Cambridge artist Helena Wurzel first took note of the blue hour — the 20 to 30 minutes after sunset — every day on her way home from work for a year. Wurzel was fascinated by the “electric” blue light spreading across the horizon, taking countless photos, and eventually painting “Spring Blues” in 2022.
The changing colors of the sky became the connective tissue of her solo exhibition “Snapshots,” which runs through March 19 at Praise Shadows Art Gallery in Brookline. Her work draws from the beauty and familiarity of seemingly mundane, intimate moments near home with family and friends.
As an educator for 15 years and a mother of two, Wurzel explained that it was often difficult to find time to paint. She left her role at Cambridge’s Buckingham Browne & Nichols School, where she taught art for eight years, to focus solely on her artwork last spring.
Many of her paintings involve landscapes she passes by every day in Cambridge, like Fresh Pond where she exercises and her street where she meets with neighbors and friends. To find inspiration, she explored these spaces in new ways, paying attention to how the light changes at different times of day and capturing the emotions and memories of ordinary places through the manipulation of color.
Wurzel describes herself as a “colorist,” an artist who uses color without the constraints of the natural world — for example, her subject’s skin can have a purplish hue if she decides it should. She said as her range of different colors and shades grows, her paintings become more “festive” and vibrant.
In “Caroline,” she depicts her friend and neighbor Caroline standing in the street after quitting a draining corporate job, learning to appreciate “a slower paced way of living.” Wurzel ran into Caroline a few months after quitting her own job and connected with her story.
“She was walking around just looking at gardens, enjoying the day,” said Wurzel. “That was a moment for me to reevaluate what I was doing and refocus my priorities, re-prioritizing my family and painting over constantly rushing and working all the time.”
Wurzel said she often showcases complementary colors, like the contrasting cool blues and warm oranges in “Caroline.” She painted the portrait based on late afternoon light, highlighting Caroline glowing with her newfound serenity and freedom.
Yng-Ru Chen, founder and CEO of Praise Shadows, thinks everyone can connect to Wurzel’s work because we have felt it before — the sun beaming onto our skin or a shadow casting over our bodies. She said many of the moments Wurzel paints are “quiet,” like neighbors sitting together or a woman hanging up her laundry.
“The way that she creates these silent moments through color bring them so much more energy and [they] come to life,’” explained Chen. “Those intimacies and the way that the atmosphere around you feels is what she is able to convey.”
Wurzel said concepts for art can be found everywhere, you just have to look around and “pay attention.”
“I find the natural world to be infinitely beautiful, so for me, I don’t have to go far to find beauty,” said Wurzel. “It can be as simple as the color of the sky at dusk, a shadow from the morning light, or the reflection in a car window.”
Helena Wurzel. Through March 19. Praise Shadows Art Gallery, 313A Harvard St., Brookline. praiseshadows.com
Maddie Browning can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.