August 1, 2005
By Mercedes Helnwein and Geoff Nishimoto
The story of Mercedes began in a hospital in Vienna, Austria, somewhere at the end of 1979. Thanks to her parents, life never threatened to become very normal. Her father, Gottfried Helnwein, had long before her birth already established his name in the fine art scene, and not without controversy. At her inception, Mercedes’ favorite color was pink, her favorite food spaghetti and her favorite animal was the rhino from the Viennese zoo with the severe mood swings. She loved to watch it charge at the visitors. Her best friend at the time was Rudy, a one-legged art student with long black hair and beard, who was living in the children’s room and doubled as nanny occasionally. Rudy and Mercedes would have long conversations about ballet and take walks through the park. Many a morning he would wake up to find his leg somewhere at the other end of the apartment. He resembled Jesus physically and had a fondness for strong language. He had been an Olympic high jumper for Austria, but after a bad accident and a less than perfect job at the hospital, he lost his leg and became an artist.
Mercedes and her brother Cyril
When she was five, Mercedes first visited America, and it appeared to be an entirely different planet. Things were far more glittery, much bigger, much louder, and it seemed they had more pink over there. She was especially fascinated by the fact that they had shops there which sold socks with ruffled, lace edges and glossy, white shoes for girls with fake pearls on them. They also had these miniature cereal boxes with pictures on them of suns pouring raisins into bowls of cornflakes. They had supermarkets that never closed and taxi cabs with funny drivers that actually talked when they drove you around.
Her father’s growing obsession with castles finally led the family to relocate from Vienna to the German countryside in 1984. When her parents told her that they would be moving into a castle, Mercedes thought that quite frankly it was about time. In the weeks that followed, her mind supplied her with images of endless hallways stretching into obscurity, marble ballrooms, diamond chandeliers dripping from the ceilings, fountains with statues spitting water, and gilded furniture. She was highly disappointed when they arrived in front of a rugged 14th century country castle overgrown with ivy. There were weeds in the park and a stone wall two yards thick surrounding the grounds. Needless to say there were no fountains or gilded furniture anywhere to be found.
Anyway, this is where Mercedes and her three brothers Cyril, Ali and Amadeus spent most of their childhood. Thanks to an acute lack of television, video games and other deadly ingredients, they really had no yardstick of "childhood" to measure up to. No clean-scrubbed, healthy fantasy of any parents intervened with the pure absurdity that is childhood. Boredom was simply not an option. Two Mexican friends of theirs, Olga and Lily came to join them in Germany for a year. In the summers they went swimming every day at a near-by lake. They made magic potions and made each other drink it out of Wellington boots. They harassed their neighbor – the aptly dubbed "smoke witch." And they built castles on old tree stumps in the forest which they made out of little sticks, moss and stones (they invested this time in architecture for the local fairies). There were a couple of months when they slept in a tent in the yard; and then there were a couple of months when they pulled their mattresses onto the balcony and slept there. The dog, Anja, would generally join them in bed, wherever that was at the time.
The castle, was of course, was haunted, and so rules were established. When one of the kids woke up and had to go to the bathroom in middle of the night, he was allowed to wake up all the others, and they’d all walk up the staircase to the bathroom together.
Mercedes has been drawing ever since she can remember. She carried paper and pens around with her wherever she went. Obviously, one could never draw enough princesses or mermaids. However, she did have a little phase of realism when she turned seven, during which she took to doing endless portraits of her brother, Ali (who had no choice but to pose whenever inspiration struck). Shortly after her tenth birthday, her tutor suddenly demanded a written story for homework. But what was one supposed to write? And why? With much effort, she completed her first literary endeavor, entitled simply "The Girl". She felt neither here nor there about it, but as the months went on and the writing homework continued to be dished out, her stories began to grow into surreal monsters. Mercedes realized that she had stumbled upon the powers of a god. All one had to do was pull out some lined paper, take a pencil and never look back. Bad grammar and all – nothing was too bizarre, nothing was too much – there were no limits. Cats ruled kingdoms, sharks could talk, celery sticks became president and fat ladies could not get out of Disney World anymore. It was a brave new world.
When she was eleven, Mercedes went to boarding school in England with her brother Ali for several years. There they became addicted to black tea with milk, learned musical instruments (Mercedes the piano and Ali the violin), learned how to make "Shepherd ’s pie" in cookery class, played tennis, and acted in numerous school plays as chickens, evil ladies and what not. They also took on British accents and began to refer to French fries as "chips", chips as "crisps", underwear as "knickers", sweaters as "jumpers" – and when someone had a crush on someone, they "fancied" them. And speaking of which, this is where Mercedes got her first love letter. It came on a long torn piece of paper and read quite simply: "Mercedes, I love you very much. Signed, Daniel." Tragically, the relationship never really got off the ground. Mercedes avoided the young man in question, and the young man eventually hit her on the head with a book during class. He was Swiss.
