It was inevitable that artist Nina Helms’ work would find a home in Hawai‘i. The internationally renowned mural sculptor finds her inspiration in nature, and she considers the sea her deepest muse. Hawai‘i’s ocean, she says, “is the very best of it—huge, with all the magical and wonderful world within their swell. Life and movement underneath, the curl.”
She set out to capture that magic in her installation “Makai”—meaning “toward the ocean,” in Hawaiian—a 37-by-20-foot coral sculpture in the lobby of ‘Alohilani Resort in Waikīkī. “I want people to experience their intricacy, but with awe, a feeling of grandeur,” Helms says.
Helms didn’t always have such a profound reverence for the sea. “As a child, I was afraid of the water,” she recalls. “But the first time I snorkeled, off the coast of Mexico, life was changed. All the beautiful fish and coral, the sense of tranquility and quiet. Peace.”
Her creativity, on the other hand, flourished from a young age, when teachers asked her to decorate their classrooms with colorful chalkboard illustrations. She went on to attend the University of the Arts in Pennsylvania and the Stevenson Academy of Fine Arts in New York, working as an illustrator and graphic designer before encountering a floral bas-relief on a chateau ceiling in France’s Loire Valley, an experience that transformed her approach as an artist.
Helms now uses a mixture of resin and clay—selected for their pliability and longevity—to bring her illustrations to life. A self-proclaimed “sculptural illustrator,” she produces her designs in her studio in Greenwich, Connecticut, shipping them in segments to hotels, corporate spaces, luxury properties, and private residences around the world.
“I always go big,” Helms says of her larger-than-life images, “because I want people to stop and experience my work, give pause, feel something—like the way I feel, personally, about my subjects.”
For Helms, art is often a spiritual experience, in both its creation and in the reactions it inspires in viewers. “It’s about emotion and sentiment,” she says. “Not only an awareness of the craft.”
So what emotion does Helms hope her “Makai” sculpture evokes in its viewers? “The feeling you get when you are on the sea bottom and sense the bigness and unity of it all,” she says.