I am delighted to present my interview with the one and only Helen Downie, known on Instagram as 'Unskilled Worker'.
Her works brighten my feed, with luscious surreal scenery, expressive almond eyed figures, and a beguiling sense of mystery and the dream of purely intuitive works. As her instagram handle suggests, Downie is not formally trained, starting her painting career seven years ago.
“Creating for me is a search to see the world through my own eyes and to experience a connection with the other. When that flow happens it feels effortless, my hands just know where they’re going and what to reach for and its euphoric, when that doesn’t happen it’s painful!”
She selected the pseudonym ‘Unskilled Worker’ long before, seeing it as beautiful on paper, genderless and a way to hide her name when beginning due to a shyness.
Let’s start with how we met! Instagram. Tell us about your incredible Instagram, and how the channel has impacted your life and your practice?
I began painting seven years ago and soon after made an Instagram account, it was a place where I could see my work outside of the messy little room where it was made. Instagram is an amazing place to show art, it’s really like no other platform, I like the pristine ness of it. I’ve learnt to disconnect from the number of likes, It’s not a system that art can be valued by, I grew tired of feeling pressured to post in an attempt to keep the algorithm happy, I make slow paintings, they can take seven weeks, so not very insta friendly. The best of Instagram has been connecting with people and I’ve met so many lovely people there. I became quite insular when I began painting, like most artists spending days alone and so sometimes I like to go live, play music and chat. I never plan it, usually a song comes on that I love and I want to share the moment, it’s fun and it can feel like a crowd have gathered in my studio, all chatting and laughing.
Can you tell me about the name ‘Unskilled Worker’ - how did this come about? What’s the story?
I’d noticed the words unskilled worker long before I began to paint. I like the way they look when written. Its also genderless, I’m a very open person but on line I can feel shy and I didn’t really feel comfortable with people knowing me. It was instinctive to make it my painting name and for a while I hid behind it. I’m beginning to feel more comfortable with my real name Helen Downie and maybe I will begin to sign my work in that name.
Helen, how would you describe your work in 3 words?
Mono No Aware, a beautiful Japanese phrase I found a while ago, It’s how I’ve felt for most of my life and it’s how I see the feeling in my work.
CAN YOU SELECT A PIECE OF YOUR WORK, AND TELL ME A BIT ABOUT IT?
The Last Question ( The Triumphant Return of Rock Hudson) is the painting I’ve just finished. My last work is always the one that speaks the loudest to me, it takes a little while to shake off before beginning again. I work on one painting at a time, it’s quite intense, like an invasion and I find it difficult to concentrate on anything else.
I’d wanted to paint a horse for a long time, I like how funny medieval horses look. Somehow the idea got fused together with Rock Hudson. I’d always felt sorry for the way the disgusting British press were so savage about him when he was dying of AIDS in 1986 and so he became a majestic pink horse riding back into Hollywood. Within the same painting a naked girl, it seems so strange to me that it’s illegal to be naked in public. At Glastonbury Festival brave people walk around naked, I saw a girl queuing for a drink with only a bag on her shoulder. The thing that struck me was how normal and undramatic it seemed, we are bombarded with sexualised imagery of bodies but the reality is quite different, much sweeter somehow. The work seems to be changing, morphing into something else, probably because I am.
The narrative in my work is very loose, I like the idea of the viewer seeing their own story within the painting and that will be just as valid as my own.
And what do you believe is integral to the role of an artist?
Art exists for many purposes, I think it helps us to connect with what isn’t possible to express through language, it’s a kind of human magic. Creating for me is a search to see the world through my own eyes and to experience a connection with the other. When that flow happens it feels effortless, my hands just know where they’re going and what to reach for and its euphoric, when that doesn’t happen it’s painful!
Was there a Eureka moment for you to become an artist? And, if you weren’t an artist, what would you be doing Helen?
I began painting seven years ago. It was a quiet whisper in my mind, I could easily have ignored it but luckily for me I didn’t. Once I began to paint, it was all I wanted to do, everything else seemed to fade away and when I wasn’t painting I was just waiting to paint. It felt amazing, like finding a long forgotten room in my mind, the best part of being a child. I’m not sure who or what I’d be if I wasn’t painting. I don’t think I’d be in a good place, painting has effortlessly helped me make sense of myself. Ive found that the elements in me that had caused me pain actually were needed to paint.
Who or what are your greatest influences? How do you find these, and how do you think these influences come out in your work?
Inspiration is all around and everywhere, information gets drawn in at a subconscious level. With lock down, I notice a difference, something has changed in what bubbles up to the surface, there isn’t the interaction with people that trigger thoughts, so it all feels more internal. Maybe the lack of people has made me interact with trees more! So paintings of trees began to shine out on Instagram and I came across the work of Charles Burchfield. I don’t think I’ve ever loved paintings in the way I do his, they are everything I would like in my own work, they vibrate with a magical energy beyond the paper they are rendered on. I love that his work is on paper too, I so relate to it, how delicate it is yet so tough! Sometimes I think I should work on canvas but it doesn’t have the same quality, there’s a connection with my childhood that’s triggered by paper and I’m not quite ready to leave it. I always seem to morph into using new materials, it’s not really very conscious, I’ll just find myself reaching for something different. Im drawn to artists that create complex reality’s, the work of Aya Takano, on first sight there’s a prettiness, look closer and a darkness hides but in a light way, I love that. Religious works too, the majesty and preciousness, they are so serious they sometimes become funny. Humour is important to me in my own work. Sometimes when I’m working I laugh at my own jokes, painting Rock Hudson as a pink horse, I laughed so much when I gave him teeth.
What would you change about the art world today if you could?
The art world and making art seem to me to be unconnected. The art world might have more in common with horse racing than creativity and for a long time it’s been backing the same horse. It’s beginning to change but not fast enough. There are 2300 paintings on show at The National Gallery in London, 21 are the work of women and it’s probably a similar ratio in most museums around the world. Why aren’t they embarrassed enough to change that?
Do you collect artwork? If so, what are some of the jewels in your collection?
I love living with art. I get lost in the paintings I have on my walls. Paintings are a place to rest my eyes, I find myself staring at them. I have a painting by Genieve Figgis, a blue bed with a strange red faced man reading a book, I’ve never been able to work out if there is someone else under the covers, knowing Genieve’s work there probably is! Peter Jones monkeys are so incredible and addictive too. My favourite is painting of my grandson Nathan by Abel Gutierrez. I do have more woman’s work though, it’s not been conscious I’m just drawn more to female energy. Lara Cobden, Anna Mond