The exhibit Sticks and Stones features more than 40 works by Fort Worth artist Helen Altman. It is on display at the Tyler Art Museum through June 3. Above, "Sticks and Stones" (2), 2017 by Helen Altman. Photos by Karl Thibodeaux.

March 14, 2018

Just a few miles from Tyler State Park, the Tyler Museum of Art is filled campfires, trees and wildlife as well, thanks to an installation created by a Fort Worth artist. 

The exhibit Sticks and Stones spans Helen Altman’s work from 1992 to the present and reflects her fascination with the natural world. The retrospective, which opened Sunday, will be on display through June 3. 

Altman grew up in Alabama and earned her BFA and MA from the University of Alabama, Tuscaloosa. She earned her MFA from the University of North Texas, Denton, in 1989 and moved to Fort Worth.

Early on, her interest in biology rivaled her interest in art. She loved pouring over textbook drawings of insects, trees and animals. 

Helen Altman“[As an undergrad], I took nearly as many courses in biology as I did in art,” said Altman. “If I hadn’t gotten an art scholarship that would have been the direction I’d gone.”

"Coast White Cedar," 1999 .Acrylic on moving blanket. 140" x 70." Courtesy of the Artist and Moody Gallery, Houston, Texas. "Lombardy Poplar," 1999. Acrylic on moving blanket. 141" x 72." Courtesy of the Artist and Moody Gallery, Houston, Texas

Between semesters she worked for a geological surveying company, counting fish for an environmental impact report. She also lived in a dorm on Dolphin Island, while taking an ichthyology course one semester.

“That had such a profound effect on me,” said Altman.

Her artistic talent eventually won out but her fascination with the natural world and science textbooks carried over into her artwork. 

As a result, Altman’s work is filled with memories and musings on flora and fauna.

“They have been a constant source of joy and also a source of coping,” said Altman, in a Tyler Morning Telegraph article.

Helen AltmanThe 25-year retrospective in Tyler at times has the feel of a naturalist’s study. Textbook images of animals and trees accompany lifelike birds’ eggs and a found turtle shell. But there's also an element of the surreal with the work incorporating vintage blankets, chalkboards and cigar boxes, adding to the feeling of nostalgia.

"Small Blanket (White Rabbit)," 2016. Thermal transfer, quilted vintage baby blanket, thread.
43" x 34" approx. Courtesy of the Artist and Moody Gallery, Houston, Texas

The show features a variety of themes, including artificiality vs. naturalness; detachment vs sentiment along with comedic and tragic dimensions.

Altman’s sense of irony shines in mock campfires she designed using fake firelogs. Meanwhile, an aquarium is filled with 300 epoxy goldfish, which Altman cast from dead goldfish she purchased from a big box pet store. 

“It's a happy moment when I can create objects that are simultaneously convincing and yet blatantly absurd in their obvious artificiality,” says Altman in a gallery note.

Helen Altman, GoldfishThough Altman sometimes studies her subjects with a scientist’s scrutiny, her work celebrates the beauty and joy of those encounters. The rooms reflect a lifetime of not just observing but also caring about nature and animals. The point is driven home in a piece called Two Deer Reflecting. In it, a vintage motion lamp appears to depict two deer, relishing the demise of a burning cabin in the distance. 

"Goldfish," 2009. Cast plastic, epoxy, lead weights, monofilament line, 45 gallon aquarium & Stand, distilled water. 57" x 37" x 13." Collection of Susan and Claude Albritton, Dallas, Texas

“I like thinking about a world where animals get even with all bad things that have been done to them,” admits Altman, with a chuckle. “I don’t want the work to be too too preachy but I want to make people think.”

"Two Deer Reflecting," 2011. Vintage motion lamp, light blub, wall text, misc. elements 10 1/4" x 6" x 6.” Courtesy of the Artist and Moody Gallery, Houston, Texas. On the right, torch drawings of deer from 2017.


Sticks and Stones

About: A 25-year survey of Fort Worth artist Helen Altman, whose work is in the permanent collections of the Art Museum of Southeast Texas, Beaumont, TX; the Dallas Museum of Art; the Museum of Contemporary Art, San Diego, CA; the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, TX; the Sarah Moody Gallery of Art, the University of Alabama, Tuscaloosa, AL.

When: Through June 3.

Where: Tyler Museum of Art, 1300 South Mahon, Tyler. 


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