I often refer to myself as a mud pie kinda gal. Even though my formal training is in fine art, it didn’t take me long to discover an abiding love for materials and processes. I still love to paint in between the main studio practice - one informs the other, and I just love to experiment, full stop. As for mud pies, it’s not far off the mark because my story begins on a farm in the Yorkshire dales.
Mum and Dad finished their service in the RAF, got wed and settled down near Dad’s roots living in a rented old wooden bungalow. We were there for the first six years of my life wild and isolated. The isolated part could sometimes be a bit of a bummer but the rest was wonderful. Dad was hardly ever home and mum worked all the hours she was able. I spent many content days playing with chickens, pigs, and Pim, our Border Collie, and Billie the budgie. And, oh yes, putting worms to bed between dock leaf blankets.
Pim was not keen on having her fur secretly trimmed in the outhouse (yes, the Dunny - we are going back over 50 years) nor attending make believe dinners made from dirt, but she did her best. The chickens, likewise, did not appreciate rides in my wood train, though I wore my scratches with pride. My creative practical Mum spent endless hours making a charming home and garden, and just about everything we needed out of very little.
|Memorial and Me|
That life of dirt and make-do-and-mend, surrounded by mysterious nature and dilapidation, and unspoken wonderings shows through in my work today. Fast forward to my late twenties without any formal qualifications and huge gaps in my education (Mum and Dad separated and life became somewhat nomadic for a single female parent trying to make ends meet in the late 50s and early 60s).
I joined a recreational pottery class. The inspirational tutor and artist saw my talent and nurtured it. From there I progressed to gathering my own studio resources to furnish a part-time clay crafting business alongside the day job which, at that time, turned into 20 years as a postie. By my mid-30s I had married, gained a mortgage and three cats, and still on the post I got a yearning for more than modeling clay and thought I might like to run workshops. Lack of accreditation was a significant barrier to my credibility so I joined a part-time A level art course where I discovered I could paint, and understand (just about all) academia. This was heady stuff, and I got seriously hooked on learning and achieving.
|Horse to Water Birdbath|
My path continued from further to higher education, including a basic teaching and training course. I am so grateful for those days full of opportunities for unqualified adults to access education. My educational run concluded in my early forties with a BA in Fine Art. It was hard with many hurdles along the way, but I was on an unstoppable trajectory.
Working early shifts on the post allowed me to learn during the rest of the day but many times I would doze in lectures and barely scraped through assignments. I did not need to do it, I wanted to and I suppose this is a good juncture at which to express my heartfelt thanks, as well as some twinges of guilt, to my family and friends for losing the old Helen due to my determination to succeed.
|Secret Cargo Wall|
Many a mature student will tell you, the changes brought about by a higher education, in contrast to barely any, comes as a shock to those around them with inevitable periods of alienation for both sides. After graduating I was offered an unexpected post teaching and lecturing art to difficult-to-engage young adults. I did this for years and can tell you that teaching art everyday to unruly teenagers who are excluded from mainstream schooling makes one swat up on different genres and techniques at an unprecedented rate to be readily equipped to jump anywhere through Plans A to Z. It was an unexpected and revelatory part of my journey but I got here and, in the end became far, far richer for it and the kids.
At fifty I packed in teaching, wanting to establish my own practice while I still had the energy to climb a new set of rungs. I already rented my studio based in our old town quarry: it’s five acres of wildlife and historical industrial sites hosts an art and craft community and was highly influential in my new direction as well as in total harmony with my earthy, mud pie spirit.
|First Show at Study Gallery|
Without any business plan I was sort of free-floating and a bit dazed after the all-consuming teaching pressure was lifted. It so happened that our resident blacksmith was inundated with work and swooped in to offer me part-time employment to help ease his workload in return for some training and a small wage whilst I found myself. This became another fantastic experience. I became addicted to the furnace and I was good. Alas, I was too old to become a proper blacksmith but I got some serious skills under my belt and, again, did not look back.
During my creative time at the forge ideas for combinations of metal designs and interesting surfaces started to hatch. Mosaic was the obvious choice and the furniture and sculpture naturally followed as a neat and sustainable collaboration alongside our individual practices.
Meanwhile, I developed my first small body of studio work for the garden and was discovered by curators of a gallery boutique in Bournemouth. They invited me submit at their designer-maker show at the Poole Gallery in Dorset. It was at this prestigious venue - my coming out party - I received valuable feedback that spurred me on and, not least, including some voting with pockets. I continued to experiment with the mosaic method, combining a range of materials and techniques. Indeed, my first table surfaces were made from material found in the quarry and along our coastline, and some of my studio ceramics.
Later, I explored the inclusion of stained glass, creating a variety of understated earthy Bling features. The light through and around glass holds an abiding fascination for me and I try to incorporate an element of it wherever the light might play to advantage. I love subtle inclusions and surprise juxtapositions.
Today, I continue to show my work through a small selection of good venues and the rest of my work comes from private commissions. I am grateful for this gift and to all those unexpected teachers, challenges and opportunities along the way, and to be fortunate to earn my living from what I love to do.
The weather, and weight and industrial quality of it all gets a bit tough sometimes …but I can always return to painting.
|Fuzz Trying to Sleep|
That’s the nuts and bolts of my journey. My work speaks for the arty details I have not included.
I would like to take this opportunity to thank Brenda Smoak for including me in Artists Tell Their Stories. It certainly has been an interesting, even stretching exercise, in attempting to articulate a potted tale about my journey.
This is Week 15 of 52 Artists in 52 Weeks. Thank you for reading and sharing Helen's story today! You can contact Helen via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or connect with her through the following sites to see more of her work: