Glimpses of Beauty Laid on Thick, the Paintings of Helen Cantrell at the Cooley Gallery

"River Forest Field" by Helen Cantrell, oil on canvas, 36" x 36" (Image courtesy of Helen Cantrell)


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OLD LYME — Nature, a cluster of buildings, people in everyday life, all are glimpses captured by artist Helen Cantrell in her expressionistic and vibrant paintings. 

Cantrell paints with oils, often using wide brushes, palette knives and other tools to create thick surfaces of layered and dripped paint that she scratches through and scrapes away, adding and subtracting.

“I start with a structure and an image that hits me, and then the paint does what it does… There’s this kind of journey on what you first saw and what the paint wants and that’s what you end up with if you’re successful,” she said. 

She often finds images by looking out of train, plane or car windows, finding beauty. 

“I snap a lot of photos everywhere I travel. Then I delete and delete until I get what I saw, what remained in my retina,” she said.

In her Bridgeport series, she painted urban landscapes observed from her rail trips on Metro-North to and from New York City. 

“These scenes, these simple, unplanned structures, I think they’re beautiful,” she said. 

Cantrell was born in Chicago and at 21 moved to New York City where she worked as a typesetter. In 1998 she became a full-time painter and printmaker. She lives in Old Lyme with her husband, John.

“Salt Marsh Radiant Pink” by Helen Cantrell, oil on canvas, 48″ x 48″ (Image courtesy of Helen Cantrell)

In her piece, “Salt Marsh Radiant Pink,” Cantrell said she painted an abstracted salt marsh on a hot July day near the cottage she and her husband own in Hawk’s Nest Beach. 

“The sand is just like that late July and August after a rainstorm, it’s just so pink and gold and  swollen up with colors,” she said. 

In “Lieutenant River Shade,” a thickly textured piece, she said she wanted to depict the quiet of the river while on a kayak trip with a friend. 

“This one I ended up just doing with the palette knife. I wanted stillness,” she said. 

“Lieutenant River Shade” by Helen Cantrell, oil on canvas, 48″ x 48″ (Image courtesy of Helen Cantrell)

Cantrell said she was influenced early on by Richard Diebenkorn and the Bay Area figurative artists, and they continue to be her muses. 

“Diebenkorn he’s my guy,” she said. “Somebody said art is about 80 percent other art and if you’re lucky maybe 20 percent is original, so that’s where I come from artistically.” 

Many of Cantrell’s canvases are square and large. She said she likes the square because it’s a dynamic shape.

“It’s not wide and it’s not long, it’s a very dynamic, inherent shape that makes you want to kind of roll around in it, it’s a little bit different from all that so it alters what you want to put on it,” she said. “I like it messy.”

Cantrell will exhibit more than 15 works in “Laying it On,” at the Cooley Gallery. The show opens on May 5, with a preview online exhibition available May 4.

Gallery co-owner Jeff Cooley said this show was scheduled for April 2020 but was postponed because of Covid. 

“Finally! We were so excited when we saw this group of Helen’s paintings before lockdown,” he said in a release. “Her use of color and fearless application of paint drew us in immediately. The surfaces are full of energy and gesture. It’s as if you are witnessing the moment the light bulb goes on.” 

The Cooley Gallery is located at 25 Lyme St., Old Lyme.