A Conversation with Katie Helser

By Joyce Westner

Originally appeared in The Botanical Artist - Volume 18, Issue 3


Many artists work when their children are in school, but for farmer and artist Katie Helser, the sound of the school bus returning means it’s time to get out the art materials. “My studio is very clean because I rarely use it.”  How did you get into botanical art? I’ve done art my whole life, studied it in college, and I never found my niche. But a few years ago I found a vintage garden book with botanical illustrations in it and I became obsessed. I spent about a year looking at all the books I could get– I’m obsessed about very few things but I didn’t become an artist until I discovered botanical art.

Are you an artist or a plant person at heart?

Both. [Katie and her husband, a retired military officer are market farmers.]

In addition to small farm animals, we grow vegetables and flowers to sell at the farmers markets in Missoula out in western Montana. And I love drawing, so they go hand in hand.

Where do you get your subjects?

I pretty much draw whatever I can get my hands on–pleurisy root, domestic butterfly weed–fascinating! And we like hiking in the Montana Mountains and foothills, or at the National Bison Range. I’m hoping to find bitterroot [Montana’s state flower] this weekend. But I also draw any cool flower I find at Costco.

What’s your favorite medium?

Colored pencil–I can pack it up and take it wherever I go. I have a set-up that includes a field guide and I prefer Faber-Castell Polychromos.

Do you enter juried shows?

I haven’t yet but it’s in my long-term plan.

When do you paint?

I draw every day, I paint every day. My kids [a four-year-old son and six-year-old daughter] do it with me every afternoon. Sometimes they bring their wooden trains and stack the pencils up, and a few pieces have been ruined by muddy train tracks.

Where do you paint?

I like to paint next to the plant and not pull it up, then, I finish up in my studio. The first person I ask for advice and comments is my husband, and without a doubt the most helpful advice he has given me and continues to give me is to believe in what I do and to draw more. He’s an amazing support and his opinion is the most important to me.

Do you teach, and if so what special aspect of botanical art?

I’m getting ready to teach Nature Journaling in herbarium page style. My best thing is teaching my daughter Natalie to put plant parts in her drawings. (Katie’s interest in plant parts is so deep she named her website antherandsepal.com!) In Korea I taught art to more than 600 American and Korean children.

What technique are you still trying to master?

I’m intimidated by watercolor and I’m trying to overcome my fear of it.  I’d like to get completely confident in colored pencil. We have some great naturalist programs out here but the closest botanical art classes are usually in Denver, nearly a thousand miles away. I’m completely self-taught in botanicals, and it took a year of very hard work.

What one thing do you do that would surprise other artists?

I train and drive horses to plow and pull. We learned the ‘old ways’ when we lived near an Amish community in upstate New York, and we’re trying to reintroduce an old draft horse breed, a Brabant, into the US. The commonality is that the whole world withdraws and it’s just you and the horse – or just you and the artwork.

  • Protea, 14x18”, colored pencil on paper, ©Katie Helser 2011
  • Outreach can begin at home: Katie encourages her daughter’s natural desire to paint what she sees, and Natalie loves following in mom’s footsteps, with plant studies. Crayola crayon on white paper, 18x12”, ©Natalie Helser 2011