An Afternoon with Helen Dardik
Written by Diane Bizzle / March 3rd, 2023
As I prepared to interview Helen Dardik, butterflies fluttered with excitement in my stomach. She is one of my favorite artists, and as I tend to do, I began to overthink.
What if my questions are dumb? What if I make a fool of myself? I was talking through my anxiety with another puzzler, Gaby (puzzlepastime) who helped me calm down. Nonetheless, as I logged into the Zoom interview, my mind was flooded once again with these thoughts.
Almost immediately, Helen put me at ease commenting, “I’m wary of calling myself an artist to begin with because it comes with a lot of baggage. I don’t see myself as overly important. It’s not earth-shattering what I do. It is just for the soul. Just for the fun of it. It’s healing for me. It really helps me to just feel good about life. I’m just happy when it makes somebody happy. It really is that simple.”
Just like that, the butterflies stopped beating their wings.
Helen was born in Ukraine and traveled all over Russia and Ukraine as a child. She spent most of her young life in Siberia and about a month before the Soviet Union collapsed her family moved to Israel. Around age 17, Helen and her family moved to Canada which continues to be her home.
As a child, Helen’s babysitters were often artist friends of her parents, who were building engineers. She understood from a young age that was what she wanted to do – create art. Adding to those formative years, Helen explained that she wasn’t a very good student, often struggling to pay attention. She just wasn’t interested in anything that wasn’t visually exciting. Furthermore, she struggled with long-term projects that require focus and linear thinking. Instead, she prefers bite-sized projects that keep her interested and excited. It’s why she loves illustration so much. It’s a short project and you know exactly where it’s going to end. For Helen, becoming an artist wasn’t a choice, it was part of who she was destined to be.
There are three types of art that Helen is known for: painting, illustration, and surface design. While I had a general idea of what surface design is, I asked for some clarification. Helen explains in simple terms that is when something is covered with art. It could literally be any type of surface from stationary to wallpaper and even textile.
Photo above: Helen Dardik's work from https://www.helendardik.com/
The journey of her career began with vector art. It was her go-to medium. The convenience of being able to change colors, scale, and even the entire design was something the perfectionist inside her couldn't resist. But as she continued to work with vector art, her hands started hurting from the constant clicking of the mouse. Helen tried switching to a stylus but found it awkward and unnatural.
Helen started experimenting with acrylic gouache and watercolor. The switch to new mediums allowed her hands to stop hurting. Although she now alternates between vectors and painting, she prefers watercolors and gouache so much more.
Helen’s typical workday begins late afternoon. A self-proclaimed night owl, Helen works best in the evening. She tends to really get into her work after everybody goes to sleep, enjoying a quiet thinking space (although sometimes listening to podcasts). Often she often finds herself working until the wee hours of the morning.
When Helen begins a new painting, she has a vague plan in her head. Then she just lets the piece take her where it takes her. Helen found that when she tried to control the outcome of the art, the result felt contrived. What she enjoys about sketches is the looseness and when she tries to translate a sketch into a final piece, she gets stuck in perfectionism.
By painting without a sketch, Helen allows fun images to emerge without her knowing exactly where she is going.
The colors guide what happens and where instead of overanalyzing. She explains, “I think part of my brain already knows where I am going, but I don’t want to be set in stone. So, I have a vague idea. I know I am going to put a character right here at some point. But I let everything happen by itself. It is better when it is natural instead of forced.”
Marching Spring, the art used for the Soonness puzzle, doesn’t have a particular origin story. Helen is inspired by her family and childhood. Although she grew up in the 70s and 80s, the Soviet Union was about 20 to 30 years behind the west in terms of design and culture. Therefore, much of her inspiration is based on mid-century Scandinavian art. Helen has three girls, so her art is often filled with femininity.
The girl in Marching Spring is based on her personal love for redheads and feminine energy. Helen laughingly says, “In my 20's I was a redhead for a little while with the help of chemicals, but it’s so high maintenance and I am so not high maintenance.”
Living in the capital of Canada, the winters are long and colorless. Helen craves color, especially during the long winter. She yearns for something tropical in her life. For Marching Spring, she is drawing on the desire to see spring as soon as possible and as colorful as possible.
When it comes to putting puzzles together Helen has done quite a few. When she received her Soonness puzzle, it was immediately apparent the love and care that is put into the production. Helen says, “Obviously, it’s a high-end puzzle and it’s a pleasure to touch.”
Then she points behind her to where she has the Marching Spring box displayed on her shelf and says, “I don’t know if you can see it, but mine is right behind me. I left it there because that’s my favorite. Even if you weren’t interested in the puzzle, it’s such a cool box. I just like it as a keepsake.”
