In the mid-'70s, Dennis Helm lost his old car in a snowstorm. So he had to hitchhike out to the rural scenes in the Lawrence areas that he chose to paint.
The hitchhiking, and the painting, proved to be a profitable undertaking. The landscapes became exceedingly popular Helm now says they helped pay the bills as he struggled to find his style as an artist.
Twenty-five of those oils, as well as some still lifes of eggs, found their way into the hands of the city of Lawrence, which purchased the works on the recommendation of the Lawrence Arts Commission in 1979. Since then, they've been seen all over town but not together in one place.
But now, through mid-July, area residents are getting a chance to see the works brought together. They're part of an ongoing series of rural art shows at the Agricultural Center and Hall of Fame in Bonner Springs.
"ONE OF the things I like about the work is its unique subject matter," said Tom Alexios, the coordinator of art exhibits at the hall of fame. "It fits well with the shows at the Agricultural Center.''
Helm, a 1972 graduate of Kansas University, said he started the series of landscapes after studing with Robert Sudlow, a renowned landscape artist and professor emeritus of art at KU.
"I think I started landscape painting mainly under the influence of Mr. Sudlow," Helm said in a Tuesday interview at his Lawrence home. "We were always going together to paint the landscapes.
"I've enjoyed doing landscapes very much, and they were very salable. And I was enthralled with Mr. Sudlow. Landscapes were an idea I was very receptive to. There was all kinds of romance in it, I was ablsolutely into it.''
The variety and skill exhibited in Helm's work from the '70s made him a well-known figure in Lawrence arts circles. Many of the works, including one of South Park, take up on scenes familiar to people who, like Helm, have wandered the area. Among the more than 600 images he executed in 20 years of work, he also painted still-lifes of eggs, which also became one of his trademarks.
HELM SAID he looks back on this work with a fair amount of pride. He recently presented a slide show of his landscapes at a lecture at the Lawrence Arts Center, and he said the show was well-received.
"I think they were very beautiful paintings," he said. "I'm pleased with all of them. It's an important part of my work.''
The city's collection came to Alexios' attention through Ann Evans, the director of the Arts Center. He said he also worked with Mike Wildgen, the city manager, and other Lawrence officials to transport the works to Bonner Springs.
Alexios said he wants to promote and encourage area artists using the space at the hall of fame. Alexios said he also has been in contact with some embassies in Washington, D.C., to work on some international projects.
THE NEXT show will include glass sculptures by KU design professor Vernon Brejcha, whose works play off such rural Kansas images as stone posts and well ladles. Alexios said he hopes the changing art shows will help draw more people to the hall of fame.
"Each artist is so unique in talent that each show has its own distinctive style," Alexios said.
As for Helm, his work over the past 10 years has changed drastically from these landscapes. He showed some abstract work in 1988 that was influenced by the artist Albert Bloch if Sudlow was a father in his creative life, then Bloch was the grandfather. Helm said he painted a whole series of portraits of his friends and others on commission.
His most recent work includes several colorful paintings of male nudes and frequently positive, explosive abstract images, sometimes suggesting medieval etchings or stone figures.
ONE WORK, a 1989 oil painting called "December Sunrise with Pairs," features pairs of fruits and eggs, references to his previous still-lifes, and a pair of male nudes.
"I go through a lot of hand-wringing, but that part I leave out of the painting," Helm said. "Most of my work has always been very upbeat and sunny.''
He also suggested gathering Lawrence's artists together for a group portrait in 1989 outside the Arts Center. That project came off.
"I was into documentation at that time," Helm said. "I think that should be done every 10 years for all the arts. We should gather the writers and the musicians for a portrait as well."
Right now, Helm said, he's not represented by a gallery, and he has no firm plans to show his most recent material. He said he's probably best-known for his earlier work, but he also is seeking recognition for the later paintings.
"There are people who think of me only as the the decorator of the murals at Liberty Hall," Helm said. "Others think of me as a landscape artists, and others are interested in the still lifes or the portraits. And some people are enthusiastic about the new work. That's how it goes.''