Have you ever had a dream that moved you? Not the one where you end up going to work in your undies. I mean the kind of dream that, even years later, you remember vividly. Artist Helen Kate McAllister (or HK) lives her life in those dreams, creating the art of the subconscious.
Her artwork is unique. At first, it’s all colors that strike the eye: bright blues, purples, reds, and yellows. Then the images come into focus: there’s a raven, a horse, a bear, a human face. It’s as though my conscious mind does not fully understand, yet I still somehow know what it means.
When I went to write this profile, I felt stymied. How can I accurately describe an experience I’m still unsure about that lingers at the edges of my mind? Re-reading my notes reminds me of looking at a dream journal: disjointed, often confusing, always hinting at something else. So I wrote it as I experienced it.
Meet Helen Kate McAllister.
I’m in the kitchen at Helen Kate’s home in Hidden Valley Lake. Sunbleached prayer flags flutter along the porch, framing the mountains of the Mayacamas range. HK pours hot water over the tea bag sitting in my cup, covering it with an intricately designed ceramic bowl. A string of cutout birds swings from the rafters, flitting towards the windows filling the front of her house. Perfectly tuned windchimes resonate in the background.
EXCERPT FROM NOTES TAKEN INTERVIEWING HELEN KATE MCALLISTER – 2.1.19
I was born to be a dream person
Each painting takes two days
This is so ugly, I say sometimes. I should rip it apart
Give it time, the painting tells me
I tingle when it is done
“I work in acrylic.” Helen Kate pauses. “Would you like to see some of my more recent work?”
“Absolutely,” I reply. She gets off the kitchen stool, walks to the living room, and pulls out one painting after another, like the movement of the ocean against a beach.
“Look at this one,” she says, setting it on the couch.
Shapes, swaying movement, bright colors fill the canvas. But before I can focus, she takes out another painting, which crashes like a wave over me.
“This one’s a bit more abstract.” She grabs another piece. “And this one has a horse in it.”
I look quickly, trying to take in as much as possible. But the wave recedes, and another painting takes its place.
“Horses show up in a lot of my work.” She pauses, then stacks a few more on top of each other. “See, here’s another horse.” I’m inundated, sopped wet by the waves of her art.
Helen Kate quickly pulls out another painting. “And there’s this one.”
“Is that your studio?” I look to the loft.
“Yes, it is.” Her eyes move upwards with mine.
“I’ve always loved lofts,” I smile. “Can we go up and see it?”
“Sure,” she replies, and we climb the steep wooden stairs. Small ceramic bowls and cups sit under the railing on each step. Framed pieces of artwork walk up the wall behind the staircase.
We arrive at the top. On the left, directly under the peaked wooden rafters, an easel stands with a painting resting on it, radiating bright colors in the cloud-darkened room. Paints and brushes line the shelves. A laptop sits on a small table.
“This is where I do my work,” she tells me.
A text appears on my phone. It’s Helen Kate. “I painted a new painting called ‘Raven Greets the Sun’ she writes. “But I cannot get a glare-free photo. I will send it when the sun next appears.”
A few days later I see the painting. In it, Raven, the creator/trickster of native myth, stands on a purpleblue blade of light. He’s in mid-stretch, one blueblack eye looking at us. His right wing flies upward while the left slides out of the painting, sweeping the sun into existence. Bright yellow edges his wingtips like dabs of sunshine. It’s as though Raven knows that without him, the sun would not rise. So he revels in it, an act both of creation and appreciation of the sun’s radiance.
Even now, in my mind I see new images, what might be a waterfall in the background, the wind sweeping raven’s purpleyellow feathers sideways.
A quote on a slightly battered 3X5 notecard is taped to the top of the easel. I look closer. “Hillman says,” it begins, “We cannot perceive with sense perception the depths that are not extended in the sense world.”
“Tell me about this quote,” I ask Helen Kate.
She closes her eyes for a second, thinking. “Imagination is key to perception. It’s creative; it’s what makes meaning. When we allow our imagination to explore, we can see the deeper elements in our world.”
She pauses for another second, then speaks. “Every image is an angel.”
Books with titles like Dark Eros and Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious fill the bookshelves surrounding the small table. It’s midwinter, and chill air pushes against the large windows.
“I studied under James Hillman,” HK tells me. “Thomas Moore, who wrote Care of the Soul, was my dissertation advisor.”
She sips on her tea. “I worked in Boston as a psychologist before I came to Lake County. Here I worked with at-risk teens for twelve years. Then, when I retired in 2011, I started painting.”
“How do you apply your work to your paintings?” I ask curiously.
“You see, the cosmos is so big.” She makes a sweep upward with her hand. “And here’s us.” She moves her arm downward. “Little people on little dirt.” Helen Kate smiles, then her forehead furrows slightly. “I worry about nature and what we’re doing to the earth, and a lot of my paintings address that concern. In the words of a Lakota chief, ‘Nature is the source, not a resource.’”
She pauses, looking thoughtful.
“My art comes from my feelings of the importance of the feminine side of life, which Jung and Hillman call ‘soul’. Our culture favors the masculine. I’m not speaking in terms of gender.”
She takes another moment to think.
“I’m committed to the images of imagination which we see clearly in dreams.”
EXCERPT FROM NOTES TAKEN INTERVIEWING HELEN KATE MCALLISTER – 2.1.19
Eclipse wolf moon
Purple everywhere – paint gave face of the wolf
Drew Wolf, the paint was there
I’m with Helen Kate at the Middletown Art Center. It’s the first time we’ve met. I had passed her on the street earlier and we exchanged greetings, but neither of us knew.
I don’t make the connection until we both stand in the gallery, looking curiously at each other.
“Helen Kate?” I ask.
Soon we’re at a counter, her flash drive plugged into my laptop, looking at myriads of scanned artwork. Horses, women, snakes, bears, and egrets fill the screen. I’m trying to figure out which pieces to share in the article and flip between them, indecisive.
“That’s a beautiful tattoo,” she says, noticing the large black print on my right arm.
“It’s a raven,” I tell her.
“The raven is my spirit animal,” she replies. “And the horse. And the bear.”
Helen Kate McAllister has shown her work at the Middletown Art Center. You can reach her via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article first appeared in The Bloom on March 7, 2019.