Women today may feel that “the system” makes their lives impossible, but after almost six decades of life and art in Mexico City, Helen Bickham is not only a reminder of how much things have changed, but also that success is indeed possible for those with a positive attitude.
Bickham is an immigrant twice over, born in June 1935 in Japanese-controlled Harbin, Manchuria. Her mother was a Russian-speaking Ukrainian whose family migrated east with the construction of the Trans-Siberian Railroad. Her father was a U.S. naval officer. With the deteriorating political condition, he managed to get his family out of Harbin and to the United States just before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Unfortunately, he would die in that same war when Bickham was only eight.
The two eventually settled in a Russian immigrant community in San Francisco. As her mother needed to work, young Helen spent many hours alone, filling the time by reading and drawing. Her mother did not support her artistic talent, but fortunately she found support among her classmates and teachers, making drawings and decorations for them.
Bickham grew up in the 1940s and 1950s, long before women’s liberation, and was raised by a mother and stepfather who were traditional and strict, even for the time. However, she was too intelligent and restless for domestic life. She earned a scholarship to the University of California, Berkeley, but studied American civilization instead of art. She did take an art appreciation class, which sent her to a museum where she saw her first real painting, an Edouard Manet. She stared transfixed at the work as it was so different, so alive, compared to photographs in books.
She married a university professor and soon after had the first of her two sons. The marriage had its problems, but she had the opportunity to live in Italy, giving her the chance to paint as well as visit European masterpieces in museums. She continued to paint in the United States.
Bickham’s pivotal point in life was in 1963, when she went with her husband and sons for an extended trip to Mexico. During this trip, Bickham decided that she could not return with her husband to the United States. After “some drama,” Bickham and the boys remained in Mexico and the father returned to the United States.
She and the boys found themselves with only US$200 and no obvious way to support themselves. After some initial help from a friend in the city, Bickham found work teaching English, but life was a struggle. Their first home in Mexico City was on the fringes of the city, in a converted roof storage area that had no bathroom, only a chamber pot at night. Bickham was working, but most of her earnings had to go to a babysitter and medical expenses for one of her sons. Although they were the only foreigners in the area, with neighbors who could not pronounce her boys’ names (they called both “Juanito”), she found support there. Neighbors in turn shared their main meals with the boys. Helen, herself, subsisted on milk, coffee and a couple of street tacos each day.
It is important to note that in 1963, divorce was still taboo. Bickham could not tell social or business acquaintances the truth, so instead the story was that the father traveled extensively for work, and Bickham chose Mexico to give her sons a stable, bicultural upbringing. The second part of the story was true. Although such a story seems odd for us today, maintaining a respectable reputation when ladies still wore hats and gloves was extremely important. Bickham had to live a nearly monastic life, no socializing individually with men, especially not at her house. Even with all precautions, married women looked at her with suspicion.
At that time, women’s working options were extremely limited. Bickham said that at least one businessman she tutored in English recognized her intelligence, but told her she could not work with him because clients would not take her, and by extension, the business, seriously.
The most important thing to keep in mind about Bickham is that she has succeeded because she has focused on what she can do, not what she cannot. That continues to this day.
One thing she could do was teach English. She landed a job at the prestigious Garside School. Later, she was invited to be part of the founding faculty at the language department of the new campus of the National Polytechnic Institute.
This improved her economic situation, but until 1975, money continued to be tight. She continued to paint, but her responsibilities relegated this mostly to hours late at night when her boys were asleep. She also took advantage of Mexico City’s vibrant art scene, attending as many art exhibits as she could, in part because they were free to the public. This made her known to the city’s artistic circles, getting her work noticed, even sold. Her connections led to an opportunity to represent Mexico in the United Kingdom for a year in 1975.
This cemented her position as a Mexican artist, allowing her to paint full-time and leave English teaching almost completely behind. Over her active career, she has had 70 individual exhibitions and over 300 collective ones, primarily in Mexico, but also in the United States, Canada, Europe and Argentina. In 1997, she was accepted into the Hall of Fine Art (Salón de la Plástica Mexicana), a government-affiliated honor society for Mexican artists, and sits on the organization’s board.
Except for brief stays in the U.S. and U.K., she has lived in Mexico and calls it home. Her boys grew up, went to college, and both today have careers and families in the United States. She has always been a very independent woman, and for many years, she was known in artistic circles, not only for her painting, but her penchant to get around the city by bicycle long before it was fashionable. She still lives where she raised her boys, in one of those spacious old apartments in Colonia Roma that are fast disappearing.
Although fascinated by Mexico for many of the same reasons that other long-timers are, Bickham’s work does not dwell on folkloric Mexico. An aspect here and there may appear in her mature work, such as a maguey plant, but her focus is on the “universal emotions that make us human.” Her inspirations from Mexico come from its people, but how they interact and face the challenges that life throws at them. Her work is introspective, with body and facial language paramount, often indicating some kind of tension. She describes her work as a “window on an instant.”
Now in her eighties, Bickham remains a strong, independent woman, stubborn in the best sense of the word. Eyesight issues have severely limited her production, but she still puts paint on canvas. Meanwhile, she still focuses on what she can do, advocating for art with the Salón, along with issues pertinent to her neighborhood and tutoring professors and researchers in academic English.