Carroll County Times

Helberg to teach vinegar graining at Common Ground

Kristin Helberg is a professional painter and Early American vinegar graining painter. Helberg studied journalism but had always done art as a child. When she left journalism school, Helberg began dabbling in the arts.

For five years she designed dresses for an Indian importer. When she moved to California in 1972, she started writing and illustrating children's books. She also made children's toys like doll beds, selling them in area boutiques.

While following other pursuits to make a living, Helberg was secretly painting. She did not show her paintings anywhere, but enjoyed creating her little paintings. In 1984, Helberg decided to move back to Baltimore. Helberg continued her writing and wrote, "The Belvedere and the Man Who Saved it," about the famous hotal and landmark. She also wrote the history of the "Tin Deco" building in Baltimore and installed the museum in the lobby. Still she painted for her own enjoyment.

Eventually, Helberg decided to take some of her paintings to New York City. When she offered them to Johnson's Folk Art Gallery on Madison Avenue they agreed to sell some. The Museum of American Folk Art also bought some folk art paintings and grained boxes. That was when her business took off.

Helberg decided to study with Peter Dean in Lancaster, Pa., a master vinegar grainer. She worked with him for a week to learn the basics and then took it from there.

Vinegar painting has a long history in America. When people were settling this country, most furniture was made from pine or poplar, two woods that do not have interesting grains. These woods also take paint easily. From 1750 to 1870, people started doing vinegar graining to decorate these woods. It was popular from the mid-Atlantic to Boston. Itinerant artists called "limners" decorated the furniture, tavern signs, panels, house moldings and more.

Vinegar painting is the process of taking a piece of wooden furniture and first painting it with two coats of paint. For example, the piece could be painted the color of squash. Then, when that coat of paint is dry, the artist mixes up vinegar paint. It is a combination of vinegar, artist pigment (burnt umber or burnt sienna for example) and a little bit of sugar. The sugar holds the pattern. The old formula had a lead base so artists today use sugar instead.

The concept is like finger painting in kindergarten. By putting a darker color over a lighter background and texturing it with various objects, a pattern is created in the paint. Artists use sponges, putty, crumpled paper and anything that will give it a texture. There are traditional tools and looks but artists can use their imagination. Once it is dry, the object is varnished with a real lacquer. There are an infinite number of color combinations.

Helberg's grained furniture has been featured in Country Living Magazine. Her furniture has been sold at "ABC Home" in New York City where designers and magazines go for the latest and best in decorator items. Her vinegar grained boxes are sold at the gift shop at the National Archives Museum in Washington, D.C.

President Bill Clinton chose her painting "Bill and Elvis" to become part of the permanent collection at his Presidential library in Little Rock in 2003. Both men are wearing the famous Elvis white jumpsuit. President Clinton is playing the saxophone while Elvis plays the guitar.

This year, the Steven Scott Gallery in Fells Point began showing her paintings and painted furniture. She is also with the American Folk Art Gallery in Ashville, N.C.; ArtSpring Gallery in Takoma Park; and the Gallery on Merchants Square in Williamsburg, Va.

Helberg has been a teaching artist for more than 20 years. She does "artist in residency" programs in public schools. She works with students who have produced more than 80 murals in public schools. She has also taught child and adult classes at the Maryland Historical Society and the Smithsonian Institution.

Helberg will be teaching Early American Vinegar graining at Common Ground on the Hill held at McDaniel College. The first week begins July 1 through July 6. Helberg's class is part of the second "Traditions Week" from July 8 through July 13.

"When I am painting furniture, such as chests and dressers in bad condition, I can see them grained," Helberg reflected. "They tell me a story. It is the ultimate makeover. I love the history of it. Bringing a chest to life with original techniques is an accomplishment. "

"My ideas come from things I see, stories I read, something that really happened to me, jazz musicians and blues musicians. I even do paintings from stories my grandmother told me," Helberg explained. "When I create paintings I want them to tell me a story. Finally, I think I need to be using my hands and creating every day. That includes baking in the kitchen, working in the garden or painting. I think anyone can be encouraged to do art."

Helberg's website is