Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Peter Helck: "... my interest in cars dates from childhood."

Over the years I've showcase the work of quite a few members of the Famous Artists School 'Founding Faculty.' Albert Dorne, Al Parker, Robert Fawcett, Austin Briggs, Jon Whitcomb, Fred Ludekens, Ben Stahl and of course Norman Rockwell have all had their turn on Today's Inspiration. I'm happy to at last present one more member of that most distinguished group; Peter Helck, in his own words, excerpted from various early '60s issues of FAS magazine... ~ Leif

(L-R: Norman Rockwell, Ben Stahl, Peter Helck. See the full photo of the the entire FAS founding faculty at the end of this post)

"It's one thing to have a hobby and another to blend it with one's career as an artist. I've been a successful 'pro' for many years, enjoying the tangible rewards measured in dollars, but the deepest satisfaction I know derives from pursuing an interest utterly detached from financial considerations."


"With me the blend was ever present because my interest in cars dates from childhood. I'm old enough to remember the automobile as a novelty, a rarity of sufficient interest to amaze and attract a swarm of youngsters whenever one came to a smoke-belching standstill on West 96th Street in New York City."


"My juvenile sketches soon embraced the smelly, noisy contraptions fouling up the horse-drawn traffic in Manhattan streets. My busy pencils and crayons were quickly devising means of evolving these high-decked, angular benzine buggies into wind-splitting chariots of alleged grace and beauty. "Styling" they call it these days. Such doodles appear even now, fifty years later, on my telephone pad."


"My art schooling was of the standard type - drawing from antique casts, the nude figure, etc. - all unrelated to my love of cars. In 1913 this fascination got a substantial lift. I won the poster contest for Brooklyn's annual auto show and a job with a small firm engaged in advertising and press agentry. Its clients in both categories were automotive. I became submerged in the delightful atmosphere of auto race promotions."


"Drawing cars was my daily stint, made even more pleasurable by the $20 per week salary and the frequent glimpses of famous figures from New York's "Automobile Row."


"From then to now I suppose eighty percent of my professional work has involved automotives. I've had years of national campaigns for Packard, Republic, Ford, Mack, Chevrolet, and other highway haulers. I paid my way for study periods abroad with work for British, French, German and Spanish auto firms."


"But the occasions for picturing what the enthusiasts love to call "The Heroic age" or "The Golden age" of automobiling diminished with Detroit's policy of change or face-lifting with every fleeting year. This was sad stuff for an artist so irrevocably addicted to the early romantic periods of motoring. By 1926 I had already signified my interest in old cars and my hobby potential by acquiring a few elderly specimens like Mercedes, Renault and Locomobile."


"About twenty years ago, some other old-car "fanatics" like me congealed their interests and formed two or three major clubs. Soon each organization had its own magazine. These quarterlies grew from grubby little pamphlets to journals of considerable consequence. Well, if my advertising and publishing clients yielded such infrequent opportunities for self-gratification in my old-car hobby, these club journals were the answer."


"From the time these old-car magazines started, I contributed drawings or department features and illustrations for articles by members about the romantic and competitive aspects of early day motoring."


"There seemed a delightful justice and equity in accepting flattering fees for highly professional but not too interesting assignments..."


"... and then partly consuming such profits by working unregimented and undirected along channels close to my heart - and all "for free." Obviously the "pay work" had to come first and the ever-present deadlines met. But I planned it so my amateur chores could be fitted in too."


"What does my experience in combining my art and my hobby prove? To me it shows that the artist or art student who indulges his creative efforts whole-heartedly - give them the feverish application common to the hobbyist - attains happiness."


Continued tomorrow

* Two notable events related to the Famous Artists School occurred recently:

The Norman Rockwell Museum recently acquired the art and archives from the Famous Artists School in Westport, Connecticut, nearly doubling the Museum's collections. This major gift comprises more than 5,000 un-catalogued artworks, including several original works created by Norman Rockwell! You can learn more here...

Famous Artists School Group_5_6

Secondly, the current incarnation of the Famous Artists School is re-offering the original Famous Cartoonists Course online! FAS president Magdalen Livesey wrote to tell me, "we have reissued Book 1 of the FAS Cartooning Course. At this point, it’s only available online, not in printed version, but we are offering Assignments and Critiques as well as the book alone." Learn more here...


  1. Great post, Leif! Timothy Helck, his grandson, maintains a website about Peter Helck's work and life: http://www.peterhelck.com/memoirs.php
    I've linked to the page with his memoirs. It stops abruptly halfway, and Timothy wondered if someone out there would be willing to continue with the transcription, perhaps someone with an optical character reader.

    1. Thanks for that link, James. While researching online the other day I also discovered a Peter Helck Facebook Page at https://www.facebook.com/pages/Peter-Helck-Fan-Page/185257834866125

  2. I grew up feasting my eyes on Helck's work in so many old car mags, and articles about his car collection, he was very influential on my view of the car world, which am I still quite avid about today. One interesting bit of synchronicity for me was the first time I saw "Chitty Chitty Bang Bang!" in a theater - the very start of the film is of course Chitty's racing past, and extremely well staged, the best re-creation on film of that particular era of racing cars. Even as young as I was, my first thought was "Hey, this looks like those drawings in the car magazines" - Peter Helck's, and I don't think it was a coincidence, he was hugely influential on that subject.

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