Update from Jane Lillian Vance, July 10, 2013
This week, I visited my daughter and son-in-law, and over guava jalapeño margaritas, I tried to describe Helga's Folly, the famous "anti-hotel" built on a jungle hill overlooking Kandy Lake, in lush, tropical central Sri Lanka.
I must begin with its heart and its genius. Helga DeSilva Blow Perera, 5'11", once modeled for Christian Dior, and still moves like a movie star. It's as if every wall of Helga's Folly can't help but fan before her, like a peacock trembling its hopeful display. Amazingly, her beautiful Sri Lankan home, the size of a shopping mall, is intimate and soulful in every corner of each glorious room.
Being in Helga's Folly is an authentic experience. Madame Helga is authentic. My friend Gil Harrington says that authenticity has its own ring, like crystal, and, like Gil, Helga is the finest cut crystal you'll ever behold. What one receives at Helga's Folly is genuine. In Helga's company, you really ARE experiencing the presence of a woman who lives at the confluence of history, glamour, fashion, and art.
Beside you, that folding screen? A gift from Zhou Enlai. That castle in Gloucestershire, in the photograph? Helga's inheritance from her first husband. That photograph of Vivien Leigh, Miss Scarlet from Gone With the Wind? Lucky girl! She danced at Helga's Folly. Those stunning fashions? From Helga's incredible daughter, designer Selina Blow, and Helga's late daughter-in-law, Izzy Blow. That beguiling man in the house, with the tennis star legs, obviously also a man of letters and manners, discussing the collected works of Alexandre Dumas, and the architecture of Thomas Jefferson in Charlottesville, Virginia? He is Helga's beloved husband Desmond, and he is radiant with his heart of gold. Those photographs of Jawaharlal Nehru and the young Indira Gandhi? Family friends.
I was honored to sleep in the bed where Mahatma Gandhi would take rest, after retiring to say his prayers. We had intimate banquet-dinners at the octagonal Tabrobane table, lit by the Folly's signature enormous heaping wax sculpture-candles. The dashing staff are dressed handsomely, barefoot and in long, sashed shirts, taking pride in their exquisite vocabulary of origami napkins, which they snap open before placing delicately on your lap.
At one end of the hotel glistens a cool swimming pool, where, in the dry season, under the ancient allspice tree, leopards come to drink. Helga loves trees the way some people love cats or dogs or horses. She loves their benevolent presence, the life they give to the Folly's celebrated hill.
Red-faced macaques come looping and flying around the Folly's flower-festooned front balconies every morning. They know the rules. But occasionally, a monkey can't resist. The one who stole my banana from next to my cup of tea was an extremely polite thief. He was dexterous and single-minded, and backed away properly as soon as he had climbed the table and reached that mesmerizing ripe banana.
Helga knows that the wild pigs, the spotted deer, the monkeys, and the leopards own the hill in their own ways. She has a naturalist's equipoise. A tiny bat or two might swoop into the open, breezy dining rooms if you are enjoying an evening gin & tonic, and you feel so fortunate to be where life is in perspective. Life shows in the art inside Helga's Folly as well as in its jungle setting.
The walls and ceilings are covered with photographs, paintings, and antiques, and ornaments wink and stare and sway from every angle. There are worlds within worlds at Helga's Folly. The enormous guest books begin to tell the stories of travelers who have found this incomparable treasure-house and who profess they will never be the same. I believe that Helga DeSilva Blow Perera is an artist whose large, museum-like home, open to the lucky public, is her oeuvre.
Think of what it means for your home to BE your work of art. Helga's Folly belies its name. There is no folly in what she has achieved by her originality and perseverance, this symphony of art and history, this "mixture of pedigrees," as she likes to say, this collection of whimsical doodles and masterpieces.
I was extremely fortunate to be offered a grotto at Helga's Folly, where a permanent collection of my paintings now hangs, accompanied by antique furniture and statues and giant terra cotta pots. One of the paintings, Reve Helga, is my portrait of Madame Helga. Helga's home IS her dream. To my friends, and to people I don't know, I implore you to find a way to experience Helga's Folly. These words are feeble next to the transformative experience of BEING at Helga's Folly.
