Abby Helms: The Future of Nostalgia
What first inspired you to get into the arts?
AH: When I was a kid I was a gymnast for 8 years. During my free time my parents would allow me to go to art classes outside of school, I was in private school for a while. I fell in love with it actually, I was the only young person there with a group of old people. It was amazing, art could be anything and everyone could do it. That’s where I started painting and I wanted to do it for the rest of my life.
What do you mean by your parents allowing you to do the arts?
AH: My sisters all sing and one is studying to be an esthetician and they support us in all the directions we went. Back in the day my dad was a crazy athlete in his home country ,India, and wanted me to be a gymnast. I was really good, but was practicing for five hours every single day and I didn’t have a lot of time for school. What really made me happy was oil painting classes.
Do you mostly paint in oils?
AH: Yeah, I stopped for a while in high school because they don’t let you do that because it isn’t healthy. In high school I did a lot of acrylic and watercolor. I love watercolor, one of my favorite mediums. I love oil because it is such a malleable medium and you can go back the next day and really push the paint. It gives you time to really think about the piece and work through it.
That’s the opposite of watercolor because oil is super forgiving and water color is not.
AH: It’s actually really funny because I’ll get people asking how I find watercolor a stress reliever because it is so stressful for them. I think watching the paint move and be a certain color first and then it dries into a different pigment. I love the princess of watercolor and I’m pretty patient when it comes to painting.
Is your work really process driven?
AH: It has become that. You go through training and learn how to paint portraits and landscapes and going to school you learn color theory. Eva Hesse is a huge inspiration and I watched her documentary a few months ago and all her work is pretty process based. The more recent works for me involve cutting things up and glueing it together and then painting on top of it. It really has become process based over time.
She also works in 3D, is sculpture something that interests you?
AH: it does, but I really love canvas work, I like working with canvas and painting oil on paper with gesso. I started to get really frustrated during my past semester at SVA and I had this giant canvas and when I came back after spring break it was all cracked on my floor. It showed that I can’t plan everything and made me actually get into the series of cutting my work up and putting it into weird movements.
It’s cool that you took that into a learning opportunity and a positive.
AH: I feel like the old me would like to have started over again. But I just tore it up and did whatever I felt like. I did a series of work and my teachers said it was a breakthrough.
DG: What do you think allows you to change your headspace and be more open?
AH: My work is based on regrets and dreams and feelings of whatever affects me. It will be exactly how I felt at the time, and that changed everything for me. If things aren’t going to go my way at least this is something I can control. That’s how I figured out that is the direction I want to go in the future.
How has covid affected your path and taking the headspace that is open shifted your headspace?
AH: Recently I just got back into painting after classes ended. I haven’t done a lot that was art related because I’ve been working a lot. What was really cool was up until COVID I had an amazing opportunity to work with a Lynn Umlauf whose work was really similar to mine. I interned with her for a bit and since she’s older she didn’t feel comfortable with me working with COVID going on. It disrupted a lot of things I had going through myself and open studios and people getting to see my work in person. I didn’t get to communicate with any of the seniors that are graduating, so it sucked.
So with your music has that always been a part of your life?
AH: Yeah I grew up singing and I was vocally trained. Growing up I used to write music and I taught myself guitar and piano. I was really inspired by my sister singing and I have such an obsession with Mariah Carey and Whitney Houston that were really cool when I was younger. They really impacted my vocal range even, it molded me and I really looked up to them. It hit one day when my friend said I needed to make an album. He went to engineering school and we just did and that is NOLA. It was a really great experience and I didn’t realize I wanted to do it until I did.
Your songs have a nostalgic feeling to them as well.
AH: They are very inspired by that as well. I wrote all of them and had co-writer Corey Ross on City Night. All three songs are really about my relationship with my husband when we were dating years ago. It is three songs telling a story about different stages of a relationship, so very nostalgic.
Would you prefer the songs to be listened all at once since it tells a story?
AH: I would say City Night and NOLA both have a very romantic feeling to them. Passive Heart sits apart from those two because it is the part of the story where you question the relationship and it isn’t super positive. If it was me I would listen to City Night and NOLA together and put Passive Heart on another playlist. They tell the perfect little story of me and my husband.
Why did you choose to write your story now?
AH: I have been married for one year, before I got married we were still writing the album. I started writing this three years ago, having sessions in my friends basement. Just writing down lyrics and ideas. My producer is my good friend Nathaniel Jenkins who is incredible, a musical genius. And then along came David Turk, the amazing engineer and then it began. I realized that there was something to write about. I would always get asked for relationship advice. He was living in NOLA, hence the name, and he went to Tulane while I was still in Jersey. I wrote NOLA on the plane home the last time I visited him in NOLA and he was going to come back home for good afterwards. I needed to write a song and it was really beautiful. You really don’t realize that people go through long distance relationships and wonder when you are going to see the other person again and people don’t really talk about it.
Are your songs universal as well as personal?
AH: Yeah I really think they are. I think everyone can relate to the songs I have written, NOLA isn’t just a love song about the person you are in love with, it could be about anybody. It definitely is universal and just about love in general.
Do you make music about the same thing that you would paint?
AH: Passive Heart is actually written about a dream I had and my paintings leading up to the past semester were all dream related. Nightmares, beautiful dreams, anything that would leave an impact and feeling like I needed to paint about it. It is so real because you have dreams that aren’t exactly what is happening to you at the time, but you can later relate it to something.
Are you into dream analysis as well?
AH: I’m not, but I feel like I should be. I have never really done that.
So your subconscious is a big driver for your work?
AH: I would definitely think so.
How did going to school in New York shape your artistic identity?
AH: I grew up in Jersey so I didn’t know what actually living in the city was like even though I would visit. Having moved there and being around art students and artists that did whatever they wanted to do was amazing. I went from painting things perfectly to mixing it up. I loved that some people didn’t like my work. It changed the way I viewed the world and people. When you grow up in a small town and see the same people and you get used to similar mannerism and interactions. You get to learn so much from people living in New York City. It made me have more of a feel for people that go through things and people that don’t have everything from people that do have everything.
How did you find the particular interactions at SVA?
AH: I am 26 and everyone else at the school was 19-21 so I felt I was a bit of a loner even though I did have friends. The people there are really cool and it was nice to have people understand you mentally especially with fine arts.
So what was your journey from high school to SVA?
AH: I actually went to three different schools. I went to a community college and I went there for fine arts education. I realized I didn’t want to do that and took a year off. I didn’t want to take a full year off so I went to photography school for a year in Massachusetts. It was really intense with photoshoots everyday from 8-5. I wanted to be an art teacher and then transferred to Montclair State University. I took some classes and they weren’t making me happy and it was weird because art always made me happy. I got really frustrated with the teachers and it became more about that than the art. So I decided I needed to pursue fine arts and that’s when I transferred to SVA.
And that just clicked for you?
AH: It really did, the best decision I ever made. It was a really bad point in my life being in Montclair.
Everyone has a journey and in high school you're taught that after high school you're gonna have four years of college and it is a super cookie cutter and doesn’t fit for a lot of people.
AH: Yeah you can’t really plan for everything, I learned that especially with my art.
Check out Abby's work!