Published August 07, 2010, 01:00 PM

Inspired by the outdoors, Lake Benedict painter portrays love of all things fishing

Two stories above the shore of Lake Benedict in northeastern Hubbard County, an outdoors painter derives her inspiration and sense of peace.

By: Sarah Smith, Park Rapids Enterprise

Two stories above the shore of Lake Benedict in northeastern Hubbard County, an outdoors painter derives her inspiration and sense of peace.

Helen Merchant overlooks her small sailboat anchored on shore, her kayak and the dock where she fishes for sunnies and bluegills, one of her favorite spots on her favorite lake.

Reclaiming lost time

Five hours a day in her room resembling the inside of a lighthouse, Merchant paints fish flies, fish, kayaks, lures and other lake memorabilia.

Her paintings and prints are exquisitely detailed thanks to a sharp and loving eye and a collection of books, magazines and posters that fill two bookshelves and help guide her work. Merchant said fish flies captivated her when she saw them in a catalog. Her personal collection of flies is like a gathering of tiny colorful friends.

She removes them, caresses their threads, pats them back into shape and replaces them in the tackle box. She knows the name of each one and what kind of fish they’re used for. A collection of even tinier flies was given to her by a fly fisherman, all hand made. She pours them out of their plastic bag and sorts through them, admiring the work and detail that went into each one.

Each fly in the collection is cataloged as to where it was purchased and its name.

She tries to replicate that level of detail in her paintings, but not copy the work verbatim. She recognizes the ingenuity and originality that went into creating them, so she summons up her own artistic spirit to adapt them to her own masterpieces.

“My passion has always been the outdoors,” said the diminutive retired educator.

She paints watercolors, oils and acrylics of fish and boats that will be framed as wall art, reprinted as greeting cards or made into wine gift tags that can be slipped over a bottle neck.

Each tag can include a personalized message such as congratulations or a compliment to the host.

Ties to Minnesota

Merchant grew up in Chicago, visiting grandparents in Staples where she spent summers fishing.

As an education and art major at Bemidji State, she met husband Bob. They eventually built a log cabin on Turtle River Lake, where they had adventures catching sunfish and bass.

Bob’s parents owned a resort on Lake Benedict for years so they maintained ties to the area they both loved.

Helen became a principal in Chanhassen where she served for 17 years.

“I couldn’t wait to substitute in the art class,” she recalled. “It was a blast.”

But she mostly left her art career back in college. She loved education, her school and her parents, she said.

She got her own children interested in art, though, especially a son who is uniquely talented as a whimsical cartoonist. Helen found her kids were more inventive and imaginative if given a blank sheet of paper than a page out of a coloring book to fill in.

Summers the family came to Turtle River Lake, fished and loved the lake experience.

When Bob’s widowed mother decided to sell the resort a few years ago, Bob and Helen bought a lot down the beach from hers on Lake Benedict. She’d settled next to the resort she’d sold.

The Merchants built their dream home on the lakeshore, bright rooms with muted earth tones on the walls. It was perfect for showcasing their growing collection of art.

A dedicated painter

Helen settled into the lighthouse room and began perfecting her craft.

Winters in Florida she takes painting lessons five to six days a week to improve. She’s still a bit insecure about her own talent and will wait to join a gallery or mass market her paintings until she’s confident they’re good enough. She does belong to an arts group and paints with others on Thursdays, where the artists share ideas and critique each other’s work.

Her first show was Art in the Park in Bemidji. She did well and enjoyed talking to the anglers who stopped by her booth.

“I have a whole new appreciation for how much work it is,” she said.

But it was the kayak paintings and cards that people went home with.

She sells cards in a gift shop in Edina.

Her retirement present from Bob was a Nikon camera with a “macro lens,” as she calls it. She sells close-up photos of vintage lures and fish flies.

It was the Nikon that really helped launch her painting career.

Fishing with a grandson on the dock, they caught a sunfish. She photographed it and released it.

That sunnie was the model for one of her first paintings. Blue gills and rock bass followed. She found them irresistibly beautiful.

“It took seven months for me to learn to paint a bass,” said Merchant.

When a friend died of breast cancer, Merchant went home from the funeral in a funk and painted three separate works.

One, called “Always,” appears in cards and prints.

After her sister was stricken with breast cancer, Merchant decided she had a way to give back, donating 10 percent of her profits to breast cancer research.

Fishing everywhere

Meanwhile she and Bob fish in Alaska, Florida, Vancouver and wherever the fish flies call.

She loves the camaraderie of anglers.

“Everybody’s so sharing,” she said. “I have a real appreciation for what fishing means to people. It’s a time to pray, time to think, time to calmly appreciate nature.”

She does custom work for anglers, painting their favorite antique lure, fly or fish.

Her travels take her into bookstores, where she adds to her collection of fish tying books, vintage fishing posters and catalogs.

Her bluegills take 10-12 hours to complete. To get the true translucent quality of a fish, she layers paints until she gets the desired finish.

She adds a daily masterpiece to the growing collection, lately challenging herself with watercolors.

“Watercolor is not forgiving,” she said. If you paint in oils and make a mistake you can start over again.”

But it’s the simplicity of the lake and the lake life that she tries to convey in her work.

A painting of several kayaks left out much of the detail on the watercraft.

It was the simplicity and elegance of the painting that she liked.

And when she gets tired of her paintbrush, she can do out onto the dock and cast her line for more camera-ready subjects.

Her work can be seen on her website, www.castingdreamsart.com or she can be reached at 224-2654.

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