Robert Helm, one of Eastern Washington's most acclaimed and enigmatic artists, died Tuesday at Pullman Regional Hospital after a brief illness.

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Robert Helm, one of Eastern Washington’s most acclaimed and enigmatic artists, died Tuesday at Pullman Regional Hospital after a brief illness. He was 65 and renowned for the surreal imagery of his paintings as well as the exquisite craftsmanship of his frames and trompe l’oeil.

“Bob was a very private person but showed his art all over the world: Berlin, New York, Los Angeles, Seattle,” said his friend Chris Bruce, director of the art museum at Washington State University. “He made art like a 19th-century cabinetmaker, through a meticulous, slow process that accounted for every brush stroke, every hair of a brush and piece of laminate.”

In Seattle, Mr. Helm showed his work over the years at Linda Hodges Gallery, Greg Kucera, and the former Meyerson/Nowinski Gallery. A retrospective of Mr. Helm’s work traveled to the Tacoma Art Museum in the mid-1990s. He received a Governor’s Arts Award in 1992.

As recipient of a Flintridge Foundation fellowship in 2004, Mr. Helm was praised for his consummate craftsmanship: “Robert Helm both paints on and applies wood inlay to wooden panels, creating dreamlike images featuring curious arrangements of objects, plant forms and naturalistically rendered birds and dogs. Helm creates his own frames for many of his pieces, heightening the impression that one is looking through a window into a personal universe.”

Born in Wallace, Idaho, in 1943, Mr. Helm attended North Central High School in Spokane, where he met Tamara Kimpel in 1959. They married in 1966 and had a daughter, Brenna, and a son, Boone. After Mr. Helm earned a master of fine arts degree at Washington State University (one of his instructors was renowned painter Gaylen Hansen), he taught at the University of Colorado for a brief time before returning to WSU to teach art from 1971-84.

In a sea of artists eager to get their work exhibited as much as possible, Mr. Helm stood out for his reticence. “As gallerists, we’d be so frustrated,” said Bruce, who worked for a time as director of Meyerson/Nowinski Gallery. “He’d let one or two paintings out every five years!”

Mr. Helm and his family lived in the middle of rolling wheat fields between Pullman and Moscow, Idaho, Bruce said. They had a second home in Idaho, on the shore of Lake Pend Oreille. A memorial service is being planned.

Sheila Farr: