Helis Podnek - an Estonian who has a cowgirl spirit
East European artist captures rural Canada life in her work
She has a wandering, searching, questing spirit.
She has travelled many roads, seen several continents and explored different cultures, her artistic sensibilities stirred by extremes of sorrow and beauty.
Yet there is one journey that stands out in Helis Podnek’s heart, one journey that led from the Estonian village of Veskitaguse to the prairies of Alberta, Canada.
It started as a dream, when she was a little girl surrounded by forests and meadows; she would think wistfully about the world of cowboys, ranches and rodeos, so distant from her life in Veskitaguse, where her mother was a teacher and her father an electrician.
Unlike her friends, she would love to watch Western movies, her imagination captured by Stetson-clad horsemen herding cattle, wielding lassoes and clip-clopping across dusty terrain.
Then three summers ago, Helis stepped forth from her long-held fantasy; she dug her heels into the very real soil of Mayerthorpe’s Golden Quarter Horses ranch and began the latest phase in a young life shaped by athletics, modelling and, most of all, art.
“Coming to Alberta has been the fulfillment of a dream,” she says with an eastern European lilt.
“It is what I have always wanted. I love Estonia and Estonia will always be my home. It is where my family is, but I have longed to be in the land of rodeos and to be among horses.”
In Mayerthorpe, she has discovered the environment to enjoy art and animals in a way she has never done before. Occasionally, she has married those passions, as with her series on Canada country life.
Recently she brought two of her horse paintings to Barrhead’s Right Angle Framing and Design. They are currently displayed at Elize Zuk’s gallery: one is done in oils, with pure silver and 23.5 carat gold leafs.
“I wanted to capture the sparkle I always see on horses here, the sparkle of buckles and reins,” she says. “Because it is real gold and real silver, it is quite expensive.”
The paintings have caught the eye of many Right Angle customers, an impressive feat given the store’s eclectic mix of art, fashion and glitz.
“They are amazed at the quality of the work,” says Elize. “I think they are incredible. Helis is a rare talent and we are so fortunate to have her in this area.”
Helis’s story starts in Soviet-controlled Estonia, a very different country from today. A rigid political system curbed freedom of movement and expression, limiting Estonians’ contact with the west.
In the late 1980s, Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev’s push for democratic reforms reignited Estonians’ call for self-determination. By 1988 they were singing banned national songs in a so-called “Singing Revolution,” and by Sept. 6, 1992 they had won independence.
In such a political climate, it seems little wonder the young Helis harboured a yearning and appreciation of freedom in all of its forms.
When she was a teenager the doors of the world were suddenly opened. Not by politics, but by modelling. Emerging from a store in Estonia’s capital, Tallinn, where she had been buying running sneakers, she was approached by a woman from a modelling agency.
The woman had seen potential in the blonde 15-year-old, whose tall, slim, athletic build and eastern European mystique seemed a perfect fit for modelling.
With her parents’ consent, Helis was whisked off to a glamorous world where she modelled clothes on the catwalk and graced the covers of magazines; she visited fashion centres all over the world, from France, Italy and England to Japan, Taiwan, Africa and America. Such a lifestyle would have made many a young girl envious. But for a country girl who loved the outdoors it never felt quite right.
When she had the chance to go to parties, she would prefer to go long-distance running. At that time athletics was much more than recreation; it was a passion she was pursuing with an “amazing” trainer. How far did she think she could go?
“As far as possible,” she smiles. “The fact is modelling was never really me. It just wasn’t a comfortable fit. I missed my country life.”
Then there was art. In fact, there had always been art. As far as she remembers, she has been drawing something, trying to depict on paper or canvas what she is living through or wanting to experience, recording her dreams and yearnings.
As the allure of modelling faded and running assumed less importance, she devoted more of her energy to art, exemplifying the work ethic that has been ingrained in her since childhood.
She went to Art School of Tallinn (1993-1997 – visual art), Gymnasium of Arts (1997-2000 – applied art), Estonian Academy of Arts (2001-2005 – product design) and Nordic Multimedia Academy (2010 – multimedia designer).
Talking about her work, she frequently uses words like “clean,” “white” and “bright.”
White surfaces and plain lines exercise an extraordinary power on her, she says, taking the unconscious mind to mystical places.
“Art is my god, it has been getting me through life since day one,” she says.
Helis would love to live in Canada a while, study at the University of Alberta and display her art at galleries in the area, including Edmonton.
She knows she faces considerable challenges in continuing her dream: the art market is tough, particularly for an Estonian so far from home. If anyone can help, she would love to hear from them.
“I need to continue to grow and learn,” she says.
Asked how long she wants to stay here, Helis pushes sideways and upwards, her hands pressing against invisible walls and ceilings.
When she feels a place closing in on her, when the air becomes hard to breathe, she knows it will be time to move on.
For now this Estonian country girl is thrilling to the vast open landscape of rural Alberta. It provides the spiritual and artistic freedom her heart so desires.
She does not seem to be in a hurry to go anywhere else soon.
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