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An Interview with Helen Ireland

March 8, 2016

Helen Ireland is a painter working in East Dulwich. Her paintings are collages combining printing, drawing and layers of paper.

What is your background as an artist?

I grew up in Cheltenham, Singapore for 4 years and North Yorkshire. After finishing my foundation course I studied Fine Art Painting at Central St Martin’s and an MA at Chelsea School of Art. Straight after that I was the drawing fellow at Winchester Art School. For 8 years I taught painting and drawing on the Foundation course at St Albans Art School. More recently I have been working in collaboration with the British Council for the Rivers of the World programme. I was part of many group studios including Paragon studios in Elephant and Castle. I then co-founded Cubitt Artists in Kings Cross. I was a studio holder at Gasworks studio in Vauxhall, where we ran the Triangle Arts programme, which worked with artists across Africa; I was at that time able to work in Namibia and did a residency in The Hague in Holland. When I had a family I decided to build a studio at home to allow me more flexibility with time and looking after children. I’ve been making paintings for a long time!

What kind of work do you make?

Although the work is quite abstract it always starts from something that is figurative. I suppose the beauty of getting older is that you have lots of fragments from different times in your life that come into the work, through the experience of living and knowing different places. I’m taking ideas and images that I’ve collected over the years. Last year I was preoccupied with making lots of drawings from the islands in Scotland. Although I live in London, I travel and make drawings and paintings from the landscape. I was up in the Orkneys recently, making drawings and photographs of Scapa Flow. A lot of the images were of debris left from the First World War that remains under water, scaffolding and fragments of war ships left from when the German fleet was sunk.

Can you describe your approach to making work?

When I’m in a place I draw, make tiny little sketches and take photographs, picking up ideas. I’ve been inspired by the Dazzle camouflage ships in the First World War, one of the ships has recently been moored on the Thames. They were used to confuse the enemy and the shapes on the sides of ships are absolutely amazing. I’ve been taking ideas from that and using the different elements.

How do you turn these fragments and ideas into your paintings and collages?

I start with the simple idea of a shape; for instance, the Isle of Eigg. From the mainland in Scotland it’s the most beautiful thing so I pare it down to a simple shape on the horizon. I might make a linocut and then print it on Japanese paper. I can then repeat the print and collage them onto plywood. The printed elements are then reworked through a process of drawing and painting. I work on board because I like the hardness of the surface, you can really work the surface, you can sand it back, take it off, put layer upon layer of Japanese paper so I suppose that’s the process that works for me.

How do you use collage in your work?

Most of my work is collage and multimedia. I’m using pencil, paper, printing and painting as a way of working a surface. Although my work is pared down I like how rough the surface can be, I’m interested in the ageing of a painting. I love the Giotto paintings in Padua and Assisi. You can see fragments where the paint has been completely worn down by age and I really love that quality of dusty, chalky surfaces. I also like the work of Prunella Clough. I like the surfaces of her paintings, the work at first seems ambiguous but after careful looking you can see how she has arrived at specific forms.

How long does it take you to make your paintings?

I work on pieces for a long time. Sometimes I get too involved with the process of working rather than the end thing because I’m enjoying painting. Paintings can arrive really quickly and other times they can go on for months depending on the individual piece.

What do you enjoy about showing your work in the Artists’ Open House?

The open house can be unexpected. You can meet very interesting people who are local but not necessarily involved with art. It’s good to get feedback about my work. I think people also enjoy seeing studios in a home environment.  From a personal perspective it’s a good opportunity to connect with other artists and see how like me, we are juggling making work and bringing up a family.

Drawing is obviously very important to you. How do you feed the drawing elements into your work?

I have always drawn; I discover ideas through drawing. I have sketchbooks and fill them with drawings that are very quick, thumbnail sketches of ideas, that have come from the landscape. I use these to go directly into the paintings. Shapes from my drawings will be used in linocuts or mono prints, which will then be fed into my paintings. It seems haphazard but it’s not. I will break up and fragment images in the process of working.  I’m not somebody who can have an idea and then do it straight away. My work very much comes out of the process of working and reworking until there is a visual cohesion.

Visit Helen Ireland during Artists’ Open House
www.helenireland.net

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