Other Names: Fern Miriam Helfand
– Fern Helfand (www.fernhelfand.com)
Fern Helfand developed an early enthusiasm for art. During elementary school she was enrolled at the Children’s Art Centre of the then Art Gallery of Toronto (now the Art Gallery of Ontario). Along with weekly art lessons, there were regular visits to the art gallery and occasional exhibition grand openings. Helfand’s passion for art evolved. In junior high school she won an art award which provided her the opportunity to attend Saturday classes offered by the Ontario College of Art in Toronto, Ontario. Helfand’s high school art teacher Joseph Calleja, was a practicing, contemporary artist. Through him she was introduced to non-traditional ways of approaching art making and the commercial gallery scene in Toronto during the late 1960s.
Helfand graduated from York University in Toronto in 1974 with a BA (Hons.) in Studio Art. During her third year of study, she discovered an affinity for photography, the medium for which she would become best known. In 1980 she received her MFA in Photography from the University of Florida in Gainesville, where she studied with the well-known photomontage artist Jerry Uelsmann. She began her academic career (1981-1982) as a sessional instructor at York University and then moved to London, Ontario in 1982 to take up a full-time position teaching Photography at Western University until 1989.
A large portion of Helfand’s work in the 1980s dealt with issues surrounding the sociology and semiotics of tourism and photography, especially in East Asia. An exciting opportunity presented itself and she accepted a 3-year position at Bali Seni Lukas (Art Centre) at the Universiti Sains Malaysia, in Penang, Malaysia where she taught Photography from 1989 until 1992. After traveling and photographing around Southeast Asia for almost a year, she returned to Canada late in 1993. The following summer, she took advantage of the intensive computer courses for professionals in the arts being offered at Sheridan College in Oakville, Ontario, where she learned Adobe Photoshop and other computer graphic programs. She lived in London, Ontario until 1998, during which time she pursued her art making and taught sessionally at the Ontario College of Art and Design in Toronto (now OCAD University) and at the University of Windsor in Windsor, Ontario. Helfand also used her newly acquired computer skills as a freelance graphic designer and illustrator.
Helfand’s early work used cutting and pasting to create photo collages and maquettes (models) for her large, photosensitized, textile wall pieces. Finding great enjoyment in the process of cutting and pasting, she pushed this technique further by combining her collaged black and white photographs with graphite drawing. Her large-scale works (up to 40-feet wide) – collages of visitors at famous locations such as the Great Wall of China and Niagara Falls – examine themes of tourism, consumption, and perception. Helfand also challenges the viewer to evaluate the accuracy of moments depicted in photographs, their reflection of real-life experiences and the place and impact of the tourist as other.
After being introduced to digital imaging in 1994, it was not long before Helfand’s physical cut and paste methods naturally transferred into Adobe Photoshop, which in turn opened up many new possibilities for combining imagery. Helfand’s work with tourism and fabricated experiences led to her interest in the fabricated environment. Helfand’s work then began to invite the viewer to consider how we and the natural environment are impacted by the way in which we build and live in “fabricated spaces.”
In 2002, four years after moving from London, Ontario to the Okanagan Valley of British Columbia, Helfand came across a sign in a small clearing in the woods not far from her home. She began documenting the area as the forest was cleared, the land terraced, new roads and sidewalks were put in place, and then homes constructed. The result was her 2002-2008 photographic series From Forested Hills to Paved Plateaus, which was followed by a companion photo-essay of the same name which appeared in BC Studies (Winter 2010/2011).
Helfand’s work has also addressed the connection between photography and taxidermy, as well as that between taxidermy and how it depicts “nature” to its viewers. In her exhibition About Looking (Vernon Public Art Gallery, Vernon, British Columbia, 2011), inspired by John Berger’s book of the same name, her intent was to draw attention to the gaze; the gaze of the human, the gaze through the scope of a rifle, the gaze through the viewfinder of a camera, the gaze back of the animal and the power that it can hold or bestow. Helfand created animal portraits with haunting eyes and montages of taxidermy animals in fabricated museum dioramas. The exhibition also explored ethical issues surrounding taxidermy in the museum collections themselves, specifically the ways in which examples are collected and exhibited.