Following Mercedes in her haphazardly travels around the globe, we arrive in Florida, where she attended high school. By the time Mercedes was seventeen she had already written and discarded a fat Victorian novel, entitled "Oakwood Manor" after which followed another novel (also discarded) entitled "The Midnight Thinker." She led a secluded life as a teenager, never touching alcohol, drugs or cigarettes. Instead, she spent her time covering classical literature from Poe to Dickens, Hugo to Dostoyevsky. When she got to Mark Twain her whole existence changed. She fell in love with the Mississippi river, with Missouri and Arkansas – the south in the days when one could float a raft down the river without a license, a social security number, or single cent. Back then time didn’t exist, and ideals toppled over realism.
The gently paced Southern lifestyle that began to enchant Mercedes grew even more endearing with her discovery of the Blues. At first there was only slight curiosity on her part, accompanied with nothing more than a vague smirk. That is, until she picked up a CD somewhere of a guy called Leadbelly. There was a song on there about a preacher trying to kill a gray goose on a Sunday – "One Sunday morning’, Lord, Lord, Lord! Preacher went-a-huntin’, Lord, Lord, Lord!" This was more than just amusing. Something about the deafening simplicity knocked her senses into a hitherto unknown paradise. Soon to follow were Robert Johnson, Blind Willie McTell, Son House, Charley Patton, Blind Willie Johnson, Howlin’ Wolf, Slim Harpo, Muddy Waters, and so on...
"When some sweet anonymous voice, so rough that it sounds like it’s going to crumble to bits at any moment, begins to moan ". . .The Mississippi river, you know it’s deep and wide, I can set right here, see my baby at the other side. . ." And it makes your insides want to evaporate and leak from your lips – well, then you pretty much know that you’re spoken for. You’re trapped in the blues and you’ll never again find a way out. You can call it anything you want: Reborn. Lost. Salvaged. Doomed. Redeemed. You’ll never be lonely again, and you’ll never be satisfied."
- Mercedes Helnwein, from "The Church of Blues."
Things would certainly never be the same again.
Christmas Eve 1997- Late at night, the Helnweins sat in a plane attempting to make a rough landing in Dublin. There was a pretty bad storm and the plane shook, suitcases thundered into the aisle and air holes made people squirm in their seats. Once landed, they drove through the desolate streets of Dublin. Everything was closed, and there were only about three cars on the street. Not a sign of life anywhere to be found, except for a drunken kid that sat singing at the tip of a large Christmas tree in front of the Bank of Ireland. Mercedes and her family became Irish residents that same year and settled into the countryside of Tipperary. Here, Mercedes dedicated her entire time to her work. She began a series of ink drawings inspired by Robert Crumb, Alfred Kubin and her father’s early etchings and began work on a new novel "Amazing Grace". The rest of the time she spent becoming acquainted with Bulmers (local apple cider alcohol), Irish set-dancing (social dancing that was the forerunner to square dancing).
"Ireland is in possession of a sanity that is more potent than most places. Everything that is so painstakingly important in other places seems to brake there, and you’re left more or less with just yourself. And although you might feel slightly naked for the first few hours or days, wanting to know where to put your hands, what to worry about, whom to exchange arrogant glances with, you can’t really help but feel some kind of massive, benevolent relief."
-Mercedes Helnwein.
In the spring of 2000, Mercedes found herself alone in Los Angeles. At first it seemed to be nothing more than a ridiculously spread-out, ugly city with a bad case of smog. There was no center, and there were freeways you actually took to get from one part of the city to another. Traffic bloomed into a hot nightmare every day, twice a day. And to get around the damn place you had to develop a sense of where east, west, north and south was. What’s more, people seemed to be superficial idiots. Mercedes didn’t have much of a problem developing a secret egotism, with which she looked down on the uneducated masses around her that apparently didn’t know shit from shit and only stumbled over each other in the cesspool of mediocre and embarrassing culture. (No one knew about this secret egotism, by the way, since she was generally considered to be a mild-mannered, shy Austrian girl who drew a little more than was healthy and wrote weird short stories on the side). She drove a battered up milky-blue Volvo from the mid-eighties at the time. This car had some kind of battery problem, where it developed supernaturally horrible smells on a regular basis. Her brother Ali joined her shortly afterwards, and together they lived for a year in a luxury apartment, furnished with two Ikea chairs, a table and two mattresses.

But time inevitably went on, and life did its thing and turned everything around like an hourglass. Mercedes’ hatred of L.A. evaporated one day when she arrived back there after a long absence. The city seemed friendly for no apparent reason. She found out that the entire population of Los Angeles did not, in fact, share a single brain cell. Right underneath Hollywood there seemed to be a base of artists, musicians and various other weirdoes who took it into their hands to make the air breathable. Things were happening left and right, and all one really had to do was jump in somewhere. This was a place where everything was possible. Mercedes packed up her egotism and stored it underneath her bed; and instead of raising her eyebrows in disdain, she began to find every corner of this goddamn city interesting – even if you had to tilt your head in some instances and kinda squint your eyes. After a few months, it became obvious to her that one has to make money to survive. This being an established fact, it was time to sit down and figure out what skills one could put to use in the modern world (and demand large sums of money for). There was really no way around art.
