LAKE TAHOE — With one stroke of a paintbrush, Michael Heltebrake reaches internal happiness. The large-scale artist possesses a quiet, unimposing disposition, but his bold and geometric paintings are anything but muffled. He paints with passion, perseverance and an unwavering concentration on making art a lifelong career.
Heltebrake spent his early childhood amid the hustle and bustle of Los Angeles where he recalled dodging traffic on his skateboard down Ventura Boulevard. As a young teen, his family relocated to the suburbs of Orange County – a mindless and uninspiring move for the young and adventurous Heltebrake.
After graduating high school, Heltebrake broke free from the cookie cutter life of Southern California. With $75 in his pocket and a truck full of his most valued possessions, he drove to Mammoth to pursue life as a snowboard bum.
While in the mountains, the burgeoning artist began putting years worth of ideas on canvass. He had always doodled during his adolescence, but his progression as a painter unfolded organically.
“What made me start painting, I don't really know ... I was 19 when I first picked up a paintbrush,” Heltebrake says softly, humbly. “I had a canvass in my home in Mammoth and I just looked at it and started painting on it — it felt so natural so I painted another picture, then another one, and it was just this natural thing in my brain.”
After a few years, the lackadaisical lifestyle of Mammoth grew tiresome for the visionary vagabond, so he sold his home, purchased an RV, packed up his art supplies and hit the road, heading for the northwestern coast.
“Mammoth was good, but in the end I had to get out — the mountains were incredible, but the mentality was weird — no one ever wanted to leave the mountain,” Heltebrake said.
While jaunting around the Oregon coast and Canadian border in 2005, Heltebrake decided to make a detour to Burning Man, but needed to rake in some cash before journeying into the desert. As a trained carpenter, Heltebrake found a temporary gig in North Lake Tahoe and instantly fell in love with the people, the vibe and the impressive, inspiring environment.
“Tahoe is rad and there's way more of a flow here than Mammoth ever had, and if you need to cut out you can go to the city — it's a lot more accessible,” Heltebrake said.
Upon returning from Burning Man, Heltebrake's energy for painting became electrified and he immediately went to work in his backyard creating colossal pieces inspired by his lifetime of observing the world around him.
3-D imagery consumes his canvasses, bold colors collide in organized chaos, esoteric objects are revealed through close examination. Pieces range in scale from big to gigantic with the largest creation splashed across three pieces of plywood, each measuring seven feet wide by 12 feet tall. His lines are calculated, geometric and reflective of his skill in carpentry.
“I was painting a picture in my yard on my first door — I've painted a lot of doors — and was beginning to fill my living room with my work when people walking by started asking if I was showing,” Heltebrake said in his characteristically soft voice. “I was nervous, I had never shown before, but I kept getting comments so I painted a few more pieces and realized this was something I needed to pay attention to.”
A friend and local business owner approached Heltebrake to hang a piece in his Incline Village restaurant, marking his first official showing and putting him on the map of Tahoe artists.
Momentum increased through an article featuring Heltebrake, which was published in Reno Passport Magazine, followed by a gig in San Francisco where Heltebrake custom painted a mural for a music video.
However, the rollercoaster ride took a downturn when Heltebrake found himself struggling to cope with difficulties in his personal life, so the transient once again packed his bags and hit the road for Santa Barbara to clear his mind.
“I moved down to Santa Barbara and forced myself to paint, but the only space I could find was in a shed full of tools; it wasn't too ideal,” Heltebrake said. “I ended up painting a picture called Moxie, which was basically me re-finding myself after being lost and finding that power where I felt ready to take on anything, that energy I had before.”
Heltebrake sought contentment as an artist living amongst a community of well-to-do people, and while there were opportunities to show his work and participate in live painting events, he didn't feel completely complacent with his life in the quaint, Mediterranean town.
On the outside, Heltebrake had established a respected reputation as an artist, as well as upgraded his studio to a secluded garage space at the base of the Santa Ynez Mountain Range, but on the inside, his free-spirit thirsted for the Bohemian mountain life he had left behind.
“As beautiful a place as it is, it was not my vibe, and I wanted to be with family and friends and make that space happen in Tahoe again,” Heltebrake recalled.
An invitation to paint live at The Bounce Festival in the Northern Sierra presented Heltebrake with the perfect escape and after making a few back-and-forth trips to transport his ample collection of paintings, he reestablished his roots in Tahoe.
The transition wasn't without bumps in the road, but true to form, Heltebrake took the ups and downs in stride and continued to paint his way back into a state of ecstasy.
“At this point, I'm just allowing things to happen as they will and I have it in my mind that I'm not going to stop, but I'm not going to push it too hard, I just want it to exist naturally,” Heltebrake said with a thoughtful pause. “It's about opening creative doors and exploring where they lead me and my work.”
Over the past year, Heltebrake has produced multiple, one-of-a-kind masterpieces in the quiet realm of his studio space and at live events where he strokes his brush across a canvass for hundreds of onlookers to witness.
He prefers painting to the sounds of melodic beats, inspiring a rhythmic movement over the canvass, rather than the piercing roar of heavy metal. He favors working in shorts versus pants, he likes to be barefoot, but can't paint if he's too cold — temperature, space and energy are key elements in his creations.
Heltebrake artwork now adorns the walls of recently-opened Blu Gallery in Tahoe Vista and at Swill Coffee and Wine Bar in Reno, and most of his work is on display through his website, which he custom designed with his unique and innovative style.
“I'm getting a lot of weight off my shoulders by unleashing all these images I have in my head … sometimes I will make myself cry painting because it will stoke me out so much,” the introverted artist said with honesty. “This has been the time of my life and I've been happier than I've ever been pursuing this and jumping in head first.”