Memories of an Older Way of LIfe

Artist's Statement by Helen L. Rietz


I love the land, history, and people of America, especially the intermountain West, and my goal is to capture the fading traces of an old way of life.  


I’m always looking for images that move me.   Who knows when something will catch my eye – it might be the light and shadows, shapes and lines, repetition of a form, or maybe a different perspective that makes an ordinary scene or object dramatic and new.   I make sketches and notes, and always take many photographs. 


And then --- I put the photographs away.   Will my initial reaction stand the test of time and earn the investment of effort it will take to paint it?  Later, I might be thumbing through my files of photos and think, “Oh yes, that one.”  Or, an image might come back to me in a dream.   Either way, that’s when I’m ready, even compelled, to go to work.


I start by drawing many sketches, always asking myself “What is it that captured my attention?  What was I thinking or feeling?” As I work, each drawing becomes more focused on the essence of the inspiration.  Though I often incorporate a great deal of detail, everything contributes to the mood and experience.


Now I paint.   My style presents technical challenges because watercolor is unforgiving; unlike other mediums, it doesn’t allow you to erase or paint over a mistake.   I work with a plan, but if the unexpected happens, I have to be open to new possibilities and serendipity.   But life is like that, isn’t it?


I usually stand when I paint, and move back and forth to see the work from different distances and angles.   Titles usually come to me when I first see the scene, or at least while I am working.   They are always a clue to the feeling that inspired me.  At a certain moment, I’ll feel I’ve “done it” – created on my paper the image, and the emotion, that was in my mind.   For me, that is success.


Seeing my work, many people are surprised to learn it is watercolor because it is vivid, detailed, and realistic.  I hope I am bringing something new to my subject matter, and to the watercolor medium.  I was especially pleased when, at a recent solo show, the gallery owner said he found my work “fresh and interesting” (and bought one of the paintings for his own collection), and when a couple who have become collectors chose their painting because “it brings back such powerful memories"




New Life in the Old West

A Biography of Helen L. Rietz


From her studio in Helena, Montana, Helen Rietz can look north, across the tranquil Prickly Pear Valley.   This valley, full of wildlife, was inhabited by Native Americans more than 12,000 years ago and now is ranchland sprinkled with the homes of new settlers.  In the distance, she can see the Gatesof the Mountains, those “most remarkable cliffs” discovered by Lewis & Clark as they passed through in 1805 on their Voyage of Discovery.   To the East are the stately old mansions built with the wealth of the   gold strike that established this small city.  

Here, Rietz’ love of American lands and history and her artistic creativity come together.  She is a painter primarily of the sites, scenes, and icons of the disappearing West.

Art is a second career for Rietz.  Raised in rural Michigan, she was always an avid reader, interested in history and in seeing the world.   “My nose was always buried in a book, and my room was plastered with bright posters of exotic places. “

Rietz dabbled in art as a child and in college, but her career goal was to become a foreign correspondent.   Part of her undergraduate schooling took place in Beirut, Lebanon, and she traveled in Turkey, Egypt, and IranAfter graduate school and marriage, she began a career with a global firm known for being intensely competitive  and challenging.  From a home base in northern California, Rietz lived and worked in the major cities of the U.S. and Europe.    

Her love of open lands and wildlife also led to membership on the board of directors of the San Francisco Zoological Society, and a founding role in its Conservation Committee.  She and her husband then traveled extensively in Africa, South and Central America, Australia, and India.  

Rietz’s childhood dream of seeing the world was certainly coming true.   Life was exhilarating -- but also stressful.   Work hours were long, with commutes growing longer too.  And their once-quiet home in California was being swallowed up by the intense urban growth of Silicon Valley. 

One afternoon in East Africa proved to be a turning point.    It happened, Rietz recalls, on a hiking safari on remote Maasi lands in Tanzania.   In equatorial Africa most activity takes place at dawn and dusk; midday is for reading or napping.    But she was restless, and her guide suggested she simply go sit alone on a kopje, which is a rock outcropping, and watch.

“I climbed up, found a comfortable niche, and settled in.  At first my mind was racing, full of odd bits of music, thoughts about work, plans for what I might do later.  I looked out on the savannah, where nothing seemed to be moving.  I waited.  As the sun rose higher and it got hotter, my restless mind slowed down. My legs were stiff, so I shifted to stretch them.   The open, baking landscape seemed empty. I was getting bored.  

I looked out yet again across the savannah – and suddenly, I really saw it.   Subtleties and details I’d overlooked leaped out at me.   I grabbed my binoculars and studied every inch of the scene before me. There was so much out there.   How had I missed all this?   How had I not noticed?"

At home and back at work, Rietz began to wonder what price she was paying for her fast-paced career and whether she was blazing through the world without really seeing and savoring it. 

About then, Rietz and her husband began spending their free time exploring America.  “ It occurred to us that we had visited most of the rest of the world, but given too little attention to all that our own continent, our own country, had to offer.   We’d seen more of Paris than we had of Philadelphia.  We’d spent more time in Namibia than in Nevada.   People from around the world came to visit our country, and we had barely explored it at all. “

Each year they spent more time in the intermountain west, especially Montana. Those open spaces, the natural beauty and colorful history, and the strong, independent people all nourished something in her, Rietz says. Then, on one trip, they found a home with a commanding view.  “We walked through that house, then went down to a local wine bar, shared a bottle of Cabernet, looked at one another, and decided this just felt right.   The next morning we signed the papers and changed our lives.” 

Moving to Montana meant leaving her first career behind.  Only then did Rietz begin exploring art in earnest.  She took courses in pen and ink drawing, then in painting.

