Kate Kilpatrick-Miller has a special casette tape.
It’s the kind of tape teenagers in the 1980s used to pop in their boom boxes and record songs onto from the radio.
She made her special tape 24 years ago. It was a recording of her dad’s voice.
He was struggling with the effects of multiple sclerosis. The disease was taking him fast. Here was a way to freeze time.
“I said, ’Hey Dad, come here.’ At that point he could only remember two or three (family) stories. So I had him tell me, ‘So, how did you and mom meet?
“I think there was one other. It’s been a while since I listened to it, because I get emotional,” the Helper artist says.
She listens to the tape when she struggles to recall what her father’s voice sounded like. He died when she was 22.
“It’s just so good every once in a while to play it, to hear his voice. Because you forget what they sound like.”
Kate decided more than a year-and-a-half ago to provide some sense of this same comfort for her neighbors and friends in Helper. The painter and proprietor of K2 Gallery wanted to intersect this with her artwork as well, which formed the genesis of her Faces of Helper project.
The project involves identifying and conducting recorded interviews with people from Helper. In combination with the digital recordings, Kate paints a 15-by-17 inch portrait of the person.
High quality photographs of the paintings are taken, and Kate hopes to someday publish a book of the work. The recordings she hopes will find a museum resting place someday.
She’s already interviewed and painted 45 people. Her first show was in December. A second show opens Friday at her gallery.
The idea for the project crystallized one night over dinner.
“I blame Rich Colombo,” she says laughing. “I had dinner with Rich Colombo and his wife Becky. Rich is our fire chief. He grew up here. He was telling me about his family history here. I don’t remember if it was his grandfather or great grandfather, he came here from Italy and him and one of the Brunos lived in a cave for a year to raise the money they needed to bring the family over from Italy.”
Kate was so enamored by the story, the idea hit upon her that there must be countless similar stories among Helper’s diverse residents.
“I don’t remember all the particulars, we were just having dinner. It just stuck with me. That is such a cool story. I actually remember, it was probably two or three weeks later, it was a Sunday morning. The idea came to me. If that’s a cool story, there has got to be numerous cool stories,” she said.
Kate says because Helper is an old mining and railroad town, many of the stories she’s recorded so far center around those industries and attendant cultural attachments.
“There’s a lot of neat stories centered around mining and the railroad and actually just life here in Helper. There are certain things that come up because it’s a mining town and a railroad town,” she said.
Kate says Helper was such a hub of all the camps, and such a melting pot of cultures and languages and lifestyles, that many personal stories reflect an aura of strength from diversity.
“One of the neatest themes that I hear from everyone is the diversity here. That no one cared, people didn’t care where you were from; they cared and supported each other,” she said.
But many anecdote are humourous.
One woman recalled being attacked by a madam’s monkey as she delivered milk as a young girl growing up in Helper.
The stories, funny, tragic, happy or sad, all imbue Kate’s paintings with an emotional ingredient.
“Their stories do inform the painting even if it’s just my feelings toward them. Often, my feelings are all. It is just so neat because people’s stories, you realize what others have overcome just to get where they are. And it’s inspiring to me,” Kate said.
The artist so far has learned to focus on capturing the stories and images of Helper’s older residents.
She says three of her subjects passed away after she interviewed and put their images to canvas.
“I have to say this project has become a labor of love for me. I am recording and interacting and getting photos of people at as quick a rate as I can right now,” she said. “Because I have already been able to get two or three people who have passed away.”
A recent reminder of how precious her work is came in the form of Lorraine Babcock, a longtime Helper resident who died May 27.
“I had a scheduled time to meet with her and she passed away a week prior to that,” Kate said regretfully.
“So I feel even more of an urgency to get those done. There’s been a few people who’ve said ‘Kate, you haven’t interviewed me yet.’ And I just say you should take that as a compliment. Because I think you are going to be around a little bit longer.”
One ‘Face’ she will be showing in this installment of her project is Chuck Ghirardelli, who died in March.
“I was able to interview him before he passed. What’s interesting is that he didn’t even look ill of health to me. But one of his children reached out to me and said I don’t think he’s doing well, will you please get an interview as soon as you can,” Kate said. “He passed away a few months later.”
The artist says having the support of her subjects’ family is paramount. Because many of them are older, she wants to ensure she has their family’s blessings.
“Really I want to have the family be involved and make sure they feel comfortable with what we are doing with our older residents. I want everyone to feel comfortable and all that. It makes it a better experience for everyone,” Kate said.
The artist doesn’t always work alone. She said her friend Michelle Goldsmith is indispensable to her project.
“I have to give a shout out to Michelle Goldsmith; she’s been really helpful. It takes so much time getting people scheduled and everything. She’s become my secretary if you will to kind of help me with that,” the artist said. “She enjoys history quite a bit. I am sure it’s a labor of love for her, too.”
The latest Faces of Helper show will only be available to view until July 6, which is the next First Friday event in Helper. Kate plans to host a show for each new installment every six months.