Andrea Alcabes wanders past Helenka Bimstein's paintings at least 10 times per day, even though her office is in a completely different part of the building. "I make it my business to walk this way," says Alcabes, executive director of the I.J. and Jeanne Wagner Jewish Community Center. "If she'd let us have them here longer, we would."
But Alcabes is only one of the artist's many admirers at the JCC. Helenka led a group of about five women through the spring gallery's opening on March 1, revealing the stories of each character in her paintings, how she created each piece and why. The women hung on to Helenka's words, and only wanted to know more: "Why did you make this lady green?" "Is it day or night in this painting, or perhaps sunset?" "What's going on in this scene?"
The 96-year-old painter and sculptor eventually had to sit down and take a break from her questioning fans, but not before she told the story behind the painting at the end of a long hallway. She pointed to the caricature of her son Phillip, singer and guitarist for folk band Red Rock Rondo. "I don't have other paintings of real life people," she says. "Copying something from reality is kind of boring to me." But Helenka made an exception for her son's band, and the week after the opening reception, she sat 10 feet from center stage at Rondo's concert at the South Valley Unitarian Universalist Society. Fans listened closely to Phillip as he told the tales that inspired his songs.
SEARCHING FOR LOVE
Helenka was raised by nuns at St. Anthony's Orphanage in Toledo, Ohio, and later worked at a restaurant and then as a court stenographer, but she didn't become an artist until after she got married at 22. "I was staying with a couple, and I lived in their apartment. He [her husband-to-be] lived two stories above me, and he'd come down to eat with us every day for supper; I guess he couldn't resist looking at me," she recalls with a laugh.
LeRoy Bimstein finally worked up the courage to ask Helenka to marry him, and the couple raised Phillip and his three siblings in a unique home in Winnetka, Ill. "It looked like a Hansel and Gretel gingerbread house," Phillip says. Tiles from the entryway to the bathroom were uniquely cut, pictures were painted on the walls, the molded fireplace seemed more like a cave, and even the door hinges were oddly shaped. The house enhanced Phillip's appreciation of individuality and may have awakened the artist in Helenka.
On a family trip to a summer home in Wisconsin, Helenka became bored while the rest of the family watched TV. She found a canvas and painted about seven people wearing masks; she later crafted a story about the scene. "They were ordinary people, who left their homes every morning for work, and they may have worked in an office for 15 years, but they never revealed their true personalities to their co-workers," she says. "They only removed their masks when they got home."
The mask painting is an exception to most of Helenka's work, which usually features people searching for love. "I think it's because I didn't have love in the beginning," she says. "My mother neglected us, and we were taken away." Something about Helenka's signature Egyptian hieroglyphic style (inspired by an exhibit of Egyptian artifacts she saw as a teenager at the Toledo Museum of Art) still hints of her love-deprived past. Many of the people she paints stand alone, watching and longing for each other from a distance.
"My mom says when I was 5 years old, I sat under the piano while she played. So, maybe I started getting into music then," says Phillip, who went on to write compositions performed at Carnegie Hall, the Spoleto Music Festival... and on MTV.
His '80s new wave band Phil the Blanks created music videos for an album ranked in the College Media Journalâ€™s national top 40. Phillip also performed with folk band Blue Haiku, has a degree in theory and composition from the Chicago Conservatory and studied film composing and orchestration at UCLA. He started basing his songs on oral histories after he moved to Springdale and was elected mayor, which he says was a lot like composing a song.
"When I thought about how to get people to have a dialogue with one another and negotiate fairly, I often thought of that in musical terms," he says. "Of course, I didn't speak about it much, because I didn't want anyone to think I was loony." Today, he teaches a University of Utah course on relationships between music and community dialogue.
Musical terms or not, bringing the townspeople together was a tough job. "People were getting into fist fights over politics and suing each other," he says.
Eventually, he was able to bring a sense of civility back to the town, and as he got to know his neighbors better, he learned their stories, too.
The first song Phillip wrote based on an oral history was an experimental piece, "Garland Hirschi's Cows." One morning, he woke up and heard cows mooing in a nearby pasture and thought he could use the sound. Phillip called their owner, Garland Hirschi, and asked to meet him to record the moos. Then Phillip had another idea: He'd ask Hirschi what it was like owning and caring for cows in Springdale for the song, too.
Red Rock Rondo came together four years ago, and nearly all of their songs are based on stories similar to Hirschi's. "Some of them are totally out of an oral history. I sat down with someone for an hour and got them to talk about their lives, but there are a couple that came from things I've read," he says.
Before he told one of his stories at the South Valley Unitarian Universalist Society, Phillip acknowledged his sister Barbara, her husband Jed and of course, Helenka. "I always acknowledge my mom," he says. "I'm really proud to have her there."
TWO SLC ARTISTS
Today, Phillip lives two blocks from his mother, near 900 East on the south end of Salt Lake City. His favorite Helenka Bimstein painting hangs near his piano. "I always encourage her to start another, because I think she's great, and it engages her mind," he says.
Helenka sets her canvas on the kitchen table when she paints and decorates every room in her home with her artwork. Her work has been shown at Phillips Gallery, Sugar House Gallery and the I.J. and Jeanne Wagner Jewish Community Center.
Her stories don't end with her art, though. Helenka plans to write a book on "the rules for living in your 90s" and is a romance novel enthusiast. She also listens to music in her spare time. "Classical mostly," she says. "Red Rock Rondo, they come in second."