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 Rudy Helmo  (1908 - 1986)

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Lived/Active: New York / Germany      Known for: Still life, town-and seascape painting, art education

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Rudy Helmo
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This biography from the Archives of AskART:
Rudy Helmo (1908-1986)

A noted painter and art teacher of upstate New York, he was born on April 15, 1908, the 10th and last child of Ludwig and Rosa, in Thurmansbang, Bavaria, Germany.

He was a sickly child and not expected to live long, and was indulged by his mother and sisters.  This start in life perhaps freed him from his older brothers’ expectations to join the family trucking business.  Ludwig was described as wise and well-read, and young Rudy was intrigued by the famous illustrators whose works appeared in weekly magazines such as Simplicissimus that arrived at the house.

Rudy started painting as a teenager.  After graduating from secondary school, he apprenticed with a haberdasher in Passau as a display and window dresser.  In post-World War I Germany, many young people were leaving for a better life in the U.S., and Rudy joined his older brothers in New York City in 1929.  He found a niche in the restaurant business, working as a dishwasher and floor mopper, busboy and, finally, a waiter in fine establishments.  The skills he learned at work, including fluency in English and communicating with many people, served him well throughout his life.  

In Passau, he'd met a teenager named Hanna Rossgotterer, who left for the states before he did and worked in Galveston, Texas.  He wrote her many impassioned letters and persuaded her to join him in New York City.  They married in 1931.

Rudy remained dedicated to painting and, while still working long shifts in restaurants, studied for four years at the Art Students League of New York.  There, he studied under noted teacher/artists Robert Brackman and George Bridgeman.

Exhausted by the pace of life in the city, the couple  moved upstate to slower-paced Troy in 1944 and had a daughter, Joan.  Rudy would paint in a third floor garret above their apartment or outdoors during the day and work at restaurants in the evening.  After a few years, he was accomplished enough to exhibit, win prizes and publicity, and start teaching classes in painting.

In 1950, the couple bought a farmhouse outside Troy, near Melrose, and Rudy turned a wing into a studio.  There was finally ample room to paint, hold classes and exhibit, as well as garden, cook and entertain, raise a family, keep farm animals, and enjoy the scenic countryside, which was similar to his native Bavarian woods.

Rudy taught, painted, exhibited, and sold art from 1950 through 1970.  He showed widely, enjoyed regional acclaim, and influenced generations of students with his down-to-earth style of teaching.  He claimed he could teach anyone to draw and paint in oil and had many devoted students.

During these years, he offered a full week of morning and evening classes at various schools, clubs, museums, the Albany Institute of History and Art (a rewarding decades-long affiliation), art associations, YWCA's, the State University of New York at Albany (where he had gained a faculty appointment), and at his farmhouse studio.  If needed, he would still occasionally take on some restaurant shifts.

His weekly jaunts to teach in Albany, Troy, Hoosick Falls, Schaghticoke, Schenectady, and elsewhere added many miles to the family station wagon, which was filled with canvases, art supplies for his students, and studio lights.

Rudy exhibited in Utica, NY at the Munson-Williams-Proctor Institute, the Berkshire Museum (Pittsfield, MA), and the Southern Vermont Art Center in Manchester), among many other venues.

His painting style was academic but appealing and accessible; reviewers compared his color and brushwork to Cezanne and the Impressionists.  Famously outgoing, he held entertaining demonstrations at art gatherings in which he would complete an oil still life painting in under an hour with instructional and witty commentary, and, amid applause, auction off the still-wet canvas.

Rudy had returned to visit family in Germany for many summers and decided to retire there.  In 1970, he and Hanna sold the farm and moved to his hometown in Bavaria. Settling in, they discovered things were not what they expected, and as aliens -- they were now U.S. citizens -- more complicated than they had anticipated.  Rudy continued to paint and exhibit, though, and his work was well received there.  

Rudy began to return for several-month visits to the U.S. to teach short courses.  Missing their friends and life in the U.S., they relocated to Albany in 1975.  Rudy once again taught and painted but it wasn't the same -- the local economy was now depressed, sales were down, the momentum of Rudy's career had been interrupted, and by 1980 his health was failing.

His paintings were still strong and confident, however.  His cityscapes of older neighborhoods in Albany were both immediate and timeless.  He painted the seaside in Cape Ann and Cape Cod, Massachusetts. His flower paintings -- often wildflowers Rudy picked, arranged casually and painted before they faded -- capture the fleeting summer days.

Rudy Helmo died on July 1, 1986, while living in Watervliet, New York.  He had suffered from Alzheimer's disease and Hanna had cared for him at home.  She passed away on August 15, 2002.

Rudy's work was exhibited posthumously in 1993 at a group exhibit at Russell Sage College in Troy called "Forty Years Later" including other noted Upper Hudson artists who were his contemporaries and colleagues.   Articles from the Albany Times-Union and Troy Record from the 1950s and ‘60s depict a flowering of cultural awareness and art appreciation during that time in the Upper Hudson region, and his contributions to that era.  In 1986, "The Faces of the City: Albany Portraits from Three Centuries," a show at the University Art Gallery, Albany, included one of his portraits.

Among Rudy's prizes: a purchase prize by the 25th Regional Exhibition by Artists of the Upper Hudson, 1960; first prize in academic oil painting, Albany Artists Group, 1961; purchase prize of the Art Festival, Utica; Honorable Mention, Cooperstown Art Association; first and second prizes, Empire Market Show; Bruce W. Sanborn Award for Portraiture, the Berkshire Museum, Pittsfield, Mass.; and first prize, Art Fair of 1957, Albany, N.Y.

He was a life member of the Art Students League.  He had 30 one-man shows and was included in many group shows in New York City, California, Florida, Connecticut, Massachusetts and Vermont.  His work is in many private collections.

Information provided by Joan Bondy, the artist's daughter.

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