Chat with Helle and a Light Bulb Moment ....
Updated: Mar 12, 2021
I was thrilled local artist Helle Johansen-Baker agreed to be my first interviewee! Helle is a Danish artist who moved to the UK in 1988 and Leigh-on-Sea in 2010. I first met her when attending her debut solo exhibition, ‘Nordic Echoes’, at Leigh-on-Sea gallery '70, The Broadway' last year. Having also been shortlisted for the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition that year, it was hard to believe she'd only been practicing less than 2 years!
Attending a local art class sparked her passion to paint. Her work is abstract, with ‘Nordic Echoes’ demonstrating her main inspirations of sea colours, the light in her native Denmark and Scandinavia, ‘sea glass’ and other pieces of natural beauty found at the shore.
The day we chatted brought warnings in the morning of the re-introduction of tighter anti-Covid measures and even another dreaded lockdown. I know how much the creative industries have suffered during the pandemic but this was reinforced by our conversation. Helle has dealt with it very well but her practice has been affected, for example, by lack of footfall at an exhibition held just after restrictions eased. An upcoming exhibition in October that she and many other artists have worked hard to prepare for, now also hangs in the balance.
I began to feel this was possibly the worst time for this website but then pondering upon it in true Leigh-on-Sea style (eating takeaway chips gazing out to sea in the Old Town!), I had a 360 degree about-turn light-bulb moment! This is actually the perfect time! Creatives need support now more than ever - they need recognition and a reminder to others they are still creating and still ‘there', albeit perhaps less visible. They also need a voice – to express how the current situation is affecting them and their practice and how they are steering their way through it - assisting and inspiring others along the way.
Walking into Helle's studio, It’s easy to forget all about the pandemic. Based in Leigh-on-Sea Marina, it is a ‘container’ studio with serene views over the Estuary mudflats towards Two Tree Island. Covering the walls are Helle’s striking colourful pieces, while her sea glass jewellery hangs near her desk. This space provided Helle with routine and consistency when she was able to return. Every day she looked at her pieces and decided whether to add to them or start something new, without pressuring herself. Helle explains “something pops into your head, something happens, even just by putting a little bit on the canvas. Have some fun with it, think of the process itself rather than the end result and something happens. Give it time, be around it, put it away, see what needs doing …”
Helle’s is always looking for new influences and ways to create. and has recently created ‘the stick’ (as yet unnamed – suggestions welcome!). Found on a trip to Denmark, the large branch has been adapted as a tool to assist with the underpaint in acrylics in her attempt to be more loose and free in her movements.
Finding inspiration has been trickier to navigate due to restrictions on travel but Helle has developed new ways to access it. She explained, “(Lockdown) hasn’t had a massive difference on the way I work as I can go to the studio. Life is isolated as an artist. However, I haven’t had the same interaction with other people as before and you’re more in your head than ever … so you find inspiration, pull on other things. I haven’t been able to go travelling so I find information and inspiration”.
’Whalesong’, (final image below), was inspired by articles she read about current whale hunting practices. Meanwhile, a work in progress has been inspired by the colours of Marrakech after watching a documentary on the area - “In my head I have travelled there now … I’ve seen colours of images on there and that inspired me”. The piece depicts the richness of reds and pinks and the way they play together. Part of the canvas has been buffed up like leather and the resulting texture gives the appearance of the image almost being alive.
Helle is very led by colours and texture – exploring different techniques and mediums to play with smooth and rough; light and dark. She explains, “I work mostly intuitively and colours are very important to me – a painting often starts with an idea of putting certain colours together that feel right”. To add texture, multiple layers are added and scraped back to reach the desired effect. If a piece requires it, additional mediums such as sand, crayon, coal or soil are used to produce a unique texture and intricate detail. Sometimes words are added to the image which come to her in the moment of creation and are not always even meant to be read by the viewer.
Helle advises “finding your voice is the hardest thing when you start as an artist; your art is your art, it can’t be anybody else’s”. She is still experimenting and learning, which lockdown has provided her the room to do.
I know from personal experience that creatives have experienced our current restrictions differently – some experience a surge in output while others have difficulty being inspired. If you are able to dip your toe in again, even in bitesize chunks, seeing where it takes you with no pressure on yourself, you never know where it may lead. How wonderful if this, let’s face it, pretty awful time, could be used for a little experimenting and research to build upon your practice.
If Covid doesn’t halt proceedings again, you can see Helle’s work at 'Roy’s Art Fair' between 8-11 October 2020 at The Boiler House, Brick Lane, London.