Helen Frederick is in her Reading Road studio describing to me an exhibition project, the latest in an extensive series spanning her significant career. She is just as excitedly relating a purge of past documents of her history, everything but family memories, which have become emphatic in her life and her art. She feels that she is at the point where it is no longer necessary to describe the titles she has held. “I’m not a printmaker, I’m not a graduate of RISD, I’m not a founder of Pyramid, I’m not a professor at GMU, I’m this individual, heartfully trying to give exposure to concerns...”1
Recently asked to curate the 2021 forty-year show for Pyramid Atlantic Art Center in Hyattsville, Maryland, Helen is struck by the time elapsed since she founded Pyramid Prints and Paperworks—its original name—in Baltimore, and amazed where the organization is now. Of her own longtime practice Helen recounts, “I started as a four-year-old, knowing I was going to be an artist...I saw my grandfather growing all these crops, and I realized the idea that plants were very important in life.”
Helen attended the Rhode Island School of Design at a time when David Bowie, and particularly painters, were there; it was an era of parties but Helen chose to remain very focused on her studies. On scholarship with three jobs, Helen was a diligent student; she warily observed that many students were being dropped from school. She made it through, though not as a painter, the overarching expectation of the time. She found a place making prints. “I like to struggle, I like to anticipate that things could go wrong...and RISD really taught me that,” she offers. Helen’s history from this point is studded with examples of her independent thought. She notes that “if I’d fallen inside the box of being a painter at RISD, none of [the creative life in prints and paper] would have happened.” Dissatisfied with printmaking papers, she recalls “I didn’t know what to do about it, and I didn’t learn the answer in art school. I learned that by traveling to India, and seeing paper made in Ahmedabad where Robert Rauschenberg had worked.”
Following school, Helen went to La Garrigue, France, and through her teacher, Dadi Wirz, set up a simple summer printmaking workshop experience, getting presses from Paris. There Wirz took her to meet Stanley William Hayter and to see Atelier 17.
Helen was hired in 1971 to teach as head of the print department at Hartwick College in Oneonta, New York. Teaching there until 1974, Helen left Hartwick temporarily when she received a Fulbright and American-Scadinavian Foundation award to go to Norway. In 1979 she continued on to India. There, some kids took her to the papermill at Ahmedabad, one of the oldest paper mills in the world, where she observed firsthand the remarkable Indian traditions of moulds and fibers used in papermaking. On her return to Hartwick in 1980, Helen received a three-hour lecture on papermaking by Frank Eckmair and Peter Sowiski. She realized then the importance of having the knowledge they provided before she actually began making paper.
In 1981, Helen moved to Baltimore and founded Pyramid Prints and Paperworks. Hitting the ground running at Pyramid, Helen adopted the model of lecture/workshop collaborations, as she states, “absorbing knowledge from other people who knew more than me.” There she met Jane Farmer, who included Helen’s early paper pieces in the “New American Paperworks” exhibition in 1982; other exhibiting artists included Robert Rauschenberg and Shoichi Ida. Joe Wilfer came to Pyramid from New York, helped her adjust a platen papermaking press, and showed her his Chuck Close pulp paintings. Tim Barrett came to lecture. Helen advertised in the newspaper, and artists responded; they came to listen to a lecture and take a beginner’s class, then intermediate-level workshops, with her.
People were willing to meet her because, she notes, “It was a new phenomenon...an atelier for paper, print, book?” She had started Pyramid at age 32; and four years later, at age 36, she was meeting with the Baltimore Museum of Art director Arnold Lehman, Maryland Institute College of Art president Fred Lazarus, and the Walters Art Gallery director Robert Bergman—who were also 36 at the time—each giving her suggestions about how to successfully integrate Pyramid into the Baltimore community.
At each of Pyramid’s successive locations from Baltimore to Takoma Park, Riverdale, and Silver Spring, Maryland; and throughout the tenure of its resident papermakers—Mary Ashton, Shannon Brock, Tracy Krumm, and Gretchen Schermerhorn—artists came to Pyramid to create a body of work in residency with collaborative papermakers. Ken Polinskie from New York came to lecture, then suggested that he and Helen do an edition together. Other notables: Dean Dass from Philadelphia, Jiro Okura from Japan. Rick Hungerford came from Iowa and returned with Ke Francis from Mississippi, who did a pulp painting/woodcut. Helen recalls, “Two masters came back and worked with me, and it got richer and richer, it triangulated.” Pyramid invited master printers Nick Karvounis, Oscar Ceron, Ed Bernstein, and Julia Kjelgaard. Tim Rollins and KOS completed a year-long residency to produce The Creation (2004).
