Don Helley’s Abstract Notebooks


Typically I cover LA art, sometimes, I cover New York art. But while visiting my family in Madison, Wisconsin, over the holidays, I was reminded that art isn’t about glossy white gallery floors and pristine walls, expensive print postcards, and hype. Without these trappings, or even a pretense of pursuing “art stardom” (which, besides reminding me of a great song by the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, doesn’t mean much) people still make art, some of which has a refreshingly independent bent and unique, even noteworthy, charm.

One such artist is Don Helley, known to his friends as “Uncle Don” or even “Unka Dee.” Don is a baseball trivia expert, WORT community radio volunteer, and longtime political activist. His notebooks of black and white pen and ink drawings remind me of a Taoist, abstract map of the polyverse. Here follows five question and answers with an unassuming talent; who truly embodies the slogan, “art for art’s sake.”

don art

1. How long have you been doing these drawings?

A. I drew most of them from about 1990 to 1998. I still do one now and then, but not in a regular routine. It took me about two years before I was skilled enough to complete crisp drawings with some regularity.

2. Who or what inspires you as an artist?

A. Any art, any medium can inspire one to create. The pains, sorrows, joys and victories of life trigger the need to express oneself. When I was drawing most of these images the driving force was most likely whimsy mixed with caffeine. I generally do not have a preconceived idea in my mind. I usually play one of several games to generate some random lines on a page, then I embellish the lines I’ve made, at some time I may “find” some image in the randomness, and then try to bring out what I find. My last pass is fleshing out lines. This may “fail” (in my perception) at any time, causing me to abandon the page and move on. About one in four attempts makes it all the way through to completion.

3. How would you describe the “art scene” in Madison?

A. Most of the art scene is in the campus and or the isthmus. Madison is more of a place to develop your skills than a place to sell your finished art. Other than campus art shows and a few downtown galleries, an artist must work everything from the coffee houses to large outdoor art shows. We have a nice variety of talent for a medium sized Midwestern city.

4. What are the advantages for an artist, living in a smaller sized city instead of Chicago, New York, or LA?

A. I have no pressure on me here. If I feel like making a funny picture I can. It is in my case an avocation.

5. How do you decide a work is “finished”?

A. Well, this question is easy and odd at the same time. The way I draw means it’s finished when I fill up the page, but that is not exactly correct. Most of my drawings are done on a small blank book, so I’m limited by the size, sometimes it’s done when I have a time limit, or I get tired. Some drawings just look right! Sometimes a drawing will make me come back to it and finish it. One drawing was finished in about a minute, the most complex ones took about four hours. Clear as mud, right.

Bruce Edwin is editor of The Hollywood Sentinel and President of Starpower Management, the celebrity focused model and talent firm.

Contact Don Helley at and