I had met Helga for 15 minutes, 18 years ago. I returned and spent three weeks there this summer, painting a giant mural on linen in the Jane Lillian Vance Grotto, because I never forgot what I had seen. I could not feel more honored if Frida Kahlo had called and asked if I would come to the Blue House and paint a grotto as a preface to her work. Helga is that great. Helga's Folly is that magical. I have never known a place like it. Go.
Update: June 25, 2013
Jane has been in Sri Lanka for just over two weeks. She has been enjoying life at the Folly in the company of Madame Helga. The Portrait of Madame Helga has been placed in its 17th century gold frame within the Grotto. The Great Beasts painting is at home on the wall in the JLV Grotto as well.
A new, 15’ x 10’ painting that will fill the space in the Grotto is underway. The painting includes a copper and gold leopard who is the guardian of the Grotto, a portrait of Morgan Harrington watching over those who pass through the space, many portraits of Helga’s family, a blue gentle Buddha, Ganesh, the Virgin Mary who looks up at Morgan, and many other images.
Both Jane and Reba have visited the jungle-spa, Samadhi, where they visited with Jane’s old friend Waruna in the lush, relaxing deep jungle of Kandy.
Jane and Reba dined with students and faculty, from Virginia Tech, who are visiting the Folly. This meeting was just another layer of the bridge connecting the New River Valley to Madame Helga, the Folly, and Kandy, Sri Lanka.
To see photos from the trip taken by friend, Reba Hoffman, check out the Galleries page.
JUNE 8 2013
Artist Jane Lillian Vance will travel to the island nation of Sri Lanka to the world-renowned hotel, Helga’s Folly.
Vance was contacted by owner of the Folly, Madame Helga DeSilva Blow Perera, to create a work of art that will fill a grotto in the entrance of the hotel. This is not the first time Vance has traveled across the world to share her art, and although circumstances are not the same, Vance sees similarities in the work.
“My last international project took me to the remote west of Nepal, to deliver a painting I was granted permission to do, a lineage painting of a famous Tibetan healer, Amchi Tsampa Ngawang, “ said Vance. “In some ways, I see that the project I will be doing in Sri Lanka this summer is another lineage painting.”
Esme De Silva, Perera’s mother, originally designed Helga’s Folly as a private Bauhaus-style home in the 1930's. It was later renovated as a plain “white-wall” hotel in the 1950’s. Over twenty years ago, however, it became a place of intrigue, extravagance, and serenity.
“This House has an interesting history,” said Perera, “Made so by good souls and interesting passing ships who have all left their mark one way or another.”
Starting in early March, Vance and Perera began collaborating on ways to fill the grotto. Though both parties plan to make a detailed and extensive exhibit, the short three-week visit presents certain limitations.
“Better if I had a year to do this work, but because of other commitments, three weeks is my slot,” said Vance. “So to trump the limitation of time, one part of the grotto will be a completed work I will bring from Virginia, a 4’ x 5’ painting called The Great Beasts Gather for the Sweetness of the Teachings.”
The grotto will also include collaborative art from Vance and Perera painted directly on the hotel walls. A portrait of Helga DeSilva Blow Perera, being painted by Vance, will hang in the grotto in a frame that has been waiting a long time to be filled.
“My first husband gave me a very beautiful gold 17th century frame on Valentine’s Day, and wanted me to choose an artist whom I thought could do a portrait of me," said Perera. “The frame hung empty for 47 years!”
After years of waiting, an artist’s website and Facebook page showed Perera the way to fill her empty frame.
“Seeing Jane’s work I felt an immediate excitement and knew at last that my quest was over,” said Perera. “Jane became a member of the Folly ‘Family'.”
Vance shares similar feelings of connectedness with Perera.
“Madame Helga is a kindred spirit,” said Vance. “I understand and share her artistic sensibility, the passion for the juxtaposition of objects, and the extravagant layering of art in order to create an environment as diverse as a jungle.”
Vance is working hard to prepare for the quickly approaching trip. While the grotto is the reason for the trip, and will require most of her time in Sri Lanka, Vance also has a few other plans during her travels.
“I have friends on the island that I haven’t seen in 18 years. I will visit Waruna Jayasinghe’s Samadhi jungle spa, and visit artist and sitarist Rahju, and his artist-daughter Rudrani,” said Vance. “But I expect to be a serious painter in my brief three weeks.”