She began to exhibit her work and developed a growing circle of collectors. Work on her novel "Amazing Grace" was progressing steadily, and it seemed she had finally settled into her own style of writing. The story, taking part on the roads of the Midwest, required her to hit the freeways and country roads herself, hob-nob with real live hillbillies, experience Jesus culture in three dimensions, get lost in cornfields, eat bad food at rest stops, and so on. It was January; she had no car and no one to go with her. That is, until her friend, photographer Alex Prager, decided to come along. Alex scraped together some unemployment checks, Mercedes rented a blue Dodge Neon and they set off on the third of February.
"I’ve always loved America. I’ve loved it for its bygone idealism, and the melancholic ruins of its golden age. The age of porch music and mountain ballads, pies cooling in the windows of farm houses, crossroads at midnight, the mile-wide tide of the Mississippi and the bad grammar of blues songs – and of course Jesus freaks and the Devil.
Anyway, I first became aware of my odd affections for all this when I was fourteen . . . and thanks to years of shattered plans and trips that just evaporated before they ever began, the desire to travel through the country hardened in me until I was beginning to feel as restless as a fifty-year-old housewife, still waiting for her first orgasm.
Well, that orgasm finally came nine years later. It didn’t come easy, but it came about all the same.
I might just mention that it’s probably easier to find a crowd of people to immigrate with you to Hungary than find three people who want to drive from L.A. to Ohio and back in the middle of winter..."
-Mercedes Helnwein, from "Ain’t it Grand!"
Thrilled by the Midwest in more ways than might be physically possible, Mercedes and Alex decided to take off to the Midwest again that same summer. This time they were joined by filmmaker Beth Riesgraf, and the three of them decided to mold their trip into a joint art project. Mercedes would write a book about the trip, Alex would create a photography series and Beth would document everything with film. The outcome was "America Motel," an installation that was later exhibited in a local motel of that very name in Los Angeles. The show was hosted by Jason Lee and Chris Pastras and was sponsored by WESC clothing. With press in the Los Angeles Times, the show was packed almost as soon as it opened and left its impression quite deeply. In place of the Bible, Mercedes’ book "Devil Got Religion" was laying on each night table, Beth’s film "Far Away Swimming Pool" was playing on each of the television screens, and Alex’s photography was hung in the rooms.

Shortly after the show, the girls became Weactivists and have been ever since. "Devil Got Religion" was chosen by art critic and writer Peter Frank for a group show entitled "In America Now" at the Omelveny Gallery, West Hollywood.

Mercedes Helnwein lives in Ireland and downtown Los Angeles. She is working on drawings and paintings for two upcoming shows, and is preparing to start her next writing venture – a new novel which will involve a lovable cast of illegal immigrants. Together with her brother, composer Ali Helnwein (, she has started STRAYED DOGS, a company dedicated to the production of pure, unadulterated art. Other than that, she drinks a lot of black tea and is trying to learn the banjo. She has just finished reading "East of Eden" by John Steinbeck, and is convinced that Mr. Steinbeck is what is technically referred to as, a "goddamn genius."
Life smells good, folks.
Mercedes Helnwein
1) What motivates you in your art?
Other art, and weird things in general – things that are surreal, and random or abnormal. I have a notebook just for phrases I’ve heard, pieces of dialogues, quotes from bumper stickers or billboards, fragments of old folk and blues songs...these are all things that seem to get the cogwheels turning in my head. I love good lyrics like "well, that new way of lovin’, swear to god it must be best, all these Georgia women won’t let Mr.MacTell rest..."
2) Encounters with the Swedish?
I’ve never been to Sweden, but the Swedes that I have encountered seem to have about three times as much energy as the average American citizen. I got stuck in an elevator with a bunch of them once and it was great.
3) Best thing about WESC?
The sponsorship of artists. I think that’s a genius idea. People in general seem to have the idea that art is cute or something decorative or kinda pleasant?if you’re in the mood. In reality, it’s all that matters.
4) If I wasn’t an artist,
I would be: a musician. And if I had to be something that wasn’t art-related I’d maybe be a doctor. I’d just love to have the power to cure things. I used to love human biology, and have always wanted to witness an operation (although needles make me nauseous).
5) If they made a TV movie of me what would it be called?
I would have liked Marlene Dietrich to play me. I know it’s a little on the flattering side, but then again, so is the question. I’d want the movie to be called something like, "I Feel Just Like Jesse James."
Mercedes Helnwein

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