Living The Dream: Artist In Silk Is Grateful For Her Gift



Artist Helen Tennent knew that wanted to be an artist when she was only five years old and her mother sent her off a year early to school in rural Wisconsin.

"We were all making Valentines," Tennent said. "I made an Eskimo and everyone thought it was the best."

Of such simple experiences are dreams born.

Still certain at age 17 she wanted to become a professional artist, she signed up for a correspondence course.

Even though my mother thought art was wonderful, she refused to pay for the course.

"I know I would not be the artist I am today if my mother had not said no," Tennent said.

It took Tennent until 1961 to achieve her dream.

She painted portraits, saving $35 from the sale of each one for her education.

The mother of three was 36 when she graduated from the American Academy of Art in Chicago, Ill.

"My oldest girl was 14 when I went back to school," she said. "They went through a lot."

Live teachers and live models made the difference between art on the side and art as a living.

Tennent continued to paint portraits and conduct workshops.

She worked as a commercial artist for an agency in Chicago and a CBS television affiliate in New Mexico.

Her students at the Northeast Wisconsin Vocational School learned to sketch, paint, sculpt with clay and create pottery on the wheel between 1971 and 1974 and again from 1981 to 1985.

In between those dates, she taught students at the Academy of Art and Design in New Mexico.

The beauty of New Mexico drew the native of Wisconsin back again in 1986. From her studios in Belen and Los Lunas she taught painting and ceramics. Ceramics included throwing on the wheel, hand building, crystalline glaze techniques and raku.

When she was not busy in her studio she was happily opening a world of color to her students at the University of New Mexico's Albuquerque or Valencia campuses.

In fact, three of Tennent's large paintings are still on display at the Valencia campus. They were purchased as part of the state One Percent for Art program.


Helen Tennent was on vacation when she took a pottery class. That was 1978 and she has loved the art form ever since.

"I loved talking people who had never taken art into taking them (classes), then watching as those students saw what they could do and how it changed their lives," Tennent said.

Yet, after 38 years Tennent found herself burnt-out on doing portraits. She turned her eyes and hands full time to silk painting (she even studied for a week in China) and pottery.

Her silk paintings are not Asian in nature. They often reflect the landscapes of the Southwest.

She uses dyes made in France to paint on the silk fabric them steams her work to make the colors permanent.

"I use the (silk) surface like watercolor," she said.

Gold paint creates resistance lines so the colors stay defined where she wants them.

The result is similar to batik.

Tennent's bowls, pitchers, vases and other pottery pieces are functional and can be used to safely serve food or look lovely when displayed for their own sake.

"I don't do funky (pottery) she said, "that's not for me," then added, "Oh, I better not say I'll never do it, but it just doesn't appeal to me."

As she made her final move to Payson a mere two weeks before Down the Street Art Gallery opened Tennent has not finished unpacking her studio.

The plucky woman is ready to try out the kilns at Gila Community College and discover glazes she has not had the opportunity to work with.

"I am very grateful that I had a chance to use my talent," Tennent said.


Name: Helen Tennent

Current mediums: silk paintings, pottery and sculpture

Advice to beginning artists: Take the time to really look at the colors in the world around you. For instance, when you look at a tree it is not just green. Every leaf has light and dark shades and reflects the light differently.

Event most proud of: During a series of lectures and demonstrations "Oil portrait from the model," I painted a portrait from a live model in front of an audience.

Motto: I know everyone has the ability to paint or draw or do artwork of some kind. I wish the whole world would learn to do art.

Why Payson? I like a small town and I like showing my work in a co-op.

Faves --

Music: classical, some country and oldies like Sinatra

Hobby: dancing

Books: psychology, anthropology, and stories of real people

Points of contact: At Down the Street Art Galley, 703 W. Main St., Payson (928) 468-6129 or in my studio at (928) 474-3996.

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