WELCOME TO THE BEATING HEART OF YOUR ADDICTION
WE ARE THE SPIT
THE TRADE WINDS
THE HOWLING GALE
WE ARE BACKWASH
Two friends have both shown me Helen's work separately and there's a lingering sense of familiarity. Plastic carrier bags caught on barbed wire dancing in the breeze. I thought I was the only one that noticed decay like that but apparently not. Lonely farms, empty barns and desolate car parks, eerie tones, dusky shades and ramshackle fishing cabins. It’s instantly recognisable as the North Coast of Scotland. It’s lovely, it’s isolated, it's simple and beautiful.
How did you become an artist?
I have always been creative, always drawing always painting. I went to art school and got my fine art degree and had a lot of fun, continued to draw, continued to paint, made films for a brief moment, learnt to talk about art….sort of. Painting has always been a constant in my life since I was a child, something that I feel I need to do for my own sanity. I have never felt I really fitted the mould of an ‘artist’. I always had a very outdoorsy lifestyle where I grew up in West Yorkshire and was more likely to be in a field than in a Museum. I have always worked in other jobs with painting something I had to leave to my spare time. Since being a teenager jobs have varied from garden centres, stables, offices, factories, hotels to eventually museums and galleries and organising exhibitions. It was only this year that due to changes in my job situation that I took the plunge and decided to actually try painting…… as a job. I still stutter when people ask me what I do for a living and mumble something about er I’m a painter but like pictures not walls yeah? So for now, I’m a painter, I make paintings and I will say that with confidence.
How would you describe your art?
I like to think of my paintings as documentation. I focus on the real, on the mundane, the things that many people don’t notice or choose not to see, these are the things that fascinate me the most. A painting might start in my mind from the way the light catches on a bit of discarded plastic, or the way a bit of corrugated metal glints in contrast against a flat grey sky. My paintings are basically snapshots of what I see in my everyday life. I am a landscape painter and the beauty of where I live is the wide expanses of land and sea in every direction, however I like to focus on the industrial buildings and discarded objects left behind to try and tell a story of people that live and work in this vast landscape.
I do feel that my paintings have a bit of a cinematic influence over them. I have always had a love for films that not a right lot happens in, films with a slow pace like David Lynch’s The Straight Story, and also more hard hitting gritty films such as the films of Shane Meadows where the setting, the buildings, the light, the colours, the grey texture of a concrete wall or a pavement creates the mood throughout. I like to feel that I am painting a scene, or creating a set where something is about to happen or already has happened, a broken window in a shed or the way a door is slightly ajar creates the possibilities of a narrative.
What drew you to Scotland?
To Caithness? To be honest I was dragged here by my husband Chris. Well, not quite dragged, but I arrived in Caithness for the first time in a small Peugeot after an 11 hour journey from Leeds, with a friend of Chris’s who I had met maybe once. We arrived at Brims Ness early morning to meet Chris who was camping there for a week or two. I had agreed to come along for the adventure, Chris had gone ahead a couple of days earlier as apparently there was a massive swell, being from West Yorkshire and not having known Chris very long, this meant very little to me at this point. So I slept in a tiny van for a while waking up to deceivingly good weather and waves. The landscape was beautiful, the light was amazing, the houses were a lot cheaper than Yorkshire. Our plans to move to NZ were shelved. Within a year we were living here, homeowners and jobless. That’s where it began, it was a 2 year plan, that was 11 years ago.
How do the Highlands influence your work?
I already had a lot of love for Scotland. My grandparents moved to the Isle of Mull in the 60’s so all holidays in my childhood and teenage years were spent in a bungalow near Calgary Bay, in my mind one of the most beautiful parts of the world. As the rest of my family all eventually moved there permanently, Mull is still my most regular family holiday destination.
The thing that surprised me most about Caithness is it is nothing like I imagined the Highlands to be and so different from the West Coast. On a clear day, these flat lands make it possible to see for miles in any direction. It allows you to feel so lost, so alone, but also totally free in this landscape. It can be quite overwhelming and you only need to step outside to feel it and to be influenced by the vastness.
When we first moved here I made a push to sell my work. To do this I made the fatal error of trying to paint what sells. I sold some but also lost my way and lost my identity in my painting. I then got a job working in a gallery. I was working on really exciting exhibitions, I got to work on touring exhibitions from the National Galleries of Scotland and Tate Gallery and also on the education programmes that we ran alongside them. We showed Douglas Gordon and Johan Grimonprez. We selected these exhibitions as we wanted to challenge the local audience and we certainly did that! A lot of our regulars hated it…quite vocally...it caused quite a stir in the town,. However some people loved it, many of our younger audience were really inspired by it which was great. It was a fantastic experience, we got to colour in a Douglas Gordon text piece onto the gallery wall in biro, it was awesome.
At that point I stopped caring about selling work again, remembered why I painted and decided it was ok if I wanted to spend days and days painting a bit of blue plastic stuck on a barbed wire fence.
