Welcome back to the Art Force Academy podcast! This week, we sat down with Scott Helmes, a local artist, architect, poet, and designer. Scott has a diverse mixed-media practice that fuses poetry and art to create a visual language. We visited Scott at his studio in the Thorp Building here in the Northeast Arts District, where we discussed his accomplished career and experience in the local arts community.
What led you to a career in the arts?
Well, it’s a long story. Basically, I graduated from the School of Architecture in the late ‘60s, and part of the course study for architecture was art, so I took two years of studio art. I was lucky enough to study with a person by the name of Zigmonds Priede, and even though it was general art, he really became a famous printmaker from ULAE. He really brought to Minnesota a very interesting perspective because he was working with a lot of artists on the east coast who became real famous, like Johns and Rauschenberg.
Oh wow! What kind of printing did he do?
He did lithography, which was the main thing the ULAE did out on Long Island. They really resurrected printmaking as an artistic medium. So those two years gave me a real exposure to art at a world class level. It was very interesting for me because I didn’t really have any art background, per say, when I started architecture. You could come from architecture from the science and mathematical part or from the art part, which I didn’t come from. I had art in high school, but it was really very little exposure. So that gave me a great foundation for my interest in art even though my main occupation turned out to be architecture.
When I graduated from the U in architecture, you couldn’t get a job. In the ‘70s, with the energy crisis and the Vietnam War, there were not a lot of architectural firms that were hiring people. I didn’t get back into architecture until about 10 years after I graduated.
What did you do after you graduated?
I taught at the U in architecture and also in social work. I had an idea of interdisciplinary approaches to things, and I got hired by an assistant professor to teach and offer a different perspective on the built environment for social workers. Then in ’70, with my teaching experience and doing some things with high school kids, I got hired at the Institute of Arts for four years to a program called Urban Arts. They took high school kids and brought them in the afternoon over to the arts institute and to other places around the city so that high school students could have exposure to a large range of artistic activities.
Are programs like that still going on?
There are some variation like that. The school district had gotten a federal grant for two years to try this, and it was really quite a wonderful experience. There were a lot of very notable people who went through that. The four years I had there gave me a great exposure to the whole artistic kind of thing.
It was in the ‘70s that I started my own artistic activities.
Did you go back into printmaking? What kind of artistic activities did you dive into? …or dabble in?
It was dabble, that’s what it was. I started writing poetry, and then in ‘74 I started with something called concrete visual poetry and mail art.
I think it’s so cool that you did mail art. It wish that it was an art form that had a stronger presence.
It’s a very interesting artistic activity. I started doing that because it was small, and I could do it in a short period of time. It also gave me a great outlet for creativity because in architecture, expect for a small amount of people, it’s very hard to be creative – because you’re spending other people’s money.
I also started corresponding with artists all over the world. Between the visual poetry and the mail art, I developed a strong interest in art. In ’72, I wrote my first poems, and they were mathematical poems.
What is that?
Mathematics and language – two different languages. My initial idea was that if you did not know another person’s language or if an alien landed on earth, one way to communicate would be through mathematics. Math is a language. It’s a process. So I wrote poems that incorporated mathematical symbols that talked about processes with language.
I started that, and then I discovered concrete poetry, which was a big movement in the ‘50s and ‘60s, and it is very visual. The basic idea is what you see and what you read are the same idea, but you come at it from different ways. You’ve seen a lot of concrete poetry because it has been used in advertising and other things, but it is a very European kind of thing. It uses language in a very visual kind of way.
Right now, I’m doing these abstract works on paper. I call them sonnets only because they have 14 lines. It give the abstract work a context.
I think it’s noteworthy that to be successful in this career, you have to take a lot of initiative and put yourself out there. People don’t just come to you.
It’s a very interesting process. Being in Minnesota, we like to be humble about what we do. You find people squirreled away in studios like this. You do have to put yourself out there and find ways that you’re comfortable with. One thing I have found is that you have to know how to deal with rejection because that is the life.
If there was one piece of advice that you would give to an emerging artist or someone considering a career in the arts, what would that be?
The advice is really quite simple: follow your passion, and stick with it. If you have some talent and you combine that with a passion for it, you’ll find a place.