Interview by Meredith Johnson
Iowa City artist, Helen Neumann, talks animals, artistic process, mental illness and her recent exhibition at Rad Inc., BEARE. In addition to her own creative work, Neumann has long been interested in how people of all ages can integrate making art into their daily lives. Soon to be a teacher at Prairie Green School, Neumann hopes to develop an experimental “textbook” that reimagines how reading is taught in early childhood, linking image and word to literacy development.
Can you tell me a little bit about yourself and your life as an artist?
I went to Grinnell College, and then I came to Iowa City and went to graduate school for painting and drawing. And since then, I had a family so I was kind of a housewife, mother-type. Around 2002, I got a job running an arts studio in this experimental, artsy preschool. I was working there until recently, and now I have another job as a teacher at Prairie Green School.
I wasn’t always making art—I’d go through periods where I would make some but not a lot. Then two years ago, about this time, my husband of all that time left me. It was super shocking… I had kind of a nervous breakdown and I started doing a series of drawings called The Divorce Drawings. They were all of these ‘how I saw myself,’ kind of vulnerable things. Like a turtle without his shell at a cocktail party. I was just struggling so much with depression and anxiety and this shift of life circumstance, because he was the main breadwinner and I was not wanting to be separated or divorced. I was just trying to figure out a way that life was worthwhile. Or that I was actually here, you know, so I started doing these drawings that I call my Proof of Life series. I could doodle or draw something that I had seen, and then my idea was like a calendar. I could put the date on it and put [the drawing] on my wall.
Where did your ideas come from?
Often they would come from walking my dog first thing in the morning. Or sometimes I would do them at the preschool with other kids. They would be very abstract or collaborative. So then one morning I felt the wind on my face. I had been so depressed that I hadn’t really been able to enjoy anything or feel outside or see, really, nature or beauty and I felt myself shift up like a bear. And I thought, ‘Oh, I’m just a little natural creature.’ I had always been interested in bears and bear imagery. There’s this Grimm’s Fairytale called “Bear Skin’” that I’m kind of obsessed with. So, the first [drawing] is called Proof of Life: Wind on My Face.
The early ones are a little rougher—like Bear Hibernating or Licking My Wounds… They were all just about me and nature… the one with the stag is actually about a time when I kept seeing a stag. I would never edit them. I always drew what I wanted and later I would look back and realize what I was feeling. The bear has always been myself but I call it a “he,” which is kind of strange. I started to see that there are these different parts of myself. The series is called BEARE because it’s about the two meanings (nature and civilization) coming together—the drawings started to be very revealing about my mental state. There’s an aspect when the bear wants to be wilder, out in nature and simple but then he’s always getting pulled back in. Some of them are more literal, like Little Bear in the Big City is from when I was actually in L.A., but others, like Embearassed are about how I felt when I was getting divorced. So it’s these ideas of nature and civilization and being scrutinized, being really vulnerable.
How did the girl figure get introduced into the drawings?
I was in EMDR and … my therapist was asking me what I was seeing. I told her that there was this little girl in the woods behind my house when I was growing up, and she was working on this hut in the forest. She was digging and trying to build this hut out of sticks. She was pale and cold and she didn’t particularly look like me but I knew right away that it was myself—this vulnerable, child self. And [my therapist] asked if I wanted to say something to her, and I said I wanted to tell her that I saw her. I see you, and you’re working really hard.
So then when I was doing yoga or meditating, I was supposed to talk to this girl, and in my mind I would be berating her, like, ‘Why don’t you work harder?’ or ‘Why are you so fat?’ or ‘No wonder your husband left you, you’re so irritating, you have a bad tone of voice.’ And I was supposed to see this person and tell her ‘I see you and thank you, you’re really taking care of us.’ I started doing that and it was so helpful, both for the person that was always being berated and for the person doing the berating—to be kind instead of hard was really a shift for me.
And then I started seeing the bear with the girl. The bear rescues her from the ocean and they begin this friendship. They do these things together like going around a maypole, and are happy together. And then other times I would want them to look like one creature, I called it Ursula, it’s the bear and the girl as one organism—me and the bear together.
I am interested in animal friendships. Like those videos on Facebook. And my dog is my really close friend. Right after the divorce I kept finding these owl feathers in a certain place and seeing the stag. And I was quitting my job and I kept seeing this deer in my yard. So I am kind of into this, ‘spirit animals are guiding me’ type thing.
What is your process like with the “Proof of Life Series”?
I used to think about a project or an idea, and then do that thing. Like, here’s the goal, fill up the goal. Now I’m working differently. These images are just kind of coming to me, and something is pulling me into the unknown more, and I just have to find it. Ideas will come to me like ‘Oh, the bear needs to be riding on the back of these sea turtles’ and I don’t know, I think the source for these images is somewhere deep within me instead of up here, being forced by my brain. They’re more felt. So I’m compelled to make them, and these ideas are tugging me along. I feel like it’s my inner self speaking in a way I didn’t used to work. As [these ideas] come, I’ll continue to work on [the series], and if they don’t, then I’ll stop.
Why do you think you like to draw animals?
With The Divorce Drawings, I drew myself as this turtle without its shell. Then I have another one where my ex-husband, a philosophy professor, is at a dinner party with Nietzsche and Plato and they’re all drinking wine on this deck and I’m kind of part-human, part-deer disappearing into the forest. So I would say I’m interested in the conflict between society and wild—nature. And animals seem like the crossover between those things. I feel myself being pulled like an animal toward being wilder.
Maybe it’s easier to think about my life if I think I have the bear protecting me. I don’t always know what [the drawings] mean. When they were up on the wall and my kids and I were looking at them we started talking about it and we were like, ‘This is some heavy shit.’ They are portraits of some aspects of my personality, some of which I’m proud of, some of which I’m not proud of, but I feel they are pretty straightforward. I’m not trying to trick anyone or hide anything, and that’s where the ‘bare’ comes in. So, a lot of it is about not being afraid to confront how hard human experience can be. And being able to see that sadness is beautiful and important.