In some ways my work went back to what it was like at college. I lived in the centre of Bradford and remember drawing 70’s flats and wheelie bins a lot. However the landscape here allowed me to be influenced by the space around me whilst still being fascinated with the objects I saw. What influences me here is the vastness, the quiet, the stillness and emptiness around the everyday goings on. Everything occurs at its own pace, quietly, and if its not quiet people would hear it miles away. There is a very different pace of life.
The main influence here is also obviously the light, it really is incredible, especially at this time of year when the sun is lower, it moves so quick the mood and atmosphere can change in an instant. I continue to desperately try to recreate that atmosphere in my paintings.
Tell us about your methods
Really? Give all the secrets away? Well for me an idea starts when I see an object catch the light or blow in the wind or a particular colour of evening sky. This usually happens on the way to taking my daughter to nursery, or walking the dog, or stepping out into the Lidl carpark in an evening. I lead a very exciting life! I would love to say at that point I whip out a canvas and an easel but I actually whip out my phone or my camera and take a few snaps. I will then look at them a lot and sometimes something then forms in my mind that I can then sketch as a really simple composition. In some cases I have a very clear plan to paint a particular place or scene and really capture the detail such as a recent painting I did of Thurso East. I have spent a lot of time in that car park, watching people surf, waiting for my husband, hanging out with my daughter while we wait…wait….wait. I really wanted to capture what that carpark is really like so I took a lot of photos, did a lot of sketches, got a lot of advice from Chris about how the wave works and matching conditions, weather, height of tide etc. That painting took a long time but I felt it mattered that I got it right.
I don’t always work like that though, more often than not my compositions are made to try and create a moment I felt from the light and colour in the sky pieced together with a building or an empty car park that I have stood in many times such as my painting ‘Carpark at the Woods’. This is where I stand on a daily basis, in all weathers. I just wanted to capture a moment. I use photographs because it is practical, anyone who has tried to paint outdoors up here will understand what its like to hold down a canvas in the wind and scrape midges out of your oil paint. But as I paint things that I see in my day-to-day life I am able to revisit, time and time again, when I need to. I also try to use memory a lot as photos lie when it comes to light and colour so it helps to be able to remember the moment and be able to visualise what it was like to be able recreate a particular mood.
I work in oils, which allows me to rework my painting over and over again. I am not very good at finishing paintings and have a tendency to keep going back to do more and change things if they stay in my house too long. I am basically a painfully slow worker.
Why does the physical still hold a special place in an increasingly digitalised world?
The digitalised world makes everything very convenient however it fails to ignite the senses in the way the physical does. The simple things, the feel of wood, the smell of oil paint, holding an object in your hands is important. The feeling of standing in front of a painting in a gallery can be overwhelming in a way that is not possible from your laptop. Don’t get me wrong, living miles away from anywhere I am grateful for technology, it is our direct channel to, well, everything, and power cuts are a dreaded thing, although we do have 4G now! But its important to remember to get out there and experience and see and touch and feel…. And get to a city now and then.
I also think in a lot of cases in the digital world where everything can be edited it gets a bit boring to just see a particular version of life. Every Instagram shot, every surf magazine tends to show a romanticized version of life in the Highlands. I’m not saying it’s not at all like that, but I like to show the romance, the light, the atmosphere of the landscape while focusing on the bits that most people would edit out. The digital world likes to show the Highlands as an untouched wilderness where only deer roam and otters play in the water. The idea I guess is to make the viewer feel like they would be the only one there, the only one in the water, the first one to camp there, the only van in the car park. That happens to an extent, but if you miss out the plastic bag that the tourist left behind and the old tin shed that the fisherman uses and the green tarpaulin that got stuck on the fence in last weeks storms and the empty Tennents cans that the teenagers left on the beach, then you miss out the narrative and I feel there is a lot more atmosphere and romance in the real story.
Are you happy?
Well you probably wouldn’t think it from my paintings! I have had my work described as depressing and also as lonely due to the emptiness and lack of people and I’m happy to have it described like that, most of the music, the films, the books I read, the art I like can probably be put in that category too. However, this must be some kind of outlet for these feelings as I am actually far from it. My sister once said that maybe its because I’m so easy going in real life that I have to express my darker side in my paintings. So yes, actually, I live in an awesome house in a beautiful place with my bestest humans, my husband and my daughter who is my life, my dog and my cat. We had one plan each when we moved to Caithness 11 years ago, Chris, to be able to surf everyday, me, to be able to paint everyday, chuck in the joy of being a mum as well, I feel pretty damn lucky to be honest.
Backwash Issue Two is a surf anthology featuring Japan, the photography of Chris Burkard and Sergio Villalba, Hamish Laing and Woody Gooch. Kalani Lattanzi swims at Nazare, whilst Amy Kotch surfs barrels whilst pregnant and John Peck knee paddles out as he has done since 1958.Purchase