Artist Interview : Helen Jones
11 May 2012
When I meet Helen Jones to talk about her latest body of work for the ‘Still Chaos’ exhibition she tells me an anecdote. ‘For my 18th birthday I went to the Ritz in Manchester, and I was so excited. But then I got there and obviously nobody knew it was my birthday, and the friends I was with were just getting drunk, so I went off on my own. I was standing, looking over this balcony at all these people on the dance floor, dancing to The Chameleons or something, and I just remember this massive sense of loneliness and almost despair at not being important to all of them, and I thought, “Oh shit, I’m not really very significant at all”’.
It is this same sense of isolation and vulnerability that you feel when confronted with Helen’s vast and turbulent work. Her earlier drawings, inspired by tsunamis and post-apocalyptic disaster movies, denote powerful natural forces that inspire feelings not only of awe and terror, but a sense of perspective that is a sharp shock to the ego.
Her most recent works are collected together under the title ‘In the Wake’ and whilst they retain the forcefulness of her earlier work, it feels more like a force that is working with you, rather than against you. There are 14 drawings, 13 smaller ones and one large piece, which are inspired by views from a boat trip traveling between Mediterranean islands. For Helen, the journey is very important in these works, be it a physical or emotional one. Individual titles such as ‘Lie to’ and ‘Bear Up’, blur the line between friendly counsel and literal, nautical termination, and this shift in subject matter also means that you are seeing more of man’s effect on nature as the movement of the boat creates the disturbances in the water. Nevertheless, the full force of the series as a whole, and the vitality of Helen’s style, still serves to put the viewer in their place.
When describing her drawing process Helen says, ‘For me, drawing is a really physical outlet, it’s haptic. I put the tracing paper up on a board in my studio and then I use my hands to apply the black pigment. I get a big tray and I put my hands in it.’ She savours this last sentence before continuing. ‘As you start to put the pigment on you leave hand marks, and darker and lighter tones, and then things begin to appear out of the process. I can see where there’s a dip in the wave or where there’s a hollow where the sea’s spraying over and I’ll add more depth, or take it away. I use rubbers and wire wool and different materials to lift the pigment.’ The rhythmical, dynamic element that this method adds to Helen’s work is palpable. With this in mind I asked her what role music plays in her creative process, ‘Music is incredibly important to me; I always listen to music in the studio. It’s a huge influence, both the narrative in music and the physical way different songs make me work, depending on how they affect my mood.’ When I ask her what kind of things she listens to she says, ‘The Smiths’ (of course!).
The studio that Helen is currently based in is in the Motorcycle Showrooms on Stokes Croft. I wonder what impact that has on the way she produces work ‘Well, it started as just a studio in a space that’s being run by a group of young artists that are trying to turn it into an art centre, but it is slightly like a co op because we all muck in. The building influences my drawing because it’s an almost derelict building and sometimes the roof leaks really badly and in winter it’s absolutely freezing so that limits the work that you can do, but it also allows me to make a mess. That has really let me be free, I think if I was somewhere that was really tidy and neat, that would be very restrictive.’
Another thing that freed Helen up creatively was the time she spent on the University of the West of England’s ‘Drawing and Applied Art’ BA course. ‘It’s a fantastic course! It’s really focused on looking at drawing and processes of drawing in the widest sense. You’re encouraged to experiment all the time, and with every project you can go away and produce something really diverse. It’s the reason I developed different processes, because it makes you try new things like using a sandblaster on paper, for example. The materials, the resources there and the teaching, altogether is really fantastic.’
It is at this point at the discussion that I comment on the necklace that Helen is wearing. It’s a tiny figurine of a swimmer from a Hornby rail set. The swimmer is mid-crawl and encased in a translucent aqua-blue resin and the whole thing is attached to a silver chain. ‘I always think that this is like a metaphor in itself, you know? Trapped and constantly swimming. I feel my work’s like that sort of always on a journey always on this sea, never actually getting to the end of it. ‘ That said, the one thing that really comes across when you meet Helen, both in person and through her art, is the pure joy that she gets from making work. She says herself, her tone both excited and conspiratorial, ‘I mean just imagine going into the studio everyday and getting really dirty. Then wiping your dirty hands on some really white, pure paper, and then turning all that dirt and chaos into something really beautiful. For a while it looks like you’ve completely messed up, and then you make it better again.’
Helen’s work ‘In the Wake’ is currently in the ‘Still Chaos’ exhibition at Antlers’ current home on 6 Philadelphia Street, Quakers Friars, Cabot Circus, BS1 3BZ. 2nd May-27th May. 11pm-6pm.
Interview by Celia Archer.
Photographs courtesy Helen Jones.
Her other works are available at http://www.antlersgallery.com/artist/helen-jones
The necklace can be found at http://superpeople.org/jewellery.php