Do you think making art is cathartic?
I’ve worked with a lot of kids on the autism spectrum or non-verbal kids and I think art becomes a level playing field. There is no ‘more intelligent,’ ‘less intelligent’… you just have human beings having an idea and making art about the idea. Recently I decided I wanted to go and get a Master’s of Social Work so I could study how to develop a practice for people who are struggling with ways to express themselves. It’s a strength that I have—my parents were artists—and I’ve taught art now to many populations of people: in homeless shelters, in Atlanta at this center for abused mothers and children, to preschoolers, kids with autism, and people with cerebral palsy where I’m taping the paint brush to their hand. So, I’m good at developing projects for people—helping people find agency to make work. And I don’t think one art class a week is enough for that—I’d like to be a therapist in a place where they come and try to get this [practice] integrated into their lives like it has been integrated for me. Almost like practicing a musical instrument, like journaling… but a more mystical type of journaling.
For me, it’s never been about the product, it’s always been about the process. One of my dissertations, either MA or MFA was about filtering experience and I feel like [BEARE] is just another continuation of the type of thing I’ve always been interested in. How can I make sure I’m here, and alive on the planet, and what does it mean. It’s an attempt to find meaning and be OK and make my life seem worthwhile.
You mentioned that you worked at a preschool that was pretty experimental, can you tell me more about that?
So my goal when I was teaching preschoolers for 14 years was how to develop a process that is deeply satisfying for the individual—how to express the idea and themselves with the materials. There was never a time when I said ‘I want you to make snowmen, pick three white balls and glue those together and don’t forget the scarf.’ That’s a craft project and it’s about following directions. I think that’s great, and we need to learn that so we can put an IKEA cabinet together one day, but that was never what I was interested in. The kids will always think of something more interesting than an assignment I can come up with. And then you can differentiate the thinking. I want to know about their distinct inner lives, not just the assignment. I learned so much working there.
What do you think about collaboration between text and art?
I love collaboration between text and art. It was all I could do not to put more text in [the Proof of Life series]. Some of [the drawings] don’t work at all unless you see the text with it. Like this one, was called Beacon, because I heard that turtles will swim toward the moonlight. And there’s another one, the other part of the diptych, where the girl is trying to be the beacon, but the turtles are going to this wild, moon place.
I’ve done a lot with text and literature. One time in graduate school, I went around to bookstores and libraries and wrote down the titles of books that I liked and I did illustrations based on the titles. Like one of them was called The Drowning Room, and it’s this girl in this room and she’s drowning and all these kids are in the room watching.
Also in graduate school, I was interested in angels. I had these postcards and I would draw an angel on one side with a question, like ‘I have questions about creation’ and then have them draw an angel on the other side. I put them in bottles with my return address in it. I put them all over rivers in Iowa and waited to see if they would come back. I actually got five mailed back. Some of them got all the way down to Missouri on the Mississippi River.
I also did a project at Twain that was about how the visual arts can help with early literacy. We had this spelling sentence project we were doing. We tried to bring the drawing and the sentence up at the same time. So I’d work with the bottom readers in the class and we’d get the spelling word and draw it. They’d draw the word and then they’d be like ‘Let’s put a ship in it,’ and then they’d want to put in a parrot and by time we finished the drawing it wasn’t a sentence anymore but a paragraph. And reading scores went up, but they were also doing other reading.
What was it like to display at RAD Inc.?
I hadn’t had a show since 2003, my last show was down in Texas. And then I just stopped making work. I just felt like [BEARE] had to come out. And I was really, really happy with it. Then at the show, so many of my students came, even students that were sixth graders that I had seven years ago. It was really affirming. I had tons of support.
What are your plans for the summer?
I’m working on a book about early literacy because I’m really frustrated with how reading is taught. I think it’s so boring and one-size fits all and that’s not at all how kids learn. I was playing with an idea at the preschool with this thing called theatre class. At one point I was letting kids act stuff out, but now we are working on collaborative drawings. So, I may say, ‘Does anyone have an idea for a character?’ and someone will respond, ‘Cheetah,’ and then they’ll draw the cheetah or I will and we will try to spell it. Then I ask, ‘What is the cheetah doing?’ and they’ll say ‘Jumping on rocks,’ then we’ll count the rocks. At the end of the year I had all of these sheets of paper that we’d been writing on with beginning word sounds. And now we’re going to work on the text with some of the kids from the preschool school. The kids and I worked on the illustrations together and I want to get them all painted and set. So maybe the text on the page would be, ‘Six stones, a cheetah and a net,’ or whatever and I’d get it published as a big coffee table book. I’m really excited about that. I want to call it something like an early literacy textbook. I know I want to call it a textbook because it’s such a slap in the face to academia. Because it’s so whimsical—this isn’t a worksheet where you have to draw the letter ‘A’ ten times. It’s very fun.
Is there anything else you’d like me to know?
I think in some ways I’m not my authentic self yet. And I think that is the tension between the wild and the civilized and why I play with that so much. There are some ways in which I think I sold my freedom to be a 1950s housewife for nineteen years. I want to do different things and I want to have a bigger life than I’ve had. This work has been helping me to come out a little bit.
I also just got my yoga certification and you have to get what’s called a san kalpa, which is a guiding principle. I can’t really tell people what my san kalpa is, so even that is about not being heard or recognized. But this year I had my BEARE show, I got my yoga certification, I quit my job and the drawings have helped me to go further into the wild. I still don’t know what they’re really about—it’s like a treasure hunt and all these things are clues.