Please tell us something about yourself and your art?
I came to art later in life after bringing up four children and helping to meet the needs of sick parents. I went to university at the same time as my oldest daughter. My intention had been to get completely away from textiles, in that regard I failed. I did an Applied and Media Art BA and went on to do an MA in Fine and Applied Art Practice.
I have spent my life doing serious renovation work on Victorian houses and a 300 year old cottage I lived in. The intrigue of the layers of plaster and wallpaper along with learning about methods of thatching and other old building and household crafts have all informed my working practice. The relationships I have had and still have with my children, their friends and my own, the complications of family life and the contrast between happy and sad times that inevitably come to families, also play a part in my work.
I'm very interested in women's past associations with textiles. How, during the twentieth century, decorating, mending, washing and the general time consuming drudgery of keeping the household linen, repaired replaced and above all clean, meant “women’s’ work”. And the time it took and the social aspect, particularly in times of family and national crisis. From childhood girls would learn needlework at home and school, neat stitching for decoration and strength, and in working class households they would be expected to help with the laundry. Keeping the family clothes repaired and linen in good order on the washing line was an important measure in local society of the woman's worth and morals.
Clothes define us, they give a clue to the outside world about who we are and how we want to be seen. Clothing and bed linen take on certain characteristics of the wearer, the shape we are, the way we move. Clothing and linens bobble, thin, tear and scuff often in characteristically different places. Clothing and skin begin to share many similarities with age. Old clothing holds the memories of past occasions when we allow the time to think. From a background in fashion I am constantly drawn back to textiles and textile techniques, bringing in other media when appropriate. I work generally in three dimensions, frequently starting with a mixed media work I have made from layers of materials and then carefully paring back the layers and adding details.I also work with old photo images printed on used fabric, wire, plaster of Paris, old dolls, tin cans and other found objects.
Which other artists do you like or find particularly interesting?
Artists I admire and frequently refer to when losing my way are Ann Hamilton, for all the detailed research behind her work and her ambition in the large scale installations she makes. She frequently involves other women and artists in her awe inspiring textile works. Annette Messager and her concept of others within each of us. Her installation of stuffed toys with heads switched from one animal to another, gives a sense of disguise and transformation. Anselm Kiefer for the materials he uses, the way he uses them and a sense of absence I feel when looking at much of his work. He confronts our dark past and brings us face to face with size and scale through his works. The immersive art of Mona Hatoum, her mixture of surrealism and minimalism amazes and excites me. Her sense of familiarity and the uncanny disturbs and intrigues me.
Why is making art important to you?
Though I don't consciously use my past experiences to inform my work it continues to find its way in. Art enables me to express my experiences understanding that even difficult times are part of who we are and we must look to the future in a positive way. I constantly return to research my main interest in the use of textiles by women in the past and use this research to inform my textile practice. I of course enjoy feedback from anyone who sees my work especially if they gain any understanding of where the work originates and can relate it to their own lives.
What would help you to develop your art further in the future?
To further develop the use of photographic images on used fabric I need to make a dark room at home. The process involves soaking the fabric in photo emulsion and drying it in full darkness which takes about 24 hours, then it can be used as normal photo paper. This process embeds the image into the fabric so it can even be washed in the machine. Just inkjet printing onto many cotton fabrics seems more obvious that the print is on the surface. I need to find the confidence to promote my work harder, I have recently become a member of Studio 21 textile group where we have mentoring sessions as well as high profile exhibitions. As I have only recently moved to the Hastings area it would be good to meet up with local textile or mixed media artists to discuss working methods.
To see more of Helen's work see the website: HELEN O' LEARY WEBSITE