Mercedes Helnwein: “It almost feels like entering a painting. It is breathtakingly beautiful and it will always be at home ‘


The dazzling Tampa sun that frames the fine features of Mercedes Helnwein seems light years away from the Gothic darkness of Gurteen Castle in Tipperary, where his family live. But Florida is, in fact, a suitable setting for this multitalented writer and artist. This is where the plot of her brilliant novel Slingshot takes place, an ironic and fun coming-of-age story, and a place she spent time as a child – her parents had there. a house. And the sun-bleached suburban blandness of the Sunshine State has always seemed oddly exotic to a woman who grew up surrounded by conflicted and subversive art in Germany and rural Ireland: her father is renowned Austro-Irish artist Gottfried Helnwein, whose nightmarish images of exploitation, Nazis and injured children have fascinated audiences around the world for the past 40 years. He and Mercedes’ mother Renate gave Mercedes and his siblings a free rein to express themselves, and Mercedes never felt the need for a teenage rebellion. And that’s part of why she decided to take care of it in a novel that taps into the pain and confusion of a “normal” adolescence.

I’ve always liked to write on the opposite frame from my own experience, ”she says. “I think that makes a better story. It’s more interesting if it’s restricted than if it’s completely free, like I was. The way I grew up was very unusual, and this education made me look outward. The secrets of the suburbs, the falsehood of the surface, have always interested me. That’s why I put the story in Florida.


Mercedes Helnwein at Gurteen Castle in Co Tipperary. Photos: Don Moloney

Mercedes Helnwein at Gurteen Castle in Co Tipperary. Photos: Don Moloney

And yet, there is a lot of her in her protagonist, Grace Wells, a sort of Holden Caulfield woman transported back to the 1990s as well.

“As a youngster, I was socially awkward and I was very shy. I felt like I didn’t know how to act normally sometimes. I wanted to give the girl in my story that personality. Obviously the reason I wrote it was just to go back to that time in my life and see how ridiculous I used to behave at times and how intense and disgusting it was to feel some of these emotions.

She remembers it as an “interesting” part of life. “You leave childhood and try to be an adult, but you don’t know much yet and everything feels new and strange. It’s also the first time you’ve fallen in love, and you wonder when will it ever end, and you didn’t know you were able to feel so miserable. As an adult you can be heartbroken, but when you’ve never felt it before, it’s a slap in the face.

Childhood was a simpler time. Until the age of six, the family lived in Vienna before moving to a medieval Rhineland castle near Cologne that his parents had bought.

“Much of it was being restored and there were spaces for studios. I remember being told that we were going to move to a castle and that I was disappointed because I expected a palace, like those in the city of Vienna.

She attended an American school, where her classmates were children of diplomatic and military families.

“I spoke English at school and then German at home. It was intentional, because my parents didn’t want me to have a German accent. They knew from experience how difficult it is to get rid of it. I have a lot of diaries where there is emotional trauma in adolescents, but it was a happy youth overall. “She sometimes felt embarrassed by his name.

“People would think my mom was calling her car when she was calling my name,” said Mercedes, smiling.

At Christmas 1997, when she was 18, the family traveled to Ireland. “We landed in Dublin. It was stormy; the plane was everywhere. I remember I needed a contact lens solution and nowhere was open, and we were driving around Dublin looking for a solution. There was a Christmas tree in front of the Bank of Ireland – there was a drunk person on it. Temple Bar was so different back then, there were so few tourists. We loved Ireland because it was so hot. There is a certain type of personality in Ireland that was so far removed from what Germans are. The Germans are very rigid and polite, but in Ireland no one looked down on you or looked down on you.

The Helnwein Family – nicknamed “The Real Addams Family” by The New York Times – had an apartment on Parliament Street in Dublin for some time before purchasing Gurteen Castle, a 40-room Elizabethan-style castle that was built in 1866 for Pope Pius IX’s chamberlain, Edmond de la Poer, and came from the same designer, Samuel Usher Roberts, who worked on Kylemore Abbey. Nowadays, it’s a work of art in its own right, one that has to be seen to be believed – Gottfried’s studio on its own deserves its own documentary, with its alchemical paraphernalia, skulls and comics strewn across shelves. But, at the time, it was a little more rudimentary. “Now my parents did a lot for Gurteen, and it’s like stepping into another world, but back then, when they bought it, it was a lot more run down and overgrown. We had our own rooms, which we hadn’t had in Ireland before, and it was a place where I could create my own world.


