For Mount Royal's Michelangelo, business is sure to be looking up


It took Michelangelo four years to complete the Sistine Chapel ceiling.

It took Joe Helms two and a half months.

Michelangelo had a patron, Lorenzo de' Medici.

Mr. Helms could use one.

Michelangelo painted his frescoes "solely for the glory of God."

Mr. Helms did it for the "free advertising."

When Michelangelo pleaded exhaustion, Pope Julius II forced him to finish his back-breaking labor.

This October, when the current pope visits Baltimore, he has an open invitation to critique Mr. Helms' fine work. Call it "The Agony and the Ecstasy" redux.

It began, as such propositions often do, at a bar, specifically Baltimore's Mount Royal Tavern. Mr. Helms, a 1990 Maryland Institute, College of Art graduate and uncanny copyist, proposed painting "Sistine Chapel Ceiling II" and installing it in the tavern, a traditional institute hangout and "drinking hub of Baltimore's cultural corridor."

After seeing Mr. Helms' portfolio, "It took me 30 seconds to make up my mind," says Chris Kozak, the tavern's co-owner. Mr. Helms got the job, provided he could finish the repro-masterpiece in time for this year's Artscape. In turn, the artist would receive expenses, free drinking privileges and, most critically, exposure.

Tonight at 7:30, the Mount Royal Tavern celebrates Mr. Helms' faithful reproduction at an opening reception -- the meatballs and chicken wings are on the house.

It has been a long haul for Mr. Helms, 27, who worked 10 to 13 hours a day, seven days a week to complete the ceiling, breaking only for a rare round of golf.

Four days before the reception, a fair amount of work remained to be done. Mr. Helms, nevertheless, paused in his sun-washed studio, set behind the Randallstown home shared with his father, Joe Sr. He has long brown hair, wears a Blue Devils cap and elaborate Celtic tattoos on his calves.

Artist for hire

Working as a free-lance artist since he graduated, Mr. Helms has tackled an impressive variety of assignments, from a Monet copy for a Hawaii doctor to a vaguely biblical fishing scene for Fisherman's Wharf restaurant to a Ninja Turtle horde for a community Dumpster.

Still, his versatility has not earned him a living, and he wants the world to know: "If I can do the Sistine Chapel, I can do anything."

Painted in oils on wide canvas rolls, the Sistine ceiling one recent day was draped to stunning effect around Mr. Helms' studio. Genesis scenes -- from the Creation of the World to the Drunkenness of Noah (a pertinent scene for tavern patrons) -- Old Testament Prophets, Seers of the Ancient World, nude youths mounted on painted pillars animated the room in haunting fashion, as if a psychic link existed between the rural studio and the Vatican circa 1512, when Michelangelo completed the ceiling.

Because canvas was available only in certain widths, Mr. Helms was forced to divide the mural "right down the damn middle." For now, Adam was on one side of the room, eagerly anticipating Creation. And there was God on the other side, reaching out to touch his first someone. (Mr. Helms easily resisted Tyme the bartender's suggestion to paint a Natty Boh can in Adam's hand.) For the canvas rolls to match up correctly, he had to paint the first one upside down.

Mr. Helms copied the ceiling to fit the tavern by following a computer-scanned image of the masterpiece, and dog-earred photos clipped from Life, National Geographic and a calendar. (He has never seen the Sistine Chapel in person.) Even with painterly short cuts and a studied lack of detail, the results are dramatically akin to the real thing. He sought a coloristic compromise that captures the ceiling in both its pre- and post-cleaning glory. Within months, Mr. Helms says, the Baltimore branch of the Sistine ceiling, now vividly cartoon-like, should acquire "that patina of nicotine."

Going to school

Has this painting marathon been educational? "I will never have to practice ears again," Mr. Helms says in jest. "It's kind of like going to grad school. I've painted more figures in two and a half months than in my entire time in college."

Since he was a child, painting came as naturally as breathing to Mr. Helms. He doodled in church while his parents sang hymns. He doodled on his desk in school when he should have been listening. It was "something my hand always seemed to be doing."

But he didn't give a career in art any thought until "my mom talked me into going to art school," he says. It was something "I had to stop fighting." As a member of a band, Mr. Helms practiced and practiced with no results, Mr. Helms says. "I never had to practice with art."

It takes time to earn a reputation as an artist and one needs to eat. So Mr. Helms and his partner, woodworker Adam Johnson, have established themselves as jacks-of-all-trades, for hire to do paintings, sculpture, furniture from any period a client may desire: "faux . . . folk art, Expressionism, Baroque, whatever."

Mr. Helms would prefer, of course, to do his own work, which is "mostly about my life during the time I'm painting it," he says. From a locked vault, he pulls out a huge, dream-like canvas of a nude and a prancing dog that encircle a womb-like image. It's overlaid with what looks to be an antique wallpaper pattern. Like Mr. Helms' other works, the painting is reminiscent of a collage, representing an assembly of "jumbled thoughts that make sense in the end."

The deadline

For now, such introspective efforts are on hold while Mr. Helms wrestles with the legacy of a genius. It was not just a matter of reproducing the Sistine ceiling; it had to be mounted on the Tavern's own asymmetrical drop ceiling, under a looming deadline. So, last Sunday morning, Mr. Helms and a crew of 10, including his father, arrived at the tavern after last call for an all-nighter. The ceiling had to be installed by 5 p.m. that same day, when the tavern's "Foodscape" exhibit, its annual Artscape spoof, opened.

By 8:30 a.m., half of the Sistine ceiling was in place. The juke box blasted Bach overtures and crew members drew their own beer from the tap. Mr. Helms Sr. brought breakfast from Roy Rogers. Someone was there to videotape the event.

It was tense work matching the canvas strips, making relief cuts in tricky corners, swabbing just the right amount of floor adhesive to the canvas back. Standing on a portable scaffold, the crew worked fast gluing canvas to the ceiling with rolling pins and paint rollers. They grunted, barked orders, argued a little. With each stretch of canvas in place, they rested and joked.

"Fred Lazarus, he's gonna lose it," said a friend of Mr. Helms, conjecturing on the Maryland Institute president's reaction to the ceiling.

"Let's start a rumor that Joe did it on his back. In one night! With spray paint!" the artist's friends plotted.

When he's back in town, Father John Dobranski, the priest who married Mr. Kozak and his wife, will bless the ceiling, the bar owner said.

As for Mr. Helms, he laughed, examined his work and pulled on a cigarette. He had miles to go before he would sleep.

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