Helen maintains “I’ve never considered myself a traditional printmaker, since I don’t make editions...I’m an anomaly that doesn’t fit in any particular place, except I just love making paper...carrying the heavy buckets...and then staying 12 hours on my feet, until I’m worn out...and saying ‘I hope it dries right.’ And if it doesn’t, I have to accept it. And that kind of relationship with my skin and my body and the material, all of that has been implicit ever since I made my first prints and paperworks.”
In her work Helen looks for a place not of comfort but of tension. She points to “the struggle that is part of our daily life, part of our history.” Recurring concepts are cultural references, reverence for space, the community that can be served, and the audience. Baltimore and Washington, DC, as well as India, have what Helen refers to as “the grit...the underbelly...I never want to be too comfortable, or I can’t do the work.” She comments on the influence of Sowiski’s airplanes in his pulp paintings, “We’re both not overtly political, but we have this angst.” She notes that she was born a month before the atomic bombing of Japan, citing it as the symbol of her life. An early pulp painting about the environment that she made with Rick Hungerford demonstrates the same concerns, genuine and deep, throughout her career. In 1995 she interviewed her parents’ generation and did a solo show at McLean Project for the Arts called “Appearance/Disappearance,” regarding the change of the ecology at that time. It included a grid of 50 prints made over 3 months.
Helen recalls, “In Greece, I experimented with indigo printing to produce an artist book, The View is Daunting (2000). How the hand functions with useful production tools fascinates me...The [hand-held] mezzotint tool has taken us into such dimensions of concentration…and now there are some printmakers trying to make a thumb drive that will print...another algorithm for production.” In 2018 in a residency at Hilo University in Hawaii, Helen brought pulp paintings that she made at Reading Road Studio, on which she printed Sintra plates. It was the university’s first time with such a project, and speaks to Helen’s ease at being public in this way, accustomed to people coming through while she works.
Of her new Reading Road Studio, which she established in 2017, Helen states, “My studio is a temple, I treat everything in my studio reverently, including the people who come in, the collaborators who help me, I want them to feel not that it’s a sacred space but that it’s a disciplined space, and it has a buildup of understanding and knowledge, and a kind of reverie.” Helen received a gift of studio equipment from Cynthia Alderdice. Open houses followed, announcing the new studio. Polinskie returned a platen press that Helen gave him 30 years ago. She has a big deckle box made by a grad student from her tenure at George Mason University in Virginia. The idyllic studio is an exquisite, indoor and outdoor construction. She recently organized a workshop on Indian Kholam chalk drawing with Shanti Chandra-Sekar; she is careful to complement, not compete with the offerings of Pyramid Atlantic. She has begun having artists come to work with her, among them Preston Sampson, and someday she would like to mount an exhibition of all the artists who have come through her studio as a way to document the consecutive history of Washington, DC–area artists.
She bemoans the state of museums overlooking extraordinary, unknown artists who create great force with their work; she wonders how she can be an advocate for artists she believes in. This manifestation of her empathetic thought guiding her artistic decisions keeps Helen feeling further resistant to categorization. She was a juror for the 30th Pacific States Biennial North American Print Exhibition, a role she enjoyed immensely. And as curator of the Kala Chaupal Trust in New Delhi, India, she will be selecting work for display in the Kochi Biennale in India this December. In all of her projects—as a collaborator, educator, artist advocate, and visionary—she works very hard, and puts an equal effort into her own studio work.
And so we find ourselves at Reading Road Studio, talking about PARADOX, her upcoming collaborative installation—with artists Michael Pestel and Yuriko Yamaguchi—about the contradictory, interrelated elements existing simultaneously and persisting. Helen’s part of the exhibition at American University Museum in Washington, DC contains a tower of images, a “witness wall” with over 420 scored drawings and lithographs portraying altered faces, flooded with water. Responses from the accompanying “Milestones for Hope” questionnaire about environmental and social change are printed onto large papers. Helen’s works interact with installations by Pestel and Yamaguchi which address—in sculpture, sound, vocal narrative, performance, and video—the uncertainties of the Anthropocene period from personal perspectives; creating paradoxical statements responding to each other in symmetry of space.2
Here in her studio, Helen is explaining with expressive joy the intricacies of this collaborative, interdependent, mixed-media, educational undertaking to confront critical issues while integrating everyone she can in the process. This is what we might continue to expect from an indefinable, empathetic human and extraordinary artist, a crusader for all our futures.
1. Lynn Sures interviewed Helen Frederick on October 4, 2019 at Frederick’s Reading Road studio (www.readingroadstudio.com). All quotations of Helen Frederick in this article are taken from the interview, as well as email correspondence and an undated phone call during the period of October 2019 through August 2020.
2. The exhibition PARADOX, scheduled for Fall 2020, has been cancelled due to Covid-19. American University will make virtual material of the exhibition available online.