We live in a culture that values photography. And we particularly appreciate photos of the people we love.
This phenomenon is hardly anything new. From those cheesy Glamour Shots stores that permeated shopping malls in the 90s, to the more highly respected studios that capture milestones likes a baby’s first portrait or a student’s graduation, we like the idea of an image frozen in time. It’s tangible. It’s beautiful. It reminds us of what was.
Yet, like everything else in this day and age, technology has changed the game. Equipped with camera phones, everyone thinks they’re a photographer.
That is, until one encounters an internationally recognized, award-winning artist like Helen Yancy. Yancy doesn’t just “take pictures.” She specializes in transforming photography into painted works of art. Part talent, part skill, her work is totally original -- and the stuff masterpieces are made of.
Yancy opens up to Plymouth Patch about her craft and what inspires her to create.
Plymouth Patch: You appear to live the life that all aspiring artists dream of in that you make a living doing what you love. But I’m sure you’ve paid your dues…
Helen Yancy: Oh, yes. From the time I was a little kid, I wanted to be an artist -- I was drawing and painting like all little kids do. Then I went to Cass Tech High School, which was my education in art, because at that time it was the school for young people…you had to have a good average to get in, and you could major in art -- which I did. But then I got married fresh out of school, right past my eighteenth birthday, had babies right away, and worked at home. I was fortunate to work for photographic studios doing their oil paintings. I rocked the cradle with my foot while I painted at my easel. I did that for years. And then I decided I wanted to have my own name on my work. So I started being a photographer and painting on my own pictures. That was a dream come true for me -- even though I was starving…now, I teach what I do all over the world, actually, and I love what I do. I can’t tell you that I am rich, but I’m rich in the fact that I am so blessed because I get to work with people, I get to do what I want to do, and I get to make my dreams come true.
Plymouth Patch: There are so many ways to exercise artistic expression. How and when did you come to choose painting and photography?
Yancy: Accidentally. I was never going to be in the photography business. I was going to be Rembrandt or Michelangelo -- at the very least -- [that’s what I thought when] I was a youngster. Then I went to work and lied about my age -- went to work for the man who was to become my father-in-law. I would go to this little photographic studio, and I hand-colored pictures for that studio while I was going to high school…and I just never stopped. When I got married and had children, I could do that at home for a number of studios…I became a photographer -- a PPA [Professional Photographers of America] master photographer -- in a three-year period.
Plymouth Patch: How long has your business been in Plymouth Township? Are you also a resident?
Yancy: We moved to Plymouth Township six and a half years ago, and I cannot tell you how much I wished we had moved sooner. I love it here. The blessing is, I now have a complete studio in the downstairs of my house. We don’t call it a basement anymore.
Plymouth Patch: Your work looks truly lifelike. What in your life inspires you and, perhaps, influences your work?
Yancy: I love portraiture. I love faces. I think everybody is beautiful -- and I really do mean that because you look into their eyes, and you look into their soul. My work is not impressionistic, it’s very realistic. Remember: I start with a photograph, so my work is very photographic and very representational of who the person is. But I still want to bring out the best in that person, and I still want people to see those gorgeous eyes…I even feel that way about dogs. I did a horse the other day…and I had such a good time doing it. To be able to portray someone’s soul to some degree, at least a little bit, that’s what inspires me.
Plymouth Patch: I read that you recently visited Korea, a trip that was work related. Where else in the world has your art taken you?
Yancy: Gosh…I’ve taught a class in Italy -- well, four times in Italy, I’ve taught in Spain, England, Japan, Norway for two weeks…I’m blessed. Really blessed. Because of competing in PPA and having my work recognized, that is how I got the opportunities to teach. I’ve been teaching for PPA for at least 30 years.
Plymouth Patch: How did you study your craft? Are you self-taught?
Yancy: When I was a little girl, I was so fortunate because I'd go the DIA [Detroit Institute of Arts] every Saturday for three hours, absorbing what was there. And then when I got to high school, majoring in art gave me a good foundation. But from that moment on, you’re right, I am self taught. I taught Photoshop to myself because I had four babies and couldn’t go to school. I am largely self-taught. I owe -- big time -- to the association I belong to because Professional Photographers of America provides people like me the opportunity to teach people like me in a concentrated environment. I got my education from my peers.
Plymouth Patch: What is your advice to “starving artists” who think they’ll always be starving?
Yancy: Easy. Network, network, network. Get to know other artists. Join anything you can that will elevate you. Try really hard to be with people that are excelling, that are managing to get out there. Depression sets in real easily to an artist -- a writer, a musician, a painter. It’s real easy to get depressed, to feel like you’re never going to make it. Networking is so important…to be with other people who love what you love. Not necessarily to love what you do, but to love what you love. And you’re going to learn things about marketing and exposure.
Plymouth Patch: What is the absolute best thing about doing what you love?
Yancy: Oh, wow. The best thing? It fulfills a huge hole in me that isn’t there because of what I love. When I’m sad, I have a paintbrush in my hand. When I’m happy, the first place I go is to an easel or the computer (which is my easel now). When I’m excited, that’s where I go. When I’m reaching and searching, I pick up a camera. So, it fills an emptiness that would be there. I sounds like I put that before my family -- but I don’t. I can assure you. But when I’m feeling bad about something in my family, or feeling bad about something in life, if I pick up a camera, or I pick up a paintbrush, I feel better.
Helen Yancy Art & Photography
48769 Quail Run Dr South
Plymouth , MI 48170