In Anna Helfand’s native region of Southern Poland, reverse painting on glass is a folk craft with roots going back to the 18th century.
In small villages in the countryside, homes were decorated with glass paintings resembling Russian or Greek religious icons interpreted in bright, cheerful colors. While the Hendersonville artist was formally trained as an artist at Krakow University, it’s the simple glass painting technique that speaks to her heart as an artist, and she’s recently introduced it to the local arts community.
In reverse glass painting, the artist paints on the back of the glass, reversing the image so it appears to have been painted directly on the front. This technique allows light to come through, enhancing the color. It’s a skill that in Poland is often passed down through generations, but that Helfand picked up on her own. She works instinctively, applying acrylics to the back of a piece of glass, checking the appearance on the front. She generally chooses traditional glass painting subjects such as the madonna and child or icons of saints. But she also paints what she calls “primitive style” scenes from folk life, such as the “sprinkling” custom that takes place throughout Poland during Easter celebrations (young people pour water on each other as a prank). The people in the scenes wear colorful peasant cloths, evoking a way of life in a part of the world few in Western North Carolina would know about.
Helfand moved from Poland to Chicago about 18 years ago and worked as a chef at Northwestern University for her “real job.” But she always kept up with creating art on the side, making paintings for friends and even creating hand-painted signs for a grocery store in Skokie, Illinois. With retirement and a move to Hendersonville three years ago, she was able once again to devote herself to art full-time and her creativity has flourished.
In addition to her reverse paintings on glass, she paints landscapes from photographs, primarily using her hands directly in the paint. “I love to feel the texture,” she says. She uses brushes only for fine details. Eschewing the bright colors that define her glass painting, her landscapes are more subdued, primarily reflecting scenes from the mountains. She is never without her camera—capturing details as small as a single leaf or as wide as the sky.
Since moving to Hendersonville, Helfand has also started to create more abstract paintings, experimenting with color and composition. “She has such a broad range,” says Valerie Wellbourn of Fountainhead Books in Hendersonville, where Helfand shows her work. Still, glass painting remains her first love.
“Every day I have new ideas,” says Helfand, clearly relishing the extra time for creativity that retirement affords. Along with her husband Joel, a musician, Helfand spends a good amount of time hiking and taking pictures to bring back to her home studio. She recently participated in an Arts Council of Henderson County show and will continue to show at Fountainhead bringing a whole new meaning to Southern folk art.