THERE is a framed letter by the fireplace in Helen Wilson’s living room, which draws as clear a portrait about the artist as a young woman as any one of her paintings.
It is dated 1969 and signed by the celebrated sculptor Henry Moore, then in his early 70s. The typed missive, sent to 15-year-old Helen, was in response to a fan letter she had sent and in it, he speaks of how inspiring it is that a ‘young person’ takes the time to write to him about his work. Enclosed with the letter was a signed copy of a just-published book chronicling his life and times.
“I was encouraged to write by the artist Charles McQueen, then head of art at my school, the John Neilston Institute in Paisley and a really inspirational figure in my life,” she recalls. “I remember being so excited when the book arrived in the post at my house. I couldn’t wait to take it into school to show people, but when I got there, I realised I’d have to wait until I had an art class because no-one else would who Henry Moore was.”
Bearing in mind that in 1969, most self-respecting teenagers’ heads would be filled with flower power, not to mention sex and drugs and rock ’n’ roll, it was clear that even as a young woman, Helen Wilson quietly and deliberately swam against the tide.
She followed her instincts, if not her parents’ initial wishes, and attended Glasgow School of Art from 1971-1976, where her sense of individuality, talent and unique use of colour was noted from an early stage.
Self-effacing, contemplative to the point of professorial, Helen’s work is now becoming increasingly sought-after in collecting circles in both Scotland and London, with most works selling in excess of £1000.
Earlier this year, she held her first solo exhibition in London at Thompson’s Marylebone Gallery. The show marked a watershed in her 28-year-painting career, bringing her exquisite draftsmanship and ability to tell a tale through a paintbrush to a wider, appreciative audience. According to Judy Stafford of Thompson’s, she is one of the ‘best artists in working Scotland at the moment.’ “She has been hiding her light under a bush,” she adds. “But I think her time has come.”
The show won her many high profile fans, including Carol Vorderman and the prima ballerina Darcey Bussell, one of many subjects she painted during a behind-the-scenes visit to the Royal Ballet in rehearsal at the Royal Opera House in London last year. Much of the material Helen gathered there was honed to form a body of work for her Thompson’s show and the highlight of the exhibition’s private viewing was the charity auction of a painting Helen had done of a pair of Bussell’s red ballet shoes.
“Darcey and her husband tried to buy the painting,” she explains. “But, in the end they were outbid. It sold for £4,200 but they went on to commission me to paint another red shoes painting for them. I haven’t started it yet because I was busy working towards another exhibition with the Open Eye Gallery in Edinburgh but I have to confess, I’m quite nervous. Nothing is good enough in my eyes for Darcey!”
Helen says this with a smile but behind her gentle demeanour is someone who finds the public side of the artist’s life – such as exhibition openings – nerve-wracking.
She has lived in the same first floor tenement flat in Glasgow’s west end for over 20 years and it is an intensely private space. She paints in a WASPS studio in the centre of Glasgow, so her home is her retreat from the world. Around the walls are paintings by friends and contemporaries. There are works by Willie Rodger, Christine MacArthur and Gary Anderson, as well as series of small quirky prints by Anderson’s wife, the sculptor Shona Kinloch, sent each year as a Christmas card.
In the hub of the flat, the kitchen, a whole wall is devoted to her pictures of her 21-year-old daughter Jenny, who has just finished her training as a ballet dancer in London. Helen brought up her daughter alone after separating from her father when she was just a toddler.
Although she always painted throughout her daughter’s childhood, it has only been in the last few years that she has been able to give free rein to her work and the result is a prolific output, inspired by life behind the scenes at the ballet.
Helen’s interest in portraying life backstage came about through her daughter’s growing immersion in this world. “Jenny started going to classes when she was three and I had no prior knowledge of ballet,” she explains. “But you get drawn into it and as she progressed and it became clear she was good and could make a career out of it, I found myself wondering who these ballet dancers really were. They seemed so alien to me.
“I suppose I was drawn into it because I wanted to make sense of the world my daughter was now becoming immersed in. By watching them evolve, I could see what was happening with Jenny. At the same time it’s the dancers I am interested in rather than the ballet.”
In the last few years, as well as her stint at the Royal Opera House, Helen has spent several spells behind the scenes with Scottish Ballet and at the Theatre Royal in Glasgow – and her work has evolved accordingly. Her next foray behind-the-scenes will be at
The Dance School of Scotland in Knighswood, Glasgow.
She has always been a narrative painter with a strong accent on portraiture but now, she feels, with this latest interest, she is ‘marrying the two up’. A Helen Wilson painting begs questions. Her paintings of ballet shoes bear the imprint of the wearer, of hour upon hour of hard graft in class. They chip away layers and are not about glamour or the high drama of a first night. They are about life, which for all of us has public and private faces. It is this forensic approach which sets Helen Wilson’s work apart.
Not that her paintings are devoid of humour. One canvas depicts an elegant pair of black high-heeled shoes entitled, New Shoes, No Character, revealing a levity that has always run through her work.
A quarter of a century ago, just six years out of art school and at a stage when most artists are still fishing around for a voice, her quiet confidence and talent was obvious in a Collins Exhibition Hall touring solo exhibition which showed all over Scotland.
Presciently, in an introduction to the exhibition, her old Glasgow School of Art mentor, the artist John Cunningham wrote: “Characteristically most of her work is based on the fragmentary and kaleidoscopic images which are relevant to some experience or other. The resulting work is descriptive and painterly – not merely illustrative… This exhibition is a most timely acknowledgement of her achievement and, more important, an expression of confidence and encouragement for the future where she is sure to discover many other sorts of rainbows.”
Like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz, Helen Turner is doing just that.
A signed limited edition print of her painting The Red Shoes, is available from the dance charity DanceEast. For more details, call Susannah Burke on 01473 295239 or email email@example.com
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- I'm an arts journalist & PR consultant living and working in Scotland. I've been a journalist for more than 25 years. I write a regular column for Scottish quality newspaper, The Herald. I deliver a PR service with an arty bent and work on a consultancy basis with arts organisations, including Scotland's leading creative industries festival, XpoNorth & broadcast support body, ScreenHI. I am currently co-writing a book about the celebrated Scots artist, George Wyllie, with his daughter Louise. Instrumental in making a celebration of his life's work happen in 2012. For more information, see www.georgewyllie.com When I'm not being a mum/working, I talk to my dog. He laps it up. Contact me on firstname.lastname@example.org (All work © Jan Patience)