Helen Brechlin: Alternative Narrative

The End

Recently, ALSO THAT regular Helen Brechlin made her grand return to the United States from a six week stint in Beijing, China serving as the Artist in Residence at the Inside-Out Art Museum. She was kind enough to answer some questions about her experience and share the work that she created there.

Follow Helen on Instagram here. 

Visit her website here.

Visit the museum's website here.

MT: How did you land this Artist in Residence Role in Beijing?

HB: At the end of my senior year at MassArt the chair of the Painting Department Chair had set up an amazing opportunity for the graduating seniors. All could apply by the a certain date and be considered to receive a one month residency at the Inside-Out Art Museum in Beijing, China! I quickly wrote my statement and sent along my additional images and resume. After some time I received the incredible news that I was the chosen student and I could choose a month between October and April to go on this fantastic journey.

 MT: Was the change in your surroundings reflected in your work?

HB: Absolutely! Residencies are great because they give an artist time to focus on their work without many worries beyond, “What am I going to paint today?” Part of this residency was having the city impact my work. There would be no point to being in such a unique city like Beijing if was making the same work I did back in Boston. This change manifested itself in an intense shift in my color palette. I typically used a very muted color palette, but in Beijing the color exploded. The concept of these paintings was centered on the idea of a nature in and surrounding the city reclaiming the land in a post-human world. These “Snap Shots,” as I’ve been calling them, are glimpses into this alternative narrative. Everything is slightly askew, the colors are acidic, nothing feels what we would describe as natural, which I wanted to reflect as the permanent impact of pollution in Beijing.

MT: Were there any challenges in bridging the communication barrier?

A New Beginning

HB: The short answer is yes. I was only able to pick-up on two words, hello, nĭ hăo, and thank you, xiè xiè. This made traveling beyond the confines of the museum a little difficult, but not impossible. Everyone at the museum was extremely welcoming, warm, and beyond helpful. Many of them spoke English, so I only had to worry when I went into the city. I had a very handy guide book written by the Lonely Planet (which I highly recommend!!) so I mostly stuck to restaurants and sites that were described in the book, and used the map that came with it. that map became a new fixture in my pocket. Beijing is a very safe city. I became versed in the universal sign language of the world. I could pull out my map point to landmark on it and even though we couldn’t understand each other the person I was asking for would gesture towards the general way I should be going. The biggest challenge was ordering food at restaurants not in the book. One specific time I went into a restaurant that had a large picture menu. It was the first time I had gone out completely alone in a place without an English menu and they were not used to seeing tourists. I pointed to something on the menu frazzled by the waiter standing over me waiting for me to order. When my food arrived it was a bowl
full of spicy peppers and scallions to increase the flavor with very little meat along with the
customary hot water to drink, and no rice. After a painful ten minutes, a very kind waitress came over with rice. She seemed to know that I didn’t know what I had ordered.

MT: Did you notice any cultural differences in how your work was regarded?

HB: I think the main difference was that everyone was positive? It’s hard to say. I couldn’t talk to everyone about my work, and I found most people to be polite. So, if they had something negative to say, or even constructive criticism, it was kept to themselves. This is also being compared to my previous experience inside a college studio class, where the point is to receive feedback to push further, while in Beijing I was mostly on my own.

MT: What was the biggest take-away from the entire experience? Would you do it all again somewhere else? If so, where and why?

HB: Besides thoroughly enjoying Beijing and the amazing cuisine and sites, my biggest take away was my individual growth throughout the experience. Knowing when to ask for help, and knowing that you can survive on your own in a city that you don’t speak the language or know much about in general was invaluable. I feel stronger than I was before the residency. I would absolutely go on another residency like this one. Traveling is a huge interest for me and ideally I would like to go everywhere, so this is a hard choice! My top two would be either France, a home of great painters, beautiful views and of course amazing art historical sites; or Japan, a bustling country that also has historically great painters, views and sites, plus I’ve always wanted to see the Golden Temple!

MT: Do you have any words of advice for aspiring artists?

HB: Try it all! I think I held back a little while I was in Beijing, and I wish I could change that. When I did step out of my comfort zone (which was a huge portion of the trip) it was extremely rewarding. I think this applies to even your hometown area. Try something and don’t let hesitation and fear get the best of you, it’s something we all fight with, so don’t think you’re alone.
Also, do a drawing a day.