Artist Profile: Helen Heins Peterson

The handpainted work of Helen Heins Peterson turns everyday wooden objects into flights of fancy. Here a chair from a table-and-chairs set gets the painted treatment.

In the colorful fantasy world of Helen Heins Peterson, dragonfly men ride on the backs of fishes, checkerboard cats roll along on wheels, and a knowing sun smiles on all. These scenes are irresistible invitations to delight, but there is also a pleasing, aesthetic order to Heins Peterson’s fancies. Despite the unbounded whimsy of the scenes, there’s always a controlled symmetry, and geometric patterns inspired by hundreds of years of folk art accent the frolicking creatures, celestial bodies and vivacious flowers.

Early in her career, Heins Peterson was a Jill of all trades: in addition to studying both art and education, she ventured into weaving, jewelry beading, oil painting and pencil drawing, as well as owning her own art and gift gallery.

It was Heins Peterson’s love of drawing, however, that eventually became her focus. Not content to draw merely on paper, about 10 years ago she took to putting her designs on wooden boxes. Soon her drawings extended to wooden bowls, wall panels, furniture and all kinds of miscellaneous objects (shoetrees, journal covers and picture frames, among others).

Her art starts with unfinished wood. Using a pencil, Heins Peterson draws her designs directly onto the piece. She then darkens the outlines with black ink. Next, she colors in the shapes with pens and markers.

Heins Peterson layers color on top of color, giving a depth and richness to her alluring visions. She favors bright jewel tones. Ruby-skinned frogs perch on emerald lily pads. Flowers in shades of scarlet, marigold and fuchsia gleam against cerulean skies. Her subjects are fairies, cats, jack-o-lanterns and the favorite dragonfly. “Bugs are always good,” she says.

Her pieces are then sent back to the carpenter, who sprays them with four to six coats of lacquer, sealing the vivid colors and giving the pieces an indelible shine.

Heins Peterson’s work, although extraordinarily fantastical, has a classic, almost old-fashioned, quality that makes it a great fit with more traditional furniture. Who couldn’t use a good dose of fantasy in their lives? After all, as she is quick to remind us, “Whimsy and color are important!”

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