JULIA HELMS knows how to spear dragonflies and roast them like a shishkebab, and she once burnished the figure of Eve on Ghiberti's baptistry doors at Florence and got in trouble in Yucatan for restoring ancient pottery too closely to its original design, and she broke her spine as a teen-ager and broke her neck romping with her baby a few years later and married a man who made millions with barbasol (a shaving cream well thought of by many, if I may say so) and for almost 30 years was wife of a man who became director of the Central Intelligence Agency.
As we proceed, we shall learn other interesting things about Julia Helms, but first the news:
A one-day retrospective show of her art and craft will take place this Sunday at the Atlantic Gallery. From 1 p.m until 8.
"I never heard of a one-day show," someone said to a friend of Helms.
"Neither did anybody else,c said the friend. "But she said why Zounds, she is a private sort of person and wasn't at all interested in having any public display and, if you must know, we hounded her to show the stuff for one day."
Now just here there is no point beating around the bush. She does not want anybody's pity - she thanks God for a life that for her has been extraordinary rich and lively - but the truth is her health is bad and physical discomfort, often very substantial, is something she lives with every damn day.
Shame. I should have said every blessed day, every blessed hour.
"It is frustrating aa hell," she said the other day. "My eyes are good enough to do very fine work and the shaking of my hands has mercifully been stopped and. . ."
Everything's perfect. She has time, money, privacy, long experience and sure technique. And then illness that sets limits to how much she can do.
She said she has had bouts of selfpity, given it a fair try, and it's not for her. She has a wicked sense of humour, for one thing, and that ruins martyrdom as a rule.
In high school she starred in the senior class play. She said the school newspaper went out of its way to point out the leading man, in a romantic, scene, contented himself with kissing her on the forehead.
The forehead, for gosh sakes. If that didn't ruin life in all the decades to come, nothing was likely to.
Jumping ahead a few decades, she said she found it interesting to have two husbands (not at once, of course) each powerful, one in business, the other in politics.
"I learned about tycoons" she observed. They were so busy making millions that it did them no good to spend the winter in the Bahamas and circumnavigate Long Island yachtiwise.
But Helms found it splendid studying the life of coral reefs.
Back in Indiana, with her first husband, she built a house with 55 rooms and surveyed the nearly 4,000 acres every day, on which roamed 700 cattle, 700 sheep, a lot of Angora goats and numerous dogs, to say nothing of her American saddle horses, which she rode and showed all over country (they were trained in Lexington, but bred in Indiana).
She left Foxcliff, the Indiana estate, when she was 30, of a few months in Europe, where she studied drawings - she greatly admired the ones at Windsor - and architecture. As anyone might have expected, who knows her ability to zero in on new interests, she became passionately interested in art.
Her marriage ended soon after that, and she lived in town where she missed the gorgeous old beeches and ferny recesses of the estate, but she saw more of her children and was able to get on with sculpture and in no time was running a little art salon.
She married Richard Helms, who had been a newspaper correspondent in Germany during the Hitler regime, and life took a new turn for her.
But almost immediately there was Pearl Harbor and Richard Helms was in service for four years, and in 1946 they moved to Washington.
"I can still see those official parties they give here," she said, presiding over the cream pitcher at her house (there is always somebody who wants cream in his coffee) "and I don't suppose anybody has yet looked directly at anybody else. The eyes are always peering out the corners to see if someone more important that you has not entered."
Somehow she developed a moderate loathing for two of the capital's bestknown gossip writers on the two main papers.
It would not do for the pair of them to be walking amiably together across Key Bridge at 10 p.m. if Julia Helms could get there in time.
In Washington she entertained a lot and traveled a lot with her husband on official trips, paying her own way "so I could feel free to go off on my own during the daytime," and not be some ward of the state.
In Japan she visited a scholar who showed her the great gardens and art of Kyoto. She lived and dressed japanese-style.
Her encounter with Japan so impressed her that when she designed he own garden in Washington she got hold of 10 men for 90 days and really went to town, quite transforming the place.
Nobody dared prune a twig off a tree after that. She did it all herself. Some say she achieved some of the subtlest garden effects in the capital.
Once in Saigon she asked Mme Nhu why she couldn't find any trolls in Vietnam for her collection of the wee folk.
She said Mme Nhu told her she was a Roman Catholic, free from that sort of nonsense. Which did not, however, answer the question of where to find Vietnamese trolls.
