Helena Palazzi Brings Her Shield Maidens to A New Gallery in Kingston
Shield Maidens, the exhibit now on display at the Emily DuBois Hoysardt Gallery, was inspired by artist Helena Palazzi’s fascination with Norse mythology, Viking history and runes. Shield-maidens were the female warriors often mentioned in Nordic sagas.
“I guess part of it is that you can walk pretty much anywhere in Sweden—you can be in the center of a town— and there is a rune stone,” said Palazzi, who was born in Sweden.
“They just basically built around it. I love the texture of rune stones. I love the symbols that are inscribed on rune stones, but what fascinates me the most are the women and the goddesses of Norse mythology. They are fierce, they are strong, and they are full of spit and fire. They are unapologetically sexual. They just speak to me.”
Shield-maidens were thought to be merely mythological, but a Swedish archeological dig in the late 1800s confirmed that the myths had a factual basis. The dig uncovered a warrior’s grave in the town of Birka on the Swedish island of Björkö. For more than a hundred years archeologists believed that this grave belonged to a very high-ranking male warrior since the body was buried with horses and weapons. In 2017, DNA confirmed the warrior was a woman. The truth about Viking women and the freedom they enjoyed was no longer obscured by historical bias about gender roles.
“That the warrior was in fact a woman proved that the concept of a shield-maiden was not just a myth or a fairy tale,” said Palazzi. “It actually happened. So my art started as an ode to the women warriors, the Shield Maidens.”
The exhibit includes several examples of encaustic photography, works that feature opaque images of women, spidery tree branches, and flowers. The women seem magical and elusive, fierce and yet ephemeral as if at any moment they could disappear into the mist. As an artist, Palazzi is fascinated with the idea of layering—of obscuring and revealing what’s hidden. So, her works incorporate delicate layers upon layers of photographs some of which she peels away to reveal what’s hidden.
“I remove and add,” said Palazzi. “There’s a lot of that. Then I print it on very, very thin rice paper. Then I glue the rice paper onto the cradled wood board. The rice paper is very sensitive. It can be destroyed by a drop of water. Then the encaustic media, a beeswax mixed with resin, is a protective layer, a layer that can preserve something for centuries, as it has in previous generations. Once that layer is on, the artwork is protected, it’s sealed.”
When painting with encaustic, artists fuse layers of wax with either a heat gun, an encaustic iron or a blow torch.
“There are layers upon layers of heating and fusing and scraping and molding, then going over and over it again. Which is literally the same thing you do when you are painting. That’s wet and dry. This is hot and cold.”
In her encaustic photography, Palazzi’s palette is dreamily subtle—a misty gray, the faintest of gray blues and wisps of apple blossom pink.
“That’s the palette that draws me in, pale pale sky, grass and stones,” said Palazzi. “This is the palette that’s in my head. I used to go to my father’s homeland, Italy, every summer. There the palette is rich and warm. The colors are strong. In Sweden, where I was born, everything is kind of pale.”
Palazzi’s paintings—inspired by the rough surfaces of Sweden’s runes— acquire their texture through layers of monochromatic paint. There’s something soothing about their simple palette and the way they visually suggest weathered stone.
“I am painting mixed media on canvas and in a weird way I feel like those are kind of the base, the platform of the more narrative stories, then there’s the more figurative, which obviously are the encaustic photography,” she said.
For more than two decades Palazzi’s career as a commercial photographer was so demanding that she had little time to paint. Palazzi first opened a photography studio with friends while studying art at the Academy of Fine Arts in Perugia, Italy. Moving to New York City in the late 90s, she focused on her career as a commercial photographer. In 2019 she moved to Kingston, where she found she had more time to create art. Since that move, her work has appeared in several local shows and exhibitions, most recently at the Pinkwater Gallery in Kingston, which focuses on women artists. After moving to Kingston she also launched Art by Helena Palazzi.
“People are always telling me, ‘you are so productive,’ but I have to make up for so much lost time,” said Palazzi. “The dream right now would be to get to the point that allowed me to do art full-time. In the meantime, I’m lucky that I can do photography and I can still do this. I’m sharing my time between the two.”
Palazzi works as a photographer for magazines such as Modern Luxury and via her Kingston-based commercial photography studio Yellow House Production, where she shoots portraits and branding photography for local businesses.
Helena is the first artist to exhibit in the Emily DuBois Hoysradt Gallery in Kingston, a new gallery space in a building connected to and owned by the YWCA of Ulster County. The once separate 1840s building was donated to the YWCA and has in the past been rented to non-profits. For now, it will serve as a gallery focused on women artists.
Athena Fliakos, YWCA CEO, wants to use the space to better serve the Y’s teen and adult members.
“It’s the most beautiful space in the building,” said Fliakos. “And it could be a really nice incubator for our teen and adult programs. The rest of this building is very little child friendly and family-friendly. I really wanted a space that would appeal to our teen and adult members. Right now I am considering it an innovation space.”
Fliakos also sees the gallery as a way to honor Emily DuBois Hoysradt, a successful Kingston-born artist (1893 to 1983), who worked diligently to put the Kingston art scene on the map. Hoysradt was a founding member of the YWCA.
“The lobby of the Y was originally an art gallery called the Emily DuBois Hoysradt Gallery and there was a time when some already famous artists showed in that gallery,” said Fliakos.
While the YWCA lobby is now lined with cheerful pumpkin paintings by toddlers, who might one day grow up to be famous artists, that was not the original intent.
“This space was a rededication of that gallery,” said Fliakos of the new space.
Fliakos is considering ways to work together with curator Anne Sanger at Pinkwater Gallery and with other galleries to offer women artists long-running shows. The next exhibit for the gallery will feature works by abstract artist Melanie Delgado.
“Her work is very different from this,” said Fliakos. “Big colors, big shapes. Very abstract, but I like the contrast a lot.”
Shield Maidens will be displayed at the Emily DuBois Hoysradt Gallery in the YWCA Ulster County building on 209 Clinton Avenue in Kingston through Dec. 3rd. Access to the exhibit is by appointment only. The gallery will be open for a Q&A session with Palazzi from 1 to 3 p.m. on Nov. 19th.
Helena Palazzi’s Art
Yellow House Production
YWCA Ulster County