Home Is Where The Art Is

A Helmstetter Family History by Ivory Isle Designs’ Josie Helmstetter.

Eleven years ago, when I first launched Ivory Isle Designs, though I didn’t realize it at the time, I was following a path that had been set for me long before I was even born. Art is embedded deep in my family’s DNA and as a third generation artist I am proud to follow in the footsteps, and brushstrokes, of my parents (pictured above and below), and grandparents.

To celebrate our new collection of “Artist Series” design suites based on several beautiful watercolors especially painted by my parents for Ivory Isle Designs, I’m delighted to share a little of my family history with you today.

My grandmother on my father’s side, Catherine Helmstetter (above), was a painter, working mainly in oils. She passed away two years ago and I miss her. Back in the day, she did some secretarial work, but mainly she was a mom and a homemaker. Though she never turned professional as an artist, her paintings were certainly noticed and she sold a few through galleries that exhibited her work.

Catherine’s sister, Winnie Fitch (below), is a well-known writer and illustrator of children’s books. In the ‘50s and ‘60s she also worked in advertising, producing charming illustrations for many of America’s best-known brands, including Mars Bars, Rice Krispies, Dial Soap and Pillsbury Pancakes.

Winnie married a jazz musician named John Houston, and together they created spellbinding books on tape. I grew up listening to one in particular, Allagash! It told the story of Rufus and Nellie Rabbit, a brave pair of rabbits who ride a hot air balloon, a canoe and a moose named Taloose in a bid to save a wilderness waterway from being flooded by a giant dam. Winnie and John are passionate conservationists and much of their work was about saving the environment for animals. They’re retired now and living on the Oregon Coast. To learn more about Winnie and John, visit their website HERE.

Though he didn’t paint, Catherine and Winnie’s brother Steve was also an artist. He sang and he acted. While stationed overseas during the Second World War, he fell into performing and found he had a knack for it, entertaining the troops. After the war he made a name for himself on Broadway using the stage name Stephen Douglass (above).

Nominated for a Best Actor Tony Award for his performance as Joe Hardy in Damn Yankees (1955), Steve enjoyed a long and successful life on the stage. His final appearance was in a UK production of Oklahoma! in 2003, at the golden age of 82. He passed away in 2011, aged 90, but if you’d like to hear him sing, he left some cherished treasures behind. You can download the original Broadway cast recording of Damn Yankees HERE and enjoy his velvet tones below.


My grandmother Catherine had four children, including David, who was inspired by his Uncle Stephen to take up acting, and my father Don. For years my dad owned a computer business, but art was his real passion. It was how he wooed my mom, Terry! He’d send her paintings and drawings. Once, he even sewed a doll of himself. He is constantly imagining and creating.

This is my favorite thing about my dad: every letter he sends, every Christmas card, every birthday card, there’s always some sort of drawing or doodle in it. He creates these funny little caricatures that my kids love. They always get excited to see a card from him in the mail. I do too. Honestly, my birthdays can’t come fast enough, as every year there’s some sort of wonderful art in his card!

My parents got into watercoloring together. They attended a class and took to it immediately. My whole life I’ve watched them paint. They painted a lot when they moved to Scotland in 1971, as the views were so inspiring. Now that my parents are retired, they paint even more. We’re back in the States now and our walls are filled with their lovely landscapes.

When they offered to help me with Ivory Isle Designs, I jumped at the chance to have them paint a series of design suites. Some are modern and abstract, others are more traditional, but the quality they all share is their beauty.

Because of my parents’ passion for landscapes, several suites are destination pieces. One features castles. Another, Midwestern barns. There’s a cool Hawaiian one, with canoes, pineapples and palm trees, and a tribute to the Northeastern Coast, with lighthouses, lobster traps and rowboats. I couldn’t be prouder of their work, or happier to share it with you.

Art is just as much a passion for me as it is for my parents, my grandparents, and now my own children. Though I’m more likely to paint something digitally than with a brush, it’s very meaningful to me to live a creative life, combining my family’s passion for art with my dad’s head for business to bring you these stunning new suites from Ivory Isle Designs.

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