In Lebanon Helms said she spent a pleasant visit with a "villainous old patriot" who has a food taster because his life had been threatened so often. She smoked a hookah with him, and he gave her the pipe to take home.
All this time new cultures were making themselves felt in her. She was seeing more of the world, being stretched in her original notions of what is sensible.
She studied sculpture with Heinz Warneke, the only pupil he had, and the for four years Helms taught sculpture to aphasic children at the Children's Hearing and Speech Cener her.
"I know you had a rabbit that you let the children feel with their hands," someone said.
"What a rabbit," she said a groan. "The only way you could manage him was to put him in a box with a female rabbit, and then the whole box scooted across the floor."
"A little biology is not bad for children," someone suggested.
Her work with the children stopped abruptly when she has a spinal fusion - and for 14 months she had to remain sedentary. So she studied genetics.
The marriage to Richard Helms ended.
She was down in the dumps:
"No family, no voice, no firecrackers. Nothing but echoes in an empty house and a bad case of self-pity," she noted.
But what the hell. She went down to her basement studio and made an owl of modeling clay. It occurred to her she had never been free before to spend the whole day responsible to nobody.
She started traveling again. The name Helms rang bells in Egypt and Cambodia, where she was trailed about, and she couldn't go to any Iron Curtain countries which were for some reason unfriendly to the CIA chief and anybody with his name.
She investigated the arts and crafts of Bali, and with prominent artists as her guide she poked about in Florence, Rome and Pisa. (The Ghiberti doors were being restores after the Florence flood, and she got to burnish the bronze Eve in the restorer's studio).
She visited Nairobi and saw everybody, and since she was no longer strong enough to race about in a Land Rover, she hired a plane and peered down at the lions and into the maws of volcanoes.
Her visitis in and out of hospitals bore her to talk about so she dismisses them with a gesture of the hand.
"Come on down," she said, leading the way once more to her studio where she covered her smart dress with a raggedy striped smock.
She has geodes cut open-grapefruit-sized hollow stones, the interior solid with crystals of various colors deposited by the ages-and in these glittering miniature caves she has set porcelain figures.
She makes the figures, fires them them, attaches them by various techniques, and one feels he has somehow wandered into an elf's factory in Ulm.
Some of them are strangely moving. There is one, all solid with white crystals, and a thin spot in the exterior wall of the stone lets light in, as if there were a small window in the diamond cave.
Sitting alone, peering up at the light, is the miniature figure of a white procelain monkey.
It is a trifle funny, and a trifle like Eistein peering at the stars and a little like a blind kid hearing the French horn.
When people see it-just a fool monkey peering up at a hole - they usually say nothing.
In her time she has made Easter eggs and creches an animal figures and much else.
A young friend, Sally deWilde, who studies art at American University, said Helms has been hostess to a monthly meeting of 15 young artists.
"She's always at the heart of things, somehow. Such a proper person. She thinks there are right ways to dress, right ways to serve food, and she's not about to lower her standards. Of course that can be a pain in the neck.
"I remember once we were sitting in the garden. "It was midnight, and we were several young women and men, when all of a sudden two young vagabonds came storming in off the street. They were drunk and hostile as hell. The men all sprang up but before anybody could think what to do, Julia got out of her chair and said:
"You young men must leave immediately. This is my garden and not your property.'"
The youths were not used to have a Washington dowager say begone to them, but they looked dumber than usual and trotted off.
"The men stood up," said deWilde, who may be a liberation sort, "but she was the one that chased the hoodlums off."
Recently a young mother needed some antlers for her little boy to wear. She found she could rent some for $50.
Nonsense. Julia Helms made him made any moose would be proud of, from stuffed socks. Half an hour.
Her housekeeper Ruth thinks it's about time she put her feet up for a few hours.
Well hell. About the time people get going in a pleasant chat, somebody always says it's time to do something dismal. She had been thinking of a Scotch.
"No thanks," you say and nuts, in that case Julia Helms will wait until her usual time of 6 p.m.
She shoots a glance into the room with all the Persian and Mogul miniatures in them.
She opens the door herself and sticks her nose out to smell the spring.
"Ah," she says, and turns back inside, "this is my great outing for today."
The garden, where she has worked 4 billion hours - but not today. And there's a fine unheroic natural grin on her face as she goes back in.