Entering into AshaAung Helmstetter’s basement apartment, a person’s focus will catch on hanging portraits of people painted with thick brushstrokes and layers of vibrant colors of reds, blues, yellows and greens.
Helmstetter, a Seattle contemporary portrait painter, has forged her signature style by using acrylic oil paints and heavy textures. Helmstetter’s paintings are unique because she incorporates the realistic features of her subjects and contrasts them with abstract painting methods, blending the two techniques.
When the COVID-19 pandemic ushered people indoors, Helmstetter lost not only her social connections, but the subjects who would sit for her to make artwork. Like many people during the pandemic, Helmstetter has had to adapt and find new ways to continue her work, so instead of painting present, animate objects, Helmstetter has shifted to bringing old photos to life.
“I paint mostly from photographs now,” Helmstetter said. “My home used to be open so often to so many people coming over. Someone would come over for the evening and just sit down in front of me and I would paint for a little while. ... It was so much easier to have different faces around me all the time.”
Helmstetter likes to paint people because of the curves of their bodies or all the crevices and shapes that make up a face. When a person sits in front of Helmstetter, she sees the changing colors from light casting over a nose or the many different shades of color on a person’s lips, while in contrast, photographs are flat and static.
Helmstetter lives in central Seattle’s Judkins Park neighborhood. On her walls one can see paintings of a neighbor, a dear friend and a local musician. “The better I know someone,” she said, “the better the portrait is because I focus more on the energy of a person and the aura of a person and what kind of colors you can pull out that aren’t really there in our reality.”
Helmstetter said she paints portraits mostly of Brown and Black women in her community and people she feels she can relate with. Helmstetter is mixed race with Burmese roots on her mother’s side and Black and white heritage on her father’s side. This heritage is illustrated in her name. “They wanted a name that connected Africa and Asia, so they chose ‘Asha’ because it’s both a Sanskrit and a Swahili name,” Helmstetter said.
Helmstetter explained it’s been an adjustment switching to photographs, and she’s noticed her paintings have steadily become more and more abstract.
“It’s a skill, and it’s hard to hold onto when you are only working from photographs. It’s a different kind of painting,” Helmstetter said. “I’m almost embarrassed about how my art has changed because I’m like, am I seeing things differently because everything is a picture now?”
Moving in a new direction
Because of the pandemic, Helmstetter pivoted to using archived photographs as her subjects. This culminated in her establishing a new project in February 2021: She took on painting historical black-and-white portraits of Black Americans and adding color to them. Helmstetter explained she wants the series to focus on shedding light on underrepresented people in U.S. history and, for her, the project is about feeling connected to the past.
“This project is a really big deal to me because I’m angry at the educational system and not ever learning as much about Black history as we needed to in school,” Helmstetter said.
The first photo she chose for her new series is of an unidentified washerwoman working for the Union Army in 1865 in Richmond, Virginia. Helmstetter’s representation enlivens an American flag pinned to the woman’s dress, painting the dress a bright pink, and sharpens her eyes that stare directly at viewers.
Helmstetter picked pink for the dress because she wanted a color that was a bit frivolous. “She wasn’t showing off in that portrait, but she did look really regal, and I’d like to think that when she went to get her portrait taken that day, she put on her best dress and the color of a dress
that was harder to get and harder for someone who may just have a job as a washerwoman especially as a black woman in the 1800s,” Helmstetter said. “A pink dress is a real statement.”
Helmstetter explained that a lot of the photographs she’s been looking at have lacked background information.
“Who are the people who held this country on their backs and brought us to where we are now? And who are these people who are my ancestors and who can bring me closer to my Black side and my Black community,” Helmstetter said. “As a mixed person, it’s always crazy I have to find so many ways to try and feel connected within communities that I’m supposed to be a part of.”
These are the questions that have lately been running through Helmstetter’s mind. She’s unsure where this project will take her or how drastically it will influence her painting style, but she’s excited to branch off in a new direction early in her career as an artist. Perhaps her modern twist/redesign to these images of long ago will shed more light on the intricate role people of color played in everyday American life and generate new interest in the people of today.
Samira George covers real people living real lives in the Puget Sound. Follow her on Twitter @samirakgeorge.
Read more of the June 30 - July 6, 2021 issue.