The unsung heroes behind the stunning photos you see in magazines, ad campaigns, and coffee table books are “stylists,” a legion of artisans that are essentially set designers for photo shoots. Helen Quinn is a brilliant stylist, but she has so many, many other talents that it is hard to accept the term “stylist” as being altogether fitting.
I’ve known Helen since we were both Freshman at the Rhode Island School of Design. Helen received a degree in Textiles, and she has spent time working in that world, teaching at Parsons, working for Martha Stewart, and styling shoots for other brands and magazines. Below is some of the eye candy that Helen is known for in the print world.
The above images were from MARTHA STEWART KIDS, photographed by Stephen Lewis
The above images were from MARTHA STEWART LIVING, shot by Simon Watson. As an event planner and a designer, I am especially drawn to these stunning food displays. I tore them out of the magazine at the time for personal inspiration, not realizing that Helen had created them!
The gorgeous images above were photographed by Yunhee Kim.
Recently I was excited to stumble across the below stop/action film that Helen had created for Martha Stewart, and was surprised at this new twist in the road of her work. Helen was kind enough to sit down and chat with me about her art.
David Stark: You are one of the most talented people that I know and are so good at so many things – from styling photo shoots for magazines, catalogues, and print campaigns to your amazing textile designs, even teaching! How did you first get into creating the stop action films that you have been making recently?
Helen Quinn: Thank you! I love the variety of creative challenges that free-lance work offers - different contexts and different constraints depending on the project. For example, a few years ago I had the chance to design a collection of women’s sportswear for Nike/Maharam and then last Winter I organized a dinner in a cranberry bog in Rockefeller Center for Martha Stewart. So when Martha TV asked me to do the stop motions for this year’s Easter special, I jumped at the chance. I have made hand-drawn animations for my artwork in the past so I was really excited to collaborate with a professional photographer for this assignment. Now I hope to do more with other clients and friends. It is such a great medium- combining old and new at the same time- and it is perfect for displaying on contemporary media such as the iPad and e-books.
DS: What kind of connection do you see between making these “films” and the two/three dimensional art that you also make?
HQ: The common thread is a fascination with movement. After graduate school (Cranbrook 2000) I was making kinetic sculptures and gouache drawings. These were investigations into the beauty and magic of movement and the elusive presence of grace.
Over the past several years I have been animating the drawings, breathing primitive life into them using a Super 8 or digital still camera, photographing frame by frame. The work is pretty rough technically, but was good practice for the more commercial stop motions I have been doing lately.
DS: Where do you get your inspiration from?
HQ: Libraries. You can often find me at the Picture Collection on 40th Street at the Mid-Manhattan Branch. I know they have images on-line but it just isn’t the same as going through the folders. My favorites are photos of antique toys, fair rides, mechanical orchestras, and alchemical images.
Last year I wanted to look at illuminated manuscripts, so I spent a wonderful afternoon at the Pierpont Morgan Library looking at thousand-year-old books. I can really relate to the monks who illustrated those texts - obsessive perfectionists with wacky perspective.
DS: As a person that majored in Painting in college, I am always fascinated with my colleagues who get on the artistic train at a certain point, and find themselves in a totally different place years later. Did you ever imagine you would be doing what you do today?
HQ: I am not so surprised. If I am photo styling or teaching or making a quilt or designing a line of paint colors, I am using many of the same skills I learned in my fine art and textile training in undergrad. These include considerations of composition, color, and content as well as common sense skills of managing budget, working efficiently, and being decisive.
DS: When you are making your work, what do you think about?
HQ: When preparing to make a series of drawing or an animation, for example, I compile a ton of different sources (hence the library) and put a myriad of images on the wall. These images can be from different countries and different time periods and can be anything from a font to a wig diagram to a piece of fabric. Once I have a direction, I make a color palette and a storyboard of some kind. Then the work starts to flow, and the images and ideas get swirled around. Once I am really in it, I can’t tell if I am thinking about anything at all because I go so far into the right brain that I never know what time it is, even forgetting to eat.
DS: If budget and time were not an issue, what would the dream project be that you would love to plunge into?
HQ: The Tiffany windows! I am just dying to do the Tiffany windows. Gene Moore was the genius there for many years and I met him once when I was a very young designer in New York. He was older, southern, and charming. I can see so vividly what I would do: modern tableaux with motors. For example, a sparkly diamond could rotate on a thin wire with videos projected on paper screens from the back. And sound! Amplifying the motors and maybe some tiny bells clanging in real time. It would be very Calder’s Circus but kind of slick.
DS: It seems to me that the work you do as a stylist is very, very different from the stop action films. What do you see as the main difference in the work?
HQ: Speed is the main difference. Prop styling for print or Internet is time-consuming, and everything has to be perfect. Things are tweaked over and over, moving this vase a ¼” left or right and back again. If you make a mistake in composition, it can be corrected. With the stop-motion animations I have been working on, you really only have one take and you have to work very quickly even though it is tedious. I have been getting one minute’s worth of video for one day’s worth of work. So if there is a mistake, I have had to be very flexible and try to incorporate it into the sequence. I can’t say I have been calm about it since the pressure is really on, but I am learning a lot.
DS: What is the most interesting job you have ever had?
HQ: For two years in my twenties, I sewed for the sculptor Louise Bourgeois. It was just the two of us every Saturday morning at her brownstone in Chelsea. I would lug my sewing machine there from Brooklyn in a cart. We did some sewing but mostly we ate ice cream (Haagen-Dazs Macadamia Nut Crunch) and talked about color. What a strange gift that was for me - I didn’t even realize it at the time.
DS: Oh, WOW!
Helen Quinn is currently working on print campaigns for Target, Macy’s, and Pottery Barn as well as a music video for an upcoming CD. She is lives in Jackson Heights, Queens with her husband David Crandall, an architect and Professor at Parsons, and their two kids.