Today, Helfand continues to work with themes relating to the forest industry’s impact on the environment, the economics of the British Columbia Interior, and the global demand for lumber. Recent highlights include a large photo construction entitled Okanagan Log Pile which was installed at the Kelowna, British Columbia International Airport in 2018-2019, and a solo exhibition at Gallery 2 in Grand Forks, British Columbia entitled Timber, Lumber, Wood, Home in 2021. The exhibition and installation Timber, Lumber, Wood, Home, like most of her work on this theme, is meant to remind us of our contradictory relationship with the natural environment and a resource economy that allows us the means to enjoy it.
In 2020 she once again became involved with the London, Ontario art community as a
participant in the online revival of the Embassy Cultural House, led by Jamelie Hassan,
Ron Benner, and Tariq Gordon.
Helfand taught at Okanagan University College (OUC), Kelowna, British Columbia from 1998 to 2005. She became an Associate Professor when OUC evolved into the University of British Columbia in 2005. She continued teaching photography, design, and digital imaging in the Faculty of Creative and Critical Studies at UBC until her retirement in 2018.
Biography by Fern Helfand, Fiona Walley, and Luvneet K. Rana
“Artist shows a different side to nature with her photos.” The Vernon Morning Star,
October 19, 2011. https://www.vernonmorningstar.com/life/artist-shows-a-different-side-to-nature-with-her-photos/.
Belton, Robert J. “Helfand, Fern Miriam.” In Heller, Jules and Nancy G. Heller.
North American Women Artists of the Twentieth Century: A Biographical Dictionary.
New York: Garland, 1995.
Helfand, Fern. About Looking, Catalogue Essay. fernhelfand.com.
http://www.fernhelfand.com/about-looking.html. Originally published in
Culen, Lubos, ed. About Looking. Vernon Public Art Gallery, 2011. Exhibition catalogue.
Helfand, Fern. “From Forested Hills to Paved Plateaus: A Photo Essay,” BC Studies 168 (Winter 2010/2011). https://doi.org/10.14288/bcs.v0i168.1883.
Macfarlane, Leigh. “UBC: Research and Teaching, Featured Faculty: Fern Helfand,” UBC Featured Faculty, https://fccs.ok.ubc.ca/research/faculty/featured-faculty/fhelfand-2010.html.
Archived from the original on February 1, 2018.
Helfand, Fern and Julie Oakes. Head On: Fern Helfand – Headbones Drawers Gallery: Contemporary Drawing, Sculpture, and Works on Paper. Vernon, British Columbia: Rich Fog Micro Publishing, 2012. Artist catalogue for exhibition “Subtle Slurs.” http://www.headbonesgallery.com/Subtle_Slurs/Fern-Helfand-Head-On-Catalogue.pdf.
Helfand’s research and photo-based art production have always been influenced by the environments and cultures in which she has lived, worked and traveled. Her artwork has explored issues addressing cultural observation and commentary, tourism, environmental concerns, racism and the medium of photography itself. During a career that has spanned over 30 years, the camera and the photographic image have continually morphed changing in design, format, impact and influence. These attributes are often reflected in her work and continue to inspire new directions.
Artist’s Statement Courtesy of Fern Helfand
Fern Helfand, “Timber, Lumber, Wood, Home”
Gallery 2 – Grand Forks Art Gallery
May 8 to August 7, 2021
Virtual Exhibit Walking Tour
Video: Gallery 2 – Grand Forks Art Gallery
See also: Jamelie Hassan
CV Courtesy of Fern Helfand
Biography Profile Photo: Joanne Gervais
“Josh Palmer and Kevin Friesen students participating in a class critique with instructor Fern Helfand, at the University of British Columbia Okanagan, November 2017”
Josh Palmer (left); Kevin Friesen (centre); Fern Helfand (right)
Courtesy of Fern Helfand
Click here for information about works by Fern Helfand
in McIntosh Gallery’s collection.