By Jenn Watt
Published Sept. 27 2016
Columns of brightly coloured scarves hang from the ceiling of Helen Newton’s studio in Ingoldsby. Organized by colour and further sorted by shade the the flowing silk accessories light up the room which is further decorated with quilts large and small.
Newton 78 has been on the Haliburton County Studio Tour since its inception in 1988 bringing her passion for wearable art to thousands of visitors over the years.
On a sunny Thursday in September Newton takes a break from her almost constant motion to sit and chat about her art and craft her award-winning teaching career and the role art plays in keeping her motivated.
Under a small glass-topped table at the door of the studio the retired teacher keeps several colour wheels used long ago when she did work for Mary Kay. They help identify which “season” someone is – based on skin tone eye and hair colour people are grouped by season to help choose which colours look best. Newton wears a bright blue scarf around her neck and holds up several others on her arm to illustrate the importance of choosing the right colour.
The scarves are created in the summer outside. Each takes about 45 minutes to create.
“They’re done outside and they’re hand-brushed stretched on a frame hand-dyed” says Newton. They’re then steamed washed and ironed.
“It takes quite a while but I love doing it” she says. “But then again I think I love everything I do.”
Newton is a light-hearted woman who takes her goals seriously. She attributes her drive to being the only girl amongst six brothers growing up in Ingoldsby.
“When you’re in a big family … you sort of have to kick and fight your way up” she says.
She’s had to fight and kick more than most.
When Newton then Helen Hicks was 14 her mother died leaving her as the only girl to do much of the housework. “I was always determined that I was going to get top marks. I can remember … after my mom died I was working at night and I’d be crying doing my homework.”
Other kids were outdoors playing but young Helen kept at her school work.
That tenacity was needed not long after when she decided to go to school to become a teacher.
“I was determined to go into teaching and Dad was going to help me but Dad passed away the fall I was going into teaching.”
Without the money to pay tuition Newton took two years to work in Toronto to raise the funds.
“I went from Ingoldsby to downtown King and Yonge” she says.
Newton ended up moving back to the Highlands and working in Gooderham before having her three children with husband Alvin.
After a 10-year break from teaching she decided to re-enter the workforce but had to return to school to upgrade her skills. They made it happen with Alvin taking care of the kids and rearranging his schedule so Helen could go to school at Trent University in 1973.
“The big thing was I was in the last course of my degree when he [Alvin] had … the virus that caused his blindness. I was so lucky. Here I got everything I needed to get ahead and was able to take over [earning money]” she says.
“It seems every time I get knocked down I just stop and decide the way I’m going.”
Newton taught until 1997 integrating art skills she acquired by taking courses at Haliburton School of the Arts. She would teach the students how to make all sorts of art projects over the years. She still hears from many of them some of whom have saved the work they did back then. In 1996 she won the TVO teacher award for elementary school. She retired the next year.
In 2000 Alvin died from cancer which is about the time Newton decided she’d throw herself into quilting.
“Since my husband passed away my aunt told me at the time Helen get a hobby that keeps your mind busy – so busy you can’t fret and stew over things” she recalls.
“I started quilting and I made hundreds of quilts since then. That’s my winter project and then I do the scarves in the summer.”
Newton’s studio walls are padded with the blankets. Some are more traditional patterns and colours while others reflect whimsical creativity. Up close the marks of careful consideration loop and dip through the fabric of the quilts. One child’s quilt is made with a fabric depicting fireflies. The stitches swirl around the blanket ending here and there in a star shape much as you would draw a flash of light from a tiny insect in the night.
“In quilting normally you push the fabric around” Newton says.
However she uses a long-arm which allows her to move the machine rather than the fabric to make shapes.
When faced with health issues over the past several years Newton put her mind to her artwork which has never failed to keep her motivated she says.
This year she’s asked her niece Shelley van Nood to join her on the tour. Van Nood is also a quilter who lives in Lochlin and applied to be a guest at her aunt’s studio. She went through the jurying process and will be adding her quilts to Newton’s studio in Ingoldsby.
“Shelley and I always work well together. It’s a nice situation” she says.
While Newton has never missed a studio tour since it started she says it complements rather than encroaches on her lifestyle.
“I don’t make the studio tour my life. My life makes the studio tour because what I love to do results in what you see” she says. “I’m not doing it because I have to do it. I’m doing it because I love to do it.”
Helen Newton is studio J on the Haliburton County Studio Tour. Her studio is in Ingoldsby at 1270 Kashagawigamog Lake Road. She takes cash and cheques only and you can contact her at email@example.com or 705-286-1387.