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Batik Artist Dikki Van Helsland

Author: Roberta Landman
Issue: November, 2012, Page 176
Photo by Tim Fuller

Van Helsland poses in her studio, where she creates vivid renditions of desert life through the ancient technique of batik.

Dikki Van Helsland Expresses Her Love of the Desert With an Art Form Rooted in Antiquity

While some may look at the desert and see only scrubby, thorny plants and bone-dry land, Dikki Van Helsland sees an endless source of beauty, serenity and inspiration. At the Green Valley, Arizona, home she shares with her husband, Marshall, she is surrounded by acres of desert, and she translates what she observes there into works of art.

Her pieces—some already finished, some just begun—lend vibrant color to her home-based studio, where a vessel of hot, melted wax, exotic-looking instruments, various dyes and cloth—all the tools of her trade—await her steady hand and imagination.

A batik artist, Van Helsland engages in an art form that has been practiced for possibly 2,000 years or more in the Middle East, Far East, India and Central Asia. Her subject matter is not rooted in a far-distant, exotic past, however, but in what matters to her today. For example, her batik paintings of horses reflect her love of these animals and her interest in organizations that rescue them from dire circumstances, such as neglect or abandonment. Images of cacti, many based on those that grow on her property, have luxuriant and delicate-looking blooms.

Dikki Van Helsland draws inspiration from nature. Pictured here is Red Beavertail Cactus Blossom, 24"H x 24"W.
To produce her craft, Van Helsland first draws a design on paper; then, with the aid of a light box, traces it onto a fine grade of cotton. “In the meantime, a mixture of beeswax or synthetic beeswax is melted together with paraffin in a slow cooker.” The hot wax is applied to select portions of the fabric with either a brush or, for very fine areas, an Indonesian tjianting; the pen-like instrument is filled with hot wax that is dispensed through a spout. For this same purpose, the artist also utilizes a kiska, an implement used for creating delicate Ukrainian Easter egg patterns. The wax acts as a “resist,” preventing dyes intended for certain areas of the design from adhering to the cloth where, for example, white is desired. The wax also produces the distinctive crackled look seen on many batiks. Simply put, the dyeing process is repeated until the work is deemed complete.

The labor-intensive artistry requires patience, says Van Helsland. “When I do a very detailed batik, I think of the traditional batik artists in Indonesia and am inspired by them to continue.” Already accomplished in several mediums, she was introduced to batik in the early 1970s by her sister, Cave Creek, Arizona, artist Katalin Ehling, who was featured in Phoenix Home & Garden in February 2003. The women were born far from the desert, in Hungary, and lived in Germany for a few years before moving to the Midwest as youngsters.

This 24”H x 24”W batik painting features a palomino paint horse called Tehya.
Their parents did not have a TV at one time, so as children she and her sister “read like crazy” and did a lot of drawing. “A couple of years after we arrived in the States, we lived next door to a really nice lady who let us girls watch ‘The Lone Ranger’ every Friday night,” Van Helsland relates. That was the beginning of her love for the West, horses and Arizona.

As a grown-up, she would reside in Arizona for a time when her husband, then a career U.S Army officer, was stationed there some years back. After moving around as an artist/military wife, she happily found herself ensconced back in the desert when the two decided to make Arizona their permanent home 10 years ago.

“The desert is an awe-inspiring space,” she comments. “It has so many colors and moods, and is alive with such a variety of life, both plant and animal. The varieties of cacti that produce exquisite flowers are endless.” And these attributes are the inspiration for her art.

Photos - From left: Red Archway, 28"H x 32"W, is based loosely on the artist’s own front courtyard entry. • Many of Van Helsland’s batik paintings feature animals, such as this piece titled Move Em’ Out, 38"H x 32"W. It was inspired by photos the artist had taken at the Empire Ranch historical site, and is currently being shown at Desert Artisans Gallery in Tucson.

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