Illinois artist draws inspiration from family farm
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Jeanne Helm recreates the cattle, forest and creek she loves in soothing shades of blues and greens. They personalize the home her great-grandfather built on the centennial farm along Kirby Road that is named for her ancestors.
The beauty of farming, conservation and history meld in her watercolor paintings and reflect the care Jeanne and her husband, Ron, give their “conservatory” farm near Oreana. In one of her paintings, Ron walks home from cutting out invasive honeysuckle to create a wooded pasture for their cows.
Although she’s a farmer, the Macon County Farm Bureau member views rural landscapes through an artist’s eyes.
“Trees in the forest are very different from the trees around the house. They (forest trees) all fit together like children in a row,” she says, using her hands to imitate compact, straight tree trunks.
Since retiring from teaching early childhood education at Richland Community College in 2020, Jeanne devotes more time to painting scenes of the farm and forest. Helm’s son, David, would like his mother to paint more dogs, she adds, looking over a watercolor of a family border collie in the snow.
Jeanne does take commissions to paint clients’ dogs and homes, but for her own enjoyment, she favors painting the family’s Hereford cows, streams meandering among stately trees, and an occasional antique auto as seen in sepia tinted family photos. Along with clearing invasive plants, Ron, a retired geography teacher, cares for a cow-calf herd of 17 Herefords, 13 Angus and an Angus bull and 196 acres, including 20 acres of pasture. Ron’s focus is protecting the farm’s natural resources by participating in water quality and conservation programs. Jeanne calls her studio the Conservatory Art Gallery — a play on words.
Water figures prominently in her art.
Jeanne prefers painting with watercolors and demonstrates how the paint can flow across the paper. “I can pick the painting up, and the color moves,” she says, slightly tipping a wet painting. She finds watercolors easier to use compared to oils and acrylics because watercolor paint doesn’t dry as quickly and can be reworked by adding more water.
But water — more specifically flowing water — also bedevils Jeanne.
“The rocks and the ripples, it’s hard to make it look natural. You have to let the paintbrush act like water when you paint. I’m almost there,” she says.
“My goal is to paint deer in the forest. I go online and look at deer (images) but they’re not the deer in our forest,” Jeanne says, adding that she isn’t quick enough to photograph deer moving through their trees. She prefers photographs as references for works of art.
Neither Jeanne nor Ron have entirely stopped teaching.
She tutors reading online to six children who live around the country. A couple of her students call Ron, “the farmer,” she adds. The couple even devoted one tutoring session to lessons about their Macon County farm for two urban-dwelling Michigan brothers.
Jeanne also shares her artist skills by providing art lessons for some church members and neighbors. “They’ve always got to come to Jeannie’s,” Ron adds.
One of her favorite subjects, the forest has transformed in the artist’s eyes and become a treasured family spot. Ron even built a picnic table from Osage orange that came from a hedgerow. “When we bought the forest land, she was mad,” Ron says, smiling as he looks over at his wife. “I thought it was a waste of money,” Jeanne adds and nods.
Pausing, Jeanne muses about what draws her back again and again to illustrate the creeks that flow through her paintings.
“There’s life there,” Ron says with a smile.
This story was distributed through a cooperative project between Illinois Farm Bureau and the Illinois Press Association. For more food and farming news, visit FarmWeekNow.com.