Helena Vallée Dallaire is a painter, world traveller, deep thinker, and currently, a graduate student at the New York Academy of Art. Her striking portrait Two-Spirit, is currently featured in our painting show, Why the @#&! Do You Paint?
We caught up with Helena to talk about her practice, philosophy, and the responsibility of the portraitist.
Can you tell me a bit about your painting Two-Spirit? Who does it depict? What was it like for both you and the subject, making this portrait?
Two-Spirit is a portrait of Max, a friend of mine who recently completed a process of gender-transition. I had only just met Max when I had the idea for the portrait, and Max amazed me with how transparent he was about his reality, how open he was about sharing his experience with others despite the risk of their close-mindedness. He interacts with the world by saying, “Hi. This is who I am. I have nothing to hide and I’d like to know you like that too.” My portrait is an attempt to convey that welcoming, beautiful way of interacting with others. It’s a portrait about his courage and beauty, a classical portrait of an inspiring individual. Painting Max was a great experience: he was so helpful and enthusiastic. He seemed very happy with the result as he would like to cultivate awareness for transgender experiences, and the painting was a good way of doing that.
How has your painting technique changed over the course of your career?
I used to focus on creating a variety of textures and effects in my paintings by experimenting with materials (watercolour, collage, ink or even pieces of fabric, glue, tea and coffee); now I seek to capture a life-like feeling of human connection, using traditional mediums and methods, while searching for contemporary messages.
Why do you think you gravitated towards a representational style?
I first became interested in art through abstract paintings, but quickly realized that even the greatest abstract masters understood how to draw in a classical style, so I started atelier-style drawing classes in Montreal when I was 13. I immediately fell in love with representational art, and sought to create images that would resuscitate the living subject as accurately as possible, in both likeness and essence. My exposure to diverse methods and philosophies made the act of drawing or painting from the model an increasingly spiritual and fascinating experience, and one that allowed my understanding of the interaction between light and the human form to evolve enormously.
How do you push your work into new territory?
An idea for a piece will hit me in moments when I least expect it; usually any new idea differs a lot from the preceding one. I like to just grab on to new directions and discourses that I feel passionate about: I’ve done works relating to my thoughts on feminism, alienation, love, social economics, consumerism etc…
Do you find people or scenes that you’re attracted to first, or do you think of concepts or stories you want to convey first, and then look for models.
A mix of both. If I really love something that I see, I’ll paint it and then reflect on what made it special for me. But when staring at a blank canvas, I’ll look for models who can recreate my vision as closely as possible. But of course, the models always add their own energy and ideas to the concept that I have in mind.
What responsibility do you feel towards the subjects that you paint?
I want to celebrate them, to make them feel like something of them is alive on the canvas. It’s an ambitious wish, so the pressure is on! I feel obliged to them for being so generous and open, so I do my very best to make it worth their while!
How do you make portraiture continually interesting for yourself?
Portraiture from life is always interesting to me, even in its simplest form. The idea that a person would sit for me, offering their time and letting me draw their likeness, is quite extraordinary in itself. It is always a moment of connection and intimacy where I feel hearts and minds are open: moments when it feels good to be human. As a great portrait, I believe, is always a story.
As you know, are show is called Why the ! Do You Paint? In one sentence, can you answer this question?
Because painting the world makes me love it more.
Why the @#&! Do You Paint?: Go Figure, the Gladstone Hotel’s annual group painting show, is up now on the 2nd floor of the hotel, and will be having it’s opening party on October 20th from 7-10pm. Come check out Helena’s work and much more! Facebook event here.
Hope to see you there!