Tyler Helfrich in her studio

Painting as Permission

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Poet-turned-artist Tyler Helfrich found painting to be an unexpected antidote to writer’s block.

After graduating from Davidson College with an English degree, she worked in the nonprofit realm for four years and, in 2012, decided to shift focus back to her true passion: writing poetry. But things didn’t go as expected.

“I got up every morning and tried to write. Couldn’t do it. Couldn’t do it. Couldn’t do it,” Helfrich says. “Then one day, I said, ‘I’ve got to do something,’ and I pulled out my paints.”

She began experimenting with the medium and materials—acrylic paint on canvas—and discovered that through brush strokes and colors she conveyed her worldview better than through written metaphors and stanzas.

“I see the world the way that I paint,” Helfrich says. “I’ve always seen it that way, and I always knew if I could paint, this is what it would look like.”

Her works are explorations in color, form, and perception. Whether painting abstract pieces, cow portraits, or coffee farmers (her main subjects), she uses vivid color palettes and lively, textured brush strokes that infuse her works with energy.

Working largely from photographs, Helfrich blocks out her images in pencil on canvas and then begins to paint—first with the dark tones, then the light, then the mid-tones, and repeat. Using fast-drying acrylic paint, she builds layer upon layer, developing textures and color relationships, yielding images that are full of life.

Permission to Play

Cow Painting by Tyler Helfrich
Painting by Tyler Helfrich

Cows may seem an odd choice of subject, but for Helfrich they serve an effective role in her creative process (and, they’re pretty sweet). She likes working with them because they allow for a lot of play with both color and form.

“Cows are super expressive,” she says, and their big, blocky heads allow her to push the boundaries of abstraction while still maintaining images that read “cow.”

Take “Fitzgerald,” for example. Set against a warm, red-orange background, through thick, textured strokes of lavender, gray, lime green, and magenta, his adolescent horns, floppy ears, and sweet, soft eyes appear to be looking directly at the viewer, inviting the question, “What is he thinking?”

The idea that art can be playful is something Helfrich carries with her from her nonprofit work. From 2009 to 2012, she led the art program at Charlotte’s Urban Ministry Center, an organization that provides resources and services to homeless people. There, they used art as a way to draw people in.

“We used it to start a conversation, to lower the boundaries and barriers and make people feel comfortable, and in doing so, start the conversation, ‘How can we help you? What do you need? What are your goals?’”

Often clients were hesitant to try art, Helfrich says, because it was new to them. But once they realized that art provided a space where mistakes were OK, they let down their guard and began to have fun with it.

This lesson that art provides an outlet for safe failure is one Helfrich learned along with her clients. She reminds herself of that regularly, and it gives her the confidence to take risks in her own work.

“If I fail at a painting, I fail at a painting,” she says. “And that’s OK.”

Permission to See

A Richmond native, Helfrich met her husband, Brian, at Davidson College and they now live in Davidson with their daughter, Bay, and son, Silas. They also co-own Summit Coffee Co.

The craft coffee, beer, and local music hub on Main Street serves as a small gallery space for Helfrich’s work, which is appropriate because the business inspires much of it. Last year, the company began roasting its own beans, and many of Helfrich’s portraits are of farmers who work with those beans.

painting by Tyler Helfrich
‘Jubilee,’ a painting by Tyler Helfrich

“At Summit we’ve been looking at how we can represent fully what someone is connecting to when they have a cup of coffee in their hand,” Helfrich says, and in capturing the faces and spirits of the farmers, she’s adding to that narrative.

With her vibrant hues and deliberate brush strokes she brings the faces—and through them, the stories—of Don Raf, Jairo Quiñones, and others to the shop. The portraits and the questions they invite further inform Summit customers’ coffee experience.

The coffee farmers are Helfrich’s favorite subjects, she says—the ones to which she feels most connected.

“When you spend that much time staring at someone’s face, you get emotionally invested,” she says.

Permission to Be

Whether cows, coffee farmers, or abstract work, Helfrich likes to have multiple pieces in process at once—at least one of them figurative and one abstract. She says doing both strengthens each.

But in order to get the best results, she needs to be completely present with the work.

In her small studio above the Summit roasting facility in Cornelius, Helfrich finds respite from the buzz and excessive stimuli of life and immerses herself in her colors and canvasses.

“I have to let go of judgment, I have to let go of texting, I have to let go of whatever other things I need to get done,” Helfrich says. “In order for it to be worthwhile I have to be all there. Painting is a rare opportunity to practice being fully present.”

Want to see Tyler Helfrich’s work?

You can see her latest pieces on her website, tylerhelfrich.wixsite.com/artsale, in Summit Coffee on Main Street in Davidson, and at Bebe Gallini’s on Oak Street in Cornelius.


Published originally in Lake Norman Magazine.

Featured photo by moi, Christina Ritchie Rogers


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