Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

When fashion wins over horses April 29, 2015

FOR AS LONG AS I CAN REMEMBER, my now nearly 83-year-old mom has been enthralled by the Kentucky Derby.

I purchased this stunning 24-inch x 18-inch paint-by-number painting for a song last fall at a Wisconsin second-hand/collectible/antique shop. The scene reminds me of the Kentucky Derby. Interestingly enough, on the official Derby website store, paint-by-number horse paintings are available for purchase.

I purchased this stunning unframed 24-inch x 18-inch paint-by-number painting for a song last fall at a Wisconsin second-hand/collectible/antique shop. The scene reminds me of the Kentucky Derby. Interestingly enough, on the official Derby website store, paint-by-number horse kits are available for purchase.

This week I asked her why, something I felt compelled to know because, well, time slips away and then we wish we’d asked these questions. So I phoned her at her assisted living apartment 120 miles away in southwestern Minnesota, catching her right before lunch.

“It’s because of the hats they wear, not because of the horses,” she replied. And here, all along, I thought her Derby interest was fixed on the horses.

She continued: “It’s unbelievable to me what kind of crazy hats they wear. They’re so big.”

The fancy hat I purchased months ago for a Kentucky Derby party.

The fancy hat I purchased months ago for a Kentucky Derby party.

In that moment I wished Mom could join my husband and me for the Big Hats & Big Hearts Annual Auction for the Arts and Kentucky Derby Party at the Paradise Center for the Arts in Faribault from 4 p.m. – 7 p.m. Saturday. That celebration includes viewing of the race, live and silent auctions, and Derby food and drinks.

Kentucky Derby hats

Kentucky Derby hats at The Crafty Maven, 212 Central Avenue, on display in early April.  Photo courtesy of The Crafty Maven.

A bonus is the current gallery exhibit, “A great place to hang your hat,” running through May 5 and sponsored by The Crafty Maven. That downtown Faribault shop offers an assortment of Derby hats and will even custom embellish hats for the big race day.

While I’m sitting in the Paradise theatre watching the Derby on the big screen, my mom will have her TV tuned to the festivities. She’ll review the list of contenders and choose a horse solely on liking its name. That’s precisely how I pick a horse. Neither of us cares about their rankings, only the names.

Names of past Derby winners are listed on a commemorative drinking glass gifted to me by my friend Beth Ann.

Names of past Derby winners are listed on a commemorative drinking glass gifted to me by my friend Beth Ann.

Of the 140 Kentucky Derby winners, I remember only one—that of triple crown and 1973 winner Secretariat. Aristides won the first race in 1875. Reviewing the list of horses for the 141st Derby run, Bold Conquest grabs my fancy.

My vintage paint-by-number horse painting up close.

My vintage paint-by-number horse painting up close.

I wonder which horse Mom will choose. She’s never been to Churchill Downs, but years ago attended several races at Minnesota’s Canterbury Park. The Shakopee horse race track is hosting a Kentucky Derby party on Saturday. Mom and her sister Rachel selected horses at Canterbury based on liking their names. Once, though, they picked a horse co-owned by the son of the veterinarian from my hometown.

My friend Beth Ann, who spoils me, gifted me with official Kentucky Derby mint julep glasses from 1986 and 1991.

My friend Beth Ann, who spoils me, gifted me with official Kentucky Derby mint julep glasses from 1986 and 1991.

I wish Mom could travel to Louisville, sit in the stands in a big fancy hat and sip mint juleps. She’s always wanted to attend the Derby. But at her age, she never will. Life is like a horse race. Sometimes we win. Sometimes we don’t.

© Copyright 2015 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

How I became an artist March 30, 2012

Filed under: Uncategorized — Audrey Kletscher Helbling @ 7:44 AM
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MY SKILLS AS A PAINTER are limited. I can paint a wall. I can dip a brush into a kid’s watercolor paint set and swirl colors onto a piece of paper. But I won’t promise a masterpiece.

Oh, no, if you want to see my best paintings, you will need to step back in time to more than 40 years ago. Imagine me hunched over an oilcloth-draped kitchen table in a southwestern Minnesota farmhouse dipping a thin brush into miniscule pots of paint. With great care, I brush shades of blue and brown onto cardboard as a ballerina emerges.

I have never seen a real ballerina. Her dainty features and fancy dress and perfect posture seem so foreign to me as I slump at the table in my rag-tag clothing that smells of the barn.

I imagine this ballerina smells only of flowers, like the ones I paint into the bouquet she clutches and into the wreath encircling her hair. Her bangs sweep in a fashionable style across her forehead, unlike my slanted, too-short bangs.

The paint-by-number ballerinas I painted as a young girl during the 1960s.

This ballerina’s life in New York City is so much different than mine on the farm. For the hours I am painting the flower-bearing ballerina and her sister, the twirling ballerina, I escape into their world. I dance on my tiptoes and spin and bow with grace on the stage of an opulent theater.

If not for Dan Robbins, though, I never would have experienced ballet. The Michigan artist created the first paint-by-number patterns in 1951. That led to a nation-wide obsession that allowed non-artists like me to become painters. The magazine American Profile featured Robbins in its March 25 issue. You can read the feature story by clicking here.

That story prompted me to remember the paint-by-number ballerinas I created as a child. Because my mother saves everything, I have those paintings today and they are among my most treasured childhood possessions.

TELL ME, HAVE YOU created paint-by-number paintings? Or do you collect these paintings? I would like to hear about your experiences and/or interest in paint-by-number kits.

You can learn more about the paint-by-number craze that swept the country during the 1950s by clicking here onto the Smithsonian National Museum of American History.

© Copyright 2012 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Oh, the horror of a paint-by-number painting July 29, 2010

Filed under: Uncategorized — Audrey Kletscher Helbling @ 2:01 PM
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SEE THESE EYES? My second daughter claims they creep her out, that the eyes resemble those of a deranged person in a horror movie.

The horrible, horrible eyes.

Then look at these eyes. Nothing wrong with these brown beauties, she says.

The brown beauties.

Perhaps the hair style, the cut of the bangs, lends to her uneasiness, her favoring one face over the other.

Or possibly she finds the presence of numbers, bleeding through the translucent skin, rather disturbing, adding to the macabre element.

I’m not going to admit to her, not even hint, that I understand her viewpoint. I can’t. I won’t.

These are, after all, my masterpieces. I tediously, laboriously, carefully, proudly painted these ballerinas as a child from a paint-by-number kit.

My ballerinas, painted number by number.

Up until recently, these portraits had been stashed in a chest of drawers. But one day I decided the time had come to unveil my artwork. So I propped the old new art upon a dining room shelf.

I didn’t expect the men in the house to notice the change. If they did, they never uttered a word, not one single comment about the big-eyed ballerinas.

But my daughter, my second-born, who possesses an artistic side and, like me, is always observant of her surroundings, noticed.

I wish she’d kept her horrible opinion about the horrible eyes to herself. Now I can’t shake the feeling that the blue-eyed ballerina, prior to becoming a paint-by-number model, may have starred in a horror film.

The beautiful brown-eyed ballerina.

The horrifying ballerina with the frightening eyes, the fixating gaze.

© Copyright 2010 Audrey Kletscher Helbling