Rietz drifted into watercolor, she remembers with a laugh, because it was the first painting course available, and it sounded easy.  “Water plus color – it seems so benign.”  Only later did Rietz discover that it is possibly the most challenging and unforgiving painting medium. “To get the effect you want, you have to really plan – yet also be ready to embrace the unexpected when it turns out serendipitously.  But I’m tenacious and stuck with it.”

Unlike most who paint in watercolor, Rietz adopted a richly detailed, realistic style.   That experience on the Savannah was just so powerful, she remembers, that she never wanted to see the world in a blurred, impressionistic way again.   She also recalls, from her time in Europe, seeing the medieval tapestries that covered the walls in noble houses.   “They were intricate and contained so many stories.  They were meant to be absorbed over time.  I love the idea of art that slows you down and rewards a long, close look.” 

Her style was also shaped by the many visits she made to great museums while traveling and working in major U.S. and European cities.  Rietz admired the drama of Baroque art, with its strong contrasts of dark and light and its bold compositions that brought a viewer right into the picture. She also appreciated the Pre-Raphaelites for their rich use of color. 

As she became a serious painter, Rietz developed her skills through collaboration with other artists.   She joined The Art Center, a consortium of about 75 regional artists who paint together and sponsor a variety of courses and workshops.  She regularly attended regional art critiques.  

And, as in her corporate career, Rietz reached out to influential mentors.  She especially credits artists Carol Novotne for her sense of value and color; Ian Roberts for his guidance on composition; and Alan Shuptrine for his skill in bringing realism to watercolor.    "These artists taught me so much, and they also let me use watercolor in my own way.   So many artists say that, in watercolor, you have to be loose, let it all flow.  But why can’t I paint in detail?   The medium doesn’t have to define the style."  

While her painting style has remained consistent, her subject matter has evolved.    Originally a traditional landscape painter, Rietz began taking a different angle on the land.   “I wanted to capture not only the beauty, but that sense I had of the land being so all-encompassing, and that as a person in this landscape I was really small.”   She often paints from a low angle, to emphasize the immensity of nature in the West.

She also began paying tribute to the history of her home region, and to the traces left by those who settled the land or live there still.   "All around me there are ranchers whose families are three, four, or even five generations on their land.   And there are ghost towns, where people came, maybe thrived, maybe failed, but ultimately moved on.  All this is part of the spirit of the West that I want to capture so that it never completely disappears."

While there are human traces in many of her works, there are no people – and that’s intentional.   “I love solitude, being by myself in a beautiful or interesting place.   And in the modern world, it’s often hard to find that sense of quiet aloneness.   I want to offer that solitude to those who look at my paintings."

Rietz is a dedicated painter who works in her studio nearly every day.   It’s fashionable to say you paint plein aire, she says, but she doesn’t.  Her style is too intricate and intense to finish a work one afternoon in a field, she says.  Many of her paintings take a week or more to complete. Rietz does, though, sketch in the field and takes hundreds of photographs to use for inspiration.    Every painting is based on her personal experience and the emotion it evoked.

Outside her studio, Rietz finds time to take in what her home in the West offers.   She and her husband continue to travel, especially to intriguing and historic places in and around Montana.  She also loves baking bread and riding her favorite horse, Jill.

Savoring every moment is the new way of life for Rietz.  It’s a quality she also brings to her art.   “A sense of quiet and an appreciation for what we have all around us – that’s what I hope others will find in my work."


Helen L. Rietz

1105 Le Grande Cannon Blvd.

Helena, MT. 59601

406 461 3244

You  may also e-mail her on the contact page of this web site.  








Helen L. Rietz
406 461 3244
1105 LeGrande Cannon Blvd.
Helena, MT. 59601


Helen Rietz’ works capture the historic sites, vistas, and icons, primarily of the intermountain West.  Working primarily in watercolor on 300 lb. paper, she brings a vivid palette and attention to detail.   Her art distinguishes itself from typical watercolor painting by their clear, strong compositions and near-photographic realism.


Seeking to paint in an untypical watercolor style, Helen has trained primarily with three mentors:  noted Montana artist Carol Novotne; Ian Roberts, author of the books “Mastering Composition” and “Creative Authenticity”; and American realist painter Alan Shuptrine of Chattanooga, TN.

Among the most influential workshop teachers in Helen’s development are watercolor artists Gayle Weisfield and Jessica Bryant, and the celebrated wildlife artist and sculptor George Bumann. 

Helen is a member of The Art Center, a collaborative group of artists that work and train together, and is a member of the Mountain Sage Gallery artists’ critique association.


Helen and her husband Richard married shortly after graduate school, lived for many years in Northern California, and now reside in Helena, MT. 


Xanadu Gallery, 2014 – present

A.L. Swanson Gallery



Solo Show, Holter Museum of Art, Helena, MT.  October, 2014

Featured Artist, A. L. Swanson Gallery, Helena, MT. April – August, 2015.


Private Collectors

Randall LeCocq
U.S. Foreign Service Officer (ret.), U.S.S.R. and Belarus
Helena, MT /Tallahassee, FL.  (2 pieces)

Judy Nakagawa
Helena, MT.  (2 pieces)

Mr. and Mrs. James Shoemaker
Jefferson, CO (2 pieces)

A.L. Swanson
Gallery Owner
Helena, MT

Jeff Anderson
Stafford, TX

Ann Byrd
Helena, MT.

Dr. and Mrs. Kenneth Eden
Helena, MT.

Marcia Gibson
Helena, MT.

Darren and Alison Munson
Helena, MT.

Dianne Nickman
Helena, MT.

Melanie Reynolds
Helena, MT.

George Gray
Oakpoint, TX


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