Art has always been a part of Tolson’s life

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Submitted / Ocean City artist Helene Tolson decided to make a second career of her passion.  Submitted / Ocean City artist Helene Tolson decided to make a second career of her passion.

OCEAN CITY — When she was a little girl, Helene Tolson loved to walk to the Connoisseur Shop on the boardwalk and watch the legendary Jim Penland paint.

The late artist would sit in the front window, with his back to the boards, so the gathered crowds could watch him work his magic.

“I would stand there for hours,” Tolson said.

Eventually, she took lessons from Penland and the budding artist was hooked.

“Jim Penland was very influential,” she said.

A paralegal who spends most of her free time painting and drawing, Tolson was one of more than a dozen artists who painted utility boxes throughout the city this past summer. 

The third oldest of six children born to the late Charles and Bunny Tolson, she was born and raised in Darby, Pa. and moved to Ocean City with her family in 1954. She graduated Ocean City High School in 1966.

“I always loved art, all my life,” she said. “My father was very artistic. He had a huge set of pastel pencils and I still have them. The box is falling apart, but the pencils are still there.”

Sister Mary Palmer, a teacher at St. Augustine’s Regional School, encouraged her.

“She was really neat, she was an artist herself and she gave me a lot of attention,” Tolson said.

In high school, she spent three years with the late art teacher, Jim Pulvino, perfecting her work.

“He was wonderful, I loved his class and I learned so much,” she said.

After graduation, Tolson attended the New England School of Art in Boston. Eventually, she returned to Ocean City and started working in the hospitality industry.

“I decided I had to get serious about working,” she said. “I took classes at Atlantic Community College and went to work.”

The hotel industry took her from Atlantic City to North Jersey, and to California, Virginia and Pennsylvania.

When casinos came to town in the late 1970s, Tolson returned to Atlantic City.

“I worked for a while and decided it wasn’t for me,” she said.

For a while, she served in various secretarial positions before enrolling in a paralegal program. After graduating, she went to work for Bob Fineberg, a lawyer in Cape May Court House, and has been there ever since.

“I love it,” she said. “It’s always different, always a challenge.”

While she worked her way through the hospitality and legal profession, she never gave up on art. Pastels and paintbrush in hand, she traveled through Europe and Alaska, across America, painting the scenery. Most of her work ended up on Christmas cards and on the walls of her large and extended family. Eventually, she decided to make a second career of her passion.

“When they started talking about doing the Bark for Life event, my friend Shelley Ackerman asked me if I wanted to showcase my dog portraits since there would be a lot of dog lovers there,” she said. “She knew I liked to paint dogs.”

Tolson spent the next four months painting her family and friend’s pets.

“I cranked them out, and I really enjoyed doing it,” she said.

The dog lovers were duly impressed with her portfolio and a new career was born. The recent OCHS Red and White Alumni Art Show also opened many new doors for Tolson. Now, she’s expanded her offerings to include portraits of humans, homes and just about anything else.

“Every year, I’ve painted my own Christmas cards; I painted my sister’s and brother’s homes. I would draw them, paint them and then decorate them for Christmas on the card, so now I can do that for other people. I put snow on the ground, make it look pretty. For 45 years I’ve painted a Christmas card,” she said.

“The requests are coming in, it’s opened up a whole new world for me,” Tolson said, with a big smile.

She said she was thrilled to be asked by Community Arts Project President Leslie Skibo to paint the utility boxes.

“It’s helping me to make my way into the Ocean City art scene,” she said. “It’s so much fun, I just love being around the other artists. I’ve met so many nice people.”   

Tolson said she works during the day and paints on evenings and weekends.

“It’s so enjoyable,” she said, adding that she utilizes a variety of mediums in her work. “When I paint the dogs, I use pastels because it makes the fur look better. It’s easier to portray a dog in pastel rather than the flat medium of paint. For portraits of people, I use acrylic paint.

“Some of my work is avant-garde, some is realism,” she said. “It’s been very interesting, I love all of it.” 

Tolson’s website is helenesart.com.

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