For almost three decades the pages of Vogue (and others) have been the starting point Helen Rae, a 77-year-old self-taught artist. A model wearing a floral headdress, a tapestry-covered background or Karlie Kloss posing in a steel mill —she takes out her colored pencils and goes to work.
Rae was born deaf and is completely nonverbal. In 1990, when she was 50, her mother enrolled her in a local program for adults with disabilities, where she developed her drawing skills. Almost no one outside her program saw Rae’s work until 2014, when Paige Wery, the owner of L.A.’s Good Luck Gallery, came in search of new talent. Wery told Vogue,
“I was going to do a group show, but I just kept looking at Helen’s work. I realized how special of an artist she is and how under-recognized she is. When they said that she was 76 years old and no one had given her a solo show, that was that.”
Last spring the gallery hosted her first solo show. Rae’s two live-in nurses escorted her to her opening. She had flowers in her hair and wore a string of pearls. Her 15 drawings sold out on opening night.
“She smiled the whole time. It was a feeding frenzy. Nobody had ever heard of her; nobody had ever seen this kind of work before.”
The next day, Wery called,
“I asked ‘Did she realize that we had this sold-out show?’ And they said that she didn’t; she just went straight back to drawing.”
Wery, who hosted Rae’s second solo show which opened last May, is committed to giving her a level of exposure that outsider artists seldom receive.
“I really feel like this is Helen’s voice, this is her way to communicate.”
It was through her continuous presence in the art fair circuit that Rae got her next big break: In January, fashion designer Cynthia Rowley came across the artist’s work at the Outsider Art Fair in New York and was immediately transfixed. Rowley said.
“I really didn’t know anything about her but it was just the sheer beauty of what she was making. It hit me over the head like a frying pan. I’m not usually a fan of any sort of fashion reference in art, but this was different….”
With her husband, Bill Powers, Rowley founded Exhibition A, an e-commerce website that sells limited-edition works by emerging and established artists. She purchased one of Rae’s drawings on the spot, then got permission to create the print for their site.
A print of Rae’s drawing is available on Exhibition A (for just $200) and her work will be at the Outsider Art Fair in Paris this October. Wery hopes that Rae’s unlikely success will pave the way for more artists like her.
“It’s about exposure and getting them out of their nonprofit. Nobody ever took Helen’s work, framed it, and treated it like she’s a contemporary artist, which is what she is.”