when he began to read the book, and the date when he finished it. “Bob Helm started reading August 12, 2001, finished reading September 3, 2001.” It was a message from a specific time.

That’s how he made his art. His art took a long time and tapped into some deep mythical place that had to do with silence. Even the birds and dogs in his paintings were silent. No wonder: they inhabited fully resonant, atmospheric dream spaces.

Helm made art like a 19th century cabinet maker, through a meticulous process that accounted for every brushstroke, every hair of the brush, and every piece of laminate.

He felt materials contained magic within them. In those rare times when he ventured beyond the Palouse, he’d visit a famous author’s or artist’s house, and he’d take a pen knife and slice off a sliver of wood from the bottom of a desk or chair and stash it away, then grind it up and use it in a painting, thereby preserving some essence of that person.

Through his art he was able to take us to a special place where the familiar became strange, the never known turned into the forgotten, and the forgotten turned to a collective memory that teased the eye and stilled the conscious mind.

Robert HelmRobert Helm (Courtesy Flintridge Foundation)