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EST. 2018

In Conversation with Helen He

"Midnight S'mores" by Helen He. Digital Art. Cover of the Canvas Autumn 2018 issue.

Canvas Editor-in-Chief Lindsay Herko's Opening Reflections:

When I look at "Midnight S'mores" I am compelled by both a sense that the piece is an event as well as an entry point to an atmosphere. These qualities were definitely part of our attraction to choosing it for our first cover, since re-launching Canvas.  Matching the image of teens gathered around an outdoor fire—in the strange privacy of night- to the acceleration of the fall, the image as our magazine cover fosters the spirit of fighting against the draining or waning of the year, and viewers of the image can see these teens collecting out in the natural world, maybe up against curfew, with all the freedom of ascending into their most playful or relaxed selves amongst one another.  The image feels like it invites us into a special event, where anything could be said and will only be curated by memory. 

 

People continually eat up the idea of “the best night ever” or “for one night only”, and pop songs regularly speak to a night so unique, it has to be chased to the break of dawn. I think as a society we have deep affections for thinking of times when we are allowed to solidify in groups amongst night's boundless darkness, and feel vital and safe and free . . . and as a by-product - imaginative.  Camp set-ups and stories are particularly nostalgic in our culture. Placing this image in the context of an issue that is being released in early fall, we can make up the narrative the young people in the picture are still able to seize special freedoms, while the days are encroached upon by school and rapidly cooling weather. 

 

The moon being so tiny makes me think of its great height (a night well under way) and instantly can evoke a sense of a cooling night - giving a perfect sense of the magnitude of the dark that surrounds our vulnerable lives and our sweet penchant for storytelling. We see Canvas as a gathering of voices; similarly reader and writer meet up in unknown terrain, combusting into a sense of kindred spirits as we give ourselves the treat of loitering amongst the pages and being free. 

When overlaying the possible fonts for the magazine title, the one we chose felt particularly right to me, as it felt both like scratchings the teens could leave on a nearby picnic table to be found later in time, or age-old writing the teens may uncover in campfire shadows etched amongst some ancient-seeming rock features co-existing on the perimeters of the dark.  See, something about the color scheme in “Midnight S’mores” is making me leap to think of them out in a canyon or rock-dotted clearing.  I think it is a testament to compelling artwork that the viewer makes up story after story about it.

 

Lindsay

All of this being said, I am curious if you as the creator found yourself making up any narratives about what was happening within the image?

 

Helen

I’m glad you asked! This piece is actually based on real life. The teenagers in the art are kids from my high school’s student council. We were on the annual student council retreat in the countryside. There’s this tradition we have called “Midnight S’mores," where we basically stay up all night toasting marshmallows and stuffing our faces with s’mores. In fact, if you look at the art carefully enough, you’ll see a table in the background piled with marshmallow bags and Hershey’s bars—typical s’mores equipment. It was a night to remember. The camp is located in the middle of nowhere, so the sky was black as ink that night, and the entire area was super quiet. But around the campfire, all that mysteriousness vanished. Someone was blasting music. We were gathered around the fire, toasting marshmallows, laughing, talking, dancing, and just enjoying each others’ company. I must have eaten, like, 10 s’mores that night. There was just something magical about the whole evening that stuck in my head even after the retreat ended, and I knew I had to capture that moment into art when I got back. I’m glad I did. Each time I look at the piece, I can hear the laughter and crackling fire, and it brings back good memories.

 

Lindsay

Were there hardships along the way? Any illuminations to yourself, that you'd be willing to share? Or perhaps, I should ask, what are you most pleased with about this piece?

 

Helen 

The part of this piece I’m most proud of was also the hardest: getting the lighting right. I wanted the light from the campfire to bathe everyone in a warm, fiery glow, and heavily contrast the heavy black night. It took a ton of trial and error. I taught myself the ropes of Adobe Photoshop layering modes and lighting effects, and it took ages to figure out the best way to create that glow effect. After the umpteenth lighting/layer/hue combination, I finally found a combo that conveyed the cozy, campfire light I wanted.

 

Lindsay

I am curious if you feel this piece has any aesthetic cousins across other genres? Example: are there any pieces of music that would conjure this atmosphere to you?

 

Helen

Totally! One of the kids in the art was the student council’s president. At meetings he’d always play MKTO’s “Classic.” It’s like the student council’s unofficial theme song, and it has that fun, party vibe. For a more laid-back, late-night feel, I highly recommend Toploader’s “Dancing in the Moonlight” and “September” by Earth, Wind & Fire.

Lindsay

What is your connection to campfire culture?  Do you remember when you first encountered it?  Remember when you first heard of or tried a s'more?

 

Helen 

Until the student council retreat, I had never actually toasted s’mores over a campfire before, so my experience with campfire s’mores was zero. The first time I had a legitimate, toasted marshmallow was one middle school summer at an ice cream truck that toasted marshmallows with a blowtorch. I remember biting into a marshmallow and being blown away by that delicious, caramelized, toasted flavor inimitable by any other food on the planet, and thinking, “Where has this been all my life?” Ever since then I spent the rest of the summer attempting the replicate that perfectly toasted marshmallow to make s’mores. I couldn’t make a campfire, so I made use of what was available to toast marshmallows: I tried microwaving them, setting them on fire with a lighter, toasting them over a candle… Finally I discovered via the Internet that you can toast marshmallows by simply broiling them in the oven.

 

Lindsay

What do you think s'mores may offer people collecting in the dark?

 

Helen

On a dark, silent night like the one in the art, s’mores and a glowing campfire mean safety, comfort, warmth, and friends. When people sit around the campfire toasting marshmallows and savoring delicious s’mores, tension melts. For a moment, you don’t have to worry about the test tomorrow or the exam next week. The black night kinda isolates you from the rest of the world. In front of the fire, it’s just you and your friends toasting marshmallows, and you’re just enjoying the now. Food in general brings people together. In this case of the student council, kids- underclassmen and upperclassmen, robotics programmers and baseball pitchers, cheerleaders and band captains- of all sorts of interests and backgrounds are mingling together, sharing stories, getting to know each other.

 

Lindsay

What would you like our readers to know about your connection to art? 

 

Helen

When it comes to capturing memories, some people take pictures. Others write. My way is a little less conventional: drawing. By reconstructing a specific moment line by line, I feel like I’m reliving these cherished memories. Digital painting software is my go-to art medium. It has certain brush tools and lighting effects otherwise impossible on paper, and I aspires to use these tools to paint memories at a deeper level of richness and vividness, and bring that art to life. Each piece of art I create, I want it to be a portal, a gateway that transports the viewer into whatever memory I wish to share.

When it comes to capturing memories, some people take pictures. Others write. My way is a little less conventional: drawing. By reconstructing a specific moment line by line, I feel like I’m reliving these cherished memories.

Helen He is a doodlebug from Texas who specializes in capturing everyday moments with digital art. Her works have been featured in publications such as Blue Marble Review, Teen Ink, and New Moon Girls, and awards won include a 2D3D National Art + Design Competition Juror Merit. When she's not drawing, she can be found building robots or decorating cakes.

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