A Look Inside of a Sculptor’s Studio

One day, Mike Helbing had an epiphany when he was a soldier in the Vietnam war. “It came to me that all war was about was destroying things and I wanted to create things. I was sitting under a gum tree and I gathered up some of the sap that was on the ground around me and made a ball out of it.”

‘War is like a crucible,’ says Helbing in the bio on his website, ‘where elements of life are placed together and heated to incredible mental temperatures and the very assumptions and basis of existence are challenged, changed, rearranged and reconstructed. Life’s realities are changed forever and have to be rebuilt.’

When Helbing returned to the “world,” he spent the next three years studying art at Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana. Later, he attended Northern Illinois University and in 1991 earned a MFA in sculpture.’

Today Mike Helbing is one of Chicago’s most well-known sculptors. He is also a member artist and chairman of the board of the National Veterans Art Museum.

Recently, I visited Helbing at his studio to see what it looked like. I’ve never been to an artist’s workplace before. Helbing’s studio is in the basement of an Industrial use building on the Near West side. As he led me through the basement labyrinth to his studio, it was easy to imagine that I was following a magician to his hidden lair where he would show me rare treasures.

I saw metal scraps, tubes, balls, wire, casts and lots of tools, especially hammers – all kinds of hammers. He had to have at least a dozen of em. Lots of helmets too. No chests full of treasures though. But it was a wonderous place where metal, tools, fire and ideas all conspired to become art. So, it was a magician’s lair after all.

Helbing loves to build water fountains and I thought they were his most amazing creations. The only way I can describe them is that they are metal constructions that remind you of flowing of water.

Q: When did you first know that you were an artist?

A: I was about 4 years old. I knew for sure when I read about Jackson Pollack’s in Life magazine. It was the summer of 1953. I have always drawn my life and played with stuff.

Q: Where did you learn your art?

A: Kindergarten, grade school, I skipped high school because all they did in the art classes was make turkey’s for the hallway. I was a mechanical engineering major in college for 2 years. After the army and war, I went to Ball State as an art major.

I worked on my own for 12 years and then I attended Northern Illinois University and got an MFA is sculpture. I have always thought about stuff and played with things. Art is work through play. Play is an open mind.

Q: Who were your mentors?

A: Jackson Polack, DuChamp, the Greeks, the Africans, Indians, fellow sculptors, potters, scientists, farmers, pioneers, Pablo, Henry Moore, Richard Hunt, Bruce White, Marve Reichle, Jerry Schisler, my mom, my brother Jim, the people I meet in life. It goes on and on.

Q: Why sculpture?

A: I am a thick person. There are two kinds of art – thin and thick. I like thick- It has many more layers.

Q: What do you want to communicate with your art?

A: Joy. Live. Play. Wonder. Think. Create. Life is for yourself, if you’re lucky you will cause others to think, follow, and pass on the joy. Raise your hands to the sun and laugh.

Q: Why do you love to build water fountains?

A: Water is fun! Who doesn’t like to play with water? As children, we started out splashing water in a bathtub. Humanity evolved next to watercourses. Who doesn’t like the sound of a babbling brook? Water spray also puts negative ions in the atmosphere that improves people’s mood.

Q: What’s next for Mike Helbing?

A: Water fountains and other screwy fun stuff that are the products of my imagination that causes others to think.

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