In addition to being a full-time artist, Helen hosts annual painting retreats with her friend artist Carolyn Gavin, who is also an artist. These meticulously planned retreats are 7 – 8 days of adventure and painting in various locations around the world. Helen explains, “We’re only here for a limited time and I want to see as much as possible. It’s probably easier to just go to the same place and feel very comfortable and know everything. But, although the locations are beautiful, what I remember best is the people. It’s like the beautiful place was enhanced.”
Instead of the retreats being for serious full-time artists, Helen says they are more like summer camps for adults who are interested in painting together. It’s an amazing bonding experience with people interested in art and painting, but the art turns out to be secondary to the adventure. Over the course of the retreat, the people who attend create friendships. Helen compares it to speed dating for people who like to paint. In day-to-day life, it is hard to come by people with the same interests; people who like to sit down and paint together. As a bonus, you also really get to know a bunch of people in a short period of time. Helen says, “It’s my favorite thing. The travel – we see amazing places. And everything is taken care of. There’s no cooking. There’re no children. There are no husbands. There are no parents. It’s such a great vacuum from day to day. I look forward to it every year like crazy.”
Photo above: Helen at the painting retreat in Paris / Photo credit: @helen_dardik
I veered off-topic and mentioned that I really wanted to travel and see the world. But that I was waiting until retirement.
And Helen gave me the best advice. She said, “Don’t wait that long. Enjoy life now.”
During the retreats, Helen talks about her business experience and what she has learned over the past 18 years. There are people with all sorts of backgrounds. For example, there may be people with an illustration background or just getting into illustration and seeing it as a career. They are interested in knowing how to be a book illustrator. Helen gives advice and shares her experiences. But she emphasizes it is fun and relaxing. There is guidance from Helen and Carolyn, but having a background in art is not a necessity for these retreats. Helen mentioned that when you don’t have a background in art, you don’t have preconceived notions. This means you arrive with an open mind with more room to grow. If you are interested in painting, learning new techniques, and experimenting with different mediums, the retreats are a great place to get hands-on experience. Helen has one style of painting while Carolyn Gavin’s style is different. The two women alternate and bring different things to the table. (Carolyn’s art is typically created with acrylics and is more abstract.) The retreats are not all about Helen and Carolyn teaching – they also learn from people who join. Helen says she often learns something from them, and they all borrow from each other as part of the process.
Photo above: The painting retreat in Spain / Photo credit: @helen_dardik
The last retreat in Spain was a true adventure for Helen. The location was energy-efficient and holistic, built on rocky land with many stairs and levels to the rooms. On the first night, Helen got up to get some water which was outside (gathered rainwater). When she woke up, the house was pitch black because they turn the electricity off at night to save energy. It was very hard to see, so Carolyn turned her iPhone flashlight on and Helen followed. Unfortunately, Helen didn’t notice the stairs and twisted her ankle. For the first five days of the retreat, she had a giant foot and couldn’t go on a few of the excursions. That didn’t dull her experience. She stayed back at the house and busied herself arranging flowers. There was another person on the retreat who decided not to go on the excursions and stayed with Helen. Having learned from that experience, Helen now familiarizes herself with the terrain before venturing out at night.
The retreats also serve as a time to learn more about the self. One of the activities was a sound ceremony, which is a type of healing event that involves the use of sounds, such as singing bowls, gongs, chimes, and drumming, to create a harmonious and calming environment for the purpose of promoting physical, emotional, and spiritual well-being. Helen thought she would love it because she enjoys yoga and relaxing. During the ceremony, everyone lies on a mat with a weighted pillow over their eyes. While laying there, Helen realized this was not for her. She didn’t enjoy the sounds. Everyone else loved it, except her. She laughs, and says, “I learned so many things about myself like I have some funny pitch problems.”
Most of all, her favorite part of the retreats is the people and their stories. She enjoys getting to know everyone and hearing about their unique life experiences. She is genuinely sad when she has to say goodbye to people on the last day.
To learn more about Helen, her art, and her workshops, visit her website https://www.helendardik.com/.
Get to know the Author: Diane Bizzle
Diane is the Director of Marketing and Outreach for an online tutoring company, organizer of the Puzzle Pals' Choice Awards, a member of the Puzzle Parley steering committee, and a member of the Puzzle Jam South planning team. She considers herself more than just a puzzle lover, but a curator of art in pieces. She puzzles practically daily while listening to audiobooks. When not working on a puzzle, she enjoys hanging out with her husband, stepdaughter, and 3 dogs.