by Debra Urbacz
I first became aware of Helen’s work last September at Canalside Heritage Centre during an exhibition changeover, which was made slightly weird by the wearing of masks and muffled conversations. Her perfect prints radiated bright shots of colour from the stark white wall. With inks as intense as her hair dye sitting well with subtler pastel shades, those paper prints commanded attention – the heavy line work succeeding in emboldening them further.
I met up with Helen again in Bendigo this month, where we swapped secondary teaching tales over a welcome mid-week glass of sparkly wine and talked about her artistic inspirations. It is probably unsurprising to learn that Helen was very much taken with the use of tone and pattern in works by Henri Matisse. The vividness and bold forms are very much evident in her prints. “I like colour!” she exclaims. “I have tried to be subtle but it doesn’t work.” Her signature hues are orange and turquoise, simply because they look so good together.
Helen has always had an interest in making art. Recognising her passion and talent early on in life led her to study the subject beyond ‘O’ Levels, eventually graduating with a degree in Graphic Design from Newcastle University. She qualified as a teacher in 1985 and spent 30 years to encouraging young people to engage with their artistic sides before taking the decision to leave in 2015, taking life at a much slower pace. We talk about the rewards and challenges of the teaching profession and how all-consuming it can be – leaving little time for other interests and connecting with people outside of education.
Suddenly with all this free time, Helen began to explore opportunities to get involved with the community and develop her own artistic practice. She volunteered at Oxfam for a short while, joined the Embroiderer’s Guild and began working with the WEA, delivering print making courses. However, it wasn’t until meeting fellow Beestonian Janet Barnes that she started to feel part of a wider creative community. Janet was involved with the restoration of the weir cottages, which have now been reincarnated as the Beeston Canalside Heritage Centre, a popular spot for visitors to enjoy a bite to eat among beautifully maintained gardens to the backdrop of Beeston Weir. Janet also ran an art group at The Boat and Horses which Helen enjoyed attending.
Encouraged by the centre’s amazing potential as a hub for local creativity, she organised the opening event in the June 2017. The Grand Opening was welcomed, after almost ten years of planning, and very well attended by those in the local community who had been watching the renovations take place. There have been some wonderful events and exhibitions there and Helen is keen to see these continue. Originally involved in promoting the educational side of what was on offer, Helen has since taken over the responsibility of ensuring there is a continual display of local artist’s work in the tearoom gallery space.
Her own work flourished during the pandemic. A difficult time for many, she found that becoming absorbed in producing lino prints was ideal to pass the time during the first lockdown. She remembers this as a ‘positive experience.’ Helen felt she had been given permission to ‘stay put and slow down.’ Creativity was a marvellous escape and the lengthy printing process was something she could turn to at different times of the day and keep herself purposefully occupied.
Taking inspiration form her own garden, she tends to focus on the simple still lives she creates by bringing cut flowers and plants inside to sketch. Once she is happy with the composition of the sketch, she transfers this to a lino block and carefully carves out the first colour that she will be printing – lightest colours first. Reduction lino-printing relies on calculated cutting and printing techniques that allow the final image to be built up in layers. Each colour must dry completely before over-printing so Helen prints around twenty five at a time – using eight colours on average.
Though she plans each print carefully, it really is the ‘luck of the draw’ how they will turn out and this adds to that initial excitement of seeing whether a new design will look as it was anticipated.
Her casually created tableaus contain objects she feels compliment each other in form and colour. It’s as much about the shapes that are made as the colours themselves and it can several attempts to get the shade just right. She reveals the difficulty she sometimes has with which colour she is supposed to be cutting out first, especially as more of the lino is cut away, so on her latest block she decided to colour the design onto the lino of her new print of Chinese Lanterns.
Hailing from the North East, Helen met her husband whilst at University in Newcastle and later followed him to Beeston where he had secured a job with Broxtowe Borough Council as a community worker. We speak fondly of Georgette’s the Florist, which was on the corner of Stoney Street and the High Road and is now the O2 Mobile Phone Shop, as Helen recalls buying flowers there every week and she was ‘always excited to see what they had in each week!’ She loves the diverse community and lively feel of the town and is happy she chose to settle here. This year is the first that she has taken part in the ABC Art Trail and thoroughly enjoyed it. She had set out a print in the various stages of adding the colour and visitors seemed to find this particularly fascinating. Sharing knowledge and influences seems to be the most rewarding aspect about the Art Trail for artists – as well as the interest in their work of course.
You can delve into more of Helen’s wonderful work via Instagram.