Helene and Bill Plank display some of their artwork in their Lawrence home. (Staff photo by Samantha Sciarrotta.)

People tend to imagine retirement as a time to relax. Bill and Helene Plank, though, envisioned it as an opportunity to fulfill their dreams. The couple delved into artwork and launched a small business devoted to their craft. Now, their respective art has been steadily growing in popularity and has earned high praises among local galleries and collectors.

Most recently the Planks took home two of the three awards at the West Windsor Art Council’s member exhibit when Bill’s acrylic painting “Birth” won second place, and Helene’s mixed media “Variegated Dahlia” won third place. Entry into the gallery alone is competitive.

The Planks reside in Lawrenceville and will celebrate 37 years of marriage this spring. They met and became college sweethearts while studying visual arts at Mercer County Community College, before transferring to Trenton State College, now The College of New Jersey.

Although the couple did not meet until college, they grew up just miles apart in different townships, and both expressed an early interest in the arts. Bill is a lifelong resident of Lawrenceville. Helene is originally from Hamilton Township, and joined her husband in Lawrenceville when the two married. Bill taught art history and art at Hightstown High School for 25 years, and Helen Plank spent most of her career working in higher education.

“I always had my artwork, ever since I was little, and it was my way of getting confidence in myself,” Bill said. “If you asked anyone in high school if I would have been an art teacher, they would have said no. I had the confidence to do that because I was teaching something that I loved. Art has made me more outgoing than I would have been.”

Helene went into advertising for a short time after graduating from college and found that the field was unfulfilling. She then began a career in higher education at Mercer County Community College, where she and Bill had met just a few years prior.

“I was never expecting to go back there for work,” she said. “Only seven years lapsed between graduating from Mercer and starting as an employee. I wore a lot of hats [at Mercer] over the years. My last full time job before I retired was Assistant Director of Financial Aid. It had nothing to do with art, but life took me to that.”

‘I missed doing the artwork when I wasn’t doing it for a living.’

The Planks created a small business, Plank Art Designs LLC, as a way to promote and sell Bill’s acrylic paintings and Helene’s handmade jewelry, crocheting, and knitwork. They run the business from their home. Some of their artwork is also available for purchase through a local distributor, Lawrence Art and Frame Gallery located at 25 Texas Ave. in Lawrenceville.

“I missed doing the artwork when I wasn’t doing it for a living,” Helene said. “It was very tough for me. Because of the nature of my work, I used my eyes a lot, so I didn’t want to do anything else with my eyes. I’m so happy to be creative again. I have so many things that I can do now. It’s great. I feel like I’m making up for lost time.”

Helene creates button mosaics. She gives new life to discarded buttons and beads by weaving them together to form beautiful florals or portraits on canvas. Her button and bead work is unique, because it is handsewn instead of glued.

“I started counting the materials, and on the average, I usually put in around 1,700 buttons,” she said. “They take a good amount of time. They are not glued. Each button and bead is hand-sewn. Depending on the size, I work between 60 and 80 hours between sketch to finished piece. I did one peice that used almost 6,000 pieces. It was a commissioned picture of Buddha.”

Bill’s paintings are steeped with symbolism. As a scholar of art history, he said that incorporating representational colors and objects into his paintings is important to him. His paintings are interlaced with meaning. Viewers will be able to deconstruct the paintings in different ways, depending on their personal depth of knowledge. His work is meant to be enjoyed at a glance, but also enjoyed on an intellectual level when deconstructed.

“By arranging certain colors and symbols in a still life, you can weave a deeper meaning into the painting, and you hope the viewer will look at how the objects are portrayed and unravel it,” Bill said.

Despite their growing success, the couple remains humble. They are grateful that they now have time to devote to their creative endeavors. The couple said that they have expressed themselves through various art forms throughout the years, but have never used the same medium at the same time.

“We’ll look in on each work from time to time and give each other advice or critique, and it really helps,” Bill said.

“Not that we do each other’s work, but we’re there to lend a second pair of eyes. It comes in handy to have two artists in the house. You always have someone to bounce your ideas off of,” Helene said.

Besides painting, Bill has also penned two fantasy flash novels that were published with his original artwork entitled “The Maidenhead Mask” and “The Universal Lighthouse.” He also published a journal with his artwork entitled, “Land of Nutshell.” All of his works, published by Red Dashboard Publishing, are available for purchase online through Amazon.

The Planks have participated in several galleries in New Jersey and Pennsylvania, and husband and wife each have an art piece in the Mercer County Heritage and Cultural collection.

Artwork by the Planks and other artists will be on display at Lawrence Branch of the Mercer County Library this spring. The couple assists the library and local talent by helping to organize and promote galleries there that showcase the work of local artists.

“We are very involved in our community,” Helene said.

In April, Helene Plank will submit her latest work into a “trashed art” gallery featuring work primarily composed of recycled materials, which runs the month of April and is judged on Earth Day. The annual “Mercer Family and Friends” gallery will be on display from May 2-31 with a reception on Saturday, May 6, between 2-4 p.m. In July, the couple will work on a gallery for the 25th Anniversary of Lawrence’s Friends of the Library.