SALT LAKE CITY — It was a fortunate turn of events that has kept an "Unfortunate" art exhibit around for another month at BYU’s L. Tom Perry Special Collections Library.
The exhibit, “A Collection of Unfortunate Art,” showcases Mormon illustrator and BYU alumnus Brett Helquist's newly donated illustrations from his iconic work on the Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events books. Thanks to positive feedback, the exhibit has been extended until Sept. 30.
Trevor Alvord, curator of 21st century Mormonism and Western Americana, was excited by Helquist’s donation because of its research value and the teaching opportunities it could offer students and beyond.
“I think it’s tremendous that he’s giving back to the community,” Alvord said. “He grew up in Orem, so he’s giving his artwork back to the community he was raised in and to the schools that helped educate him.”
'The Bad Beginning'
Helquist moved to New York City after graduating in illustration from BYU in 1993.
The would-be illustrator of many popular children’s novels found himself working a day job as a graphic designer to pay the rent, with occasional editorial illustrations for magazines and newspapers at night and on the weekends.
After nearly six years, Helquist said his lifetime itch to illustrate children’s novels came back.
“I started working for Cricket magazine and I remembered how much I preferred doing the narrative illustration and storytelling, rather than the conceptual ideas that editorial work required,” Helquist said. “I took a little time off my job and started working on a children’s book portfolio. I started showing that around. After two or three weeks, I got a call from an agent I was sort of starting to work with.”
Helquist said he was hesitant to work with an agent at first, but she convinced him to let her work for him.
Not long after, Helquist’s agent contacted him with a multi-book deal with HarperCollins. The first book was “The Bad Beginning” from a new series called Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events by Daniel Handler.
“I read it, thought it was funny, and probably would have said yes to anything at that point because it was a book and I wanted it so badly,” Helquist said. “It was an enjoyable read. It had picture potential in it, and I thought, ‘Well, this will be a good one,’ and that’s how the whole book career started. A really good beginning.”
As A Series of Unfortunate Events reached the height of its popularity in the early 2000s, libraries across the U.S. began requesting donations of Helquist’s work for their exhibits. This originally caught Helquist off guard.
“At the time, I had never conceived of anything like that,” he said with a pause. “But I thought if I was ever going to do this, I should do it at BYU because that’s where I went to school.”
Helquist contacted BYU the same year to discuss an art donation. The conversation set the groundwork for the exhibit now on display 15 years later.
A 'research' exhibit
Winter temperatures tickled the freezing point as Alvord and a colleague arrived in New York City to investigate a potential opportunity for BYU’s Special Collections Library. It was December 2016.
Alvord and his colleague were tasked with retrieving Helquist’s work to determine whether it would be suitable for an exhibit.
“He contacted us asking if we would be interested,” Alvord said. “Of course, for us that’s a big, positive thing when somebody reaches out to us. So we hopped on it right away and started working with Brett to identify what he had.”
Helquist’s cozy Brooklyn studio greeted the curators with more than just warmth. Eighteen boxes of assorted sketches and paintings were situated around the room — likely a hundred items per box.
Alvord said the boxes were “jampacked full of illustrations” and each one was “rare and valuable.” They had found exactly what they were looking for.
“These weren’t necessarily his finished pieces — the ones that directly fit the scenes he worked on,” Alvord said. “These are his background pieces. These are the little character studies he worked on over time. You really get a sense of how he moved along in his process and perfected the characters he was working on.”
Alvord said guests should view the collection as a “research exhibit” instead of as an art exhibit because the illustrations — although exceptional — are mainly incomplete or preliminary.
“It’s not an exhibition piece,” Alvord said. “Normally, when an artist is putting up art for an exhibit, it’s their final thoughts — it’s their best foot forward. Countless hours have gone into creating a final piece that we don’t ever really get to see. What is so powerful about Brett’s work is that you do get to see it. You get to see behind the scenes.”
If you go
What: “A Collection of Unfortunate Art”
Where: L. Tom Perry Special Collections Library, Harold B. Lee Library, 701 East University Parkway, Provo
When: Monday-Thursday, 8 a.m. to 9 p.m.; closed Tuesday, 10:45-noon; Friday, 8 a.m. to 6 p.m.; Saturday, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.; Sunday, closed.
How much: Free