Artist Gottfried Helnwein in his house and studio in Gurteen Castle

Artist Gottfried Helnwein in his house and studio in Gurteen Castle

Artist Gottfried Helnwein in his house and studio in Gurteen Castle

As a child, Mercedes was often too anxious to model for her father, but she painted and drew herself. She decided not to go to art school, and her father allowed her to develop her talent organically.

“I didn’t want to go to art school because I could draw pretty well and I could tell how to get better or better. I think if you are on your own you develop your own style. My father was super passive; nothing pushed me to become an artist, but I drew like crazy all the time. Yet we were very close and we talked all the time about art, literature and painters.

An approach that has borne fruit. In 2000, Mercedes had her first solo art exhibition in LA, and in the following years her work gained illustrious audiences: Jack Black, Beck, and Juliette Lewis were among those who attended her exhibitions. She received critical acclaim for her paintings which seemed to allude to the sadness and horror behind the bourgeois surfaces of life. In 2005, the great Damien Hirst bought a whole series of his paintings, that is to say 11 works in total.

“My immediate reaction was to laugh so hard because it seemed so unlikely that it had happened. He feels like a mythical person. But honestly, I would have felt happy if someone had bought them. She also collaborated with Orla Kiely – Mercedes made several fashion films for the Irish fashion designer, whom she knew through a mutual friend. “We shot one of them in Ireland. I really loved the clothes Orla was making – that old-fashioned style from the 1960s but also very modern and cool with the patterns she used. In addition to her painting, art and cinema, Mercedes also published her first novel at the age of 23. Slingshot, it featured a disgruntled and sarcastic teenage protagonist, but it’s clear his writing style has grown a lot since then.

Mercedes met her husband, Chris Watson, a musician who was going to play in Lewis’s band, when they were in their early twenties. “A friend was taking pictures for her group and she wasn’t sure he liked the pictures, so she showed them to me and asked me what I thought.” Kind of like old-fashioned Tinder – saw the photos first? “Ha! Exactly. And she brought me to meet him, and I was still quite uncomfortable socially at the time. We just started talking about music, which was a big thing in our two. My friend left and we ended up talking for a few hours and we left from there. They had an “unofficial” wedding at Gurteen Castle, but then got married for real in LA “in the one of those places where you can get married in half an hour “.

Her relationship with Watson was a very different experience than falling in love for the first time, she says. “I wanted to find someone who would give me stability after my first love, in my early twenties, which made me unable to concentrate. He (his first love) was an artist. When I went through all of this I was aware that I just couldn’t cope with it because it was too overwhelming and intense and I wanted to be able to focus on other areas of my life and work, which is the most important thing for me.

She may have grown up, but it feels like a bit of the inner teenager survives within Mercedes. Her hair is a shade of green that might not look out of place at a rock festival. The 90s song playlist – Smashing Pumpkins and Beck – that complements Slingshot are still among his favorites. When she speaks German, the language of conversation with her parents, her vocabulary is “stuck at a certain age… it’s not very adult, I would say. If I had to give an interview in German, I would sound like an idiot. Internally, she feels “around 16,” she says, and there might be some perks to that as well: on the outside she looks a lot younger than her 41 years old.

She still divides her time between the United States and Ireland. His parents became more and more closely linked to the community around Tipperary Castle. She mentions that her mother plays music in local pubs and that once a year Renate and Gottfried, who appeared on Tommy Tiernan’s TV show earlier this year, open up the castle grounds to locals. For all of Mercedes’ cosmopolitanism, this unique property in the heart of rural Ireland is a heartwarming touchstone. “I feel very lucky to have it as a place to come back. It is always a relief for me, just when I see Ireland for the first time; all the beautiful fields and small walls. I’ve been coming back to Gurteen for so many years now and at this point it almost feels like stepping into a different world or into a painting. It is breathtakingly beautiful and it will always be at home.

Slingshot of Mercedes Helnwein is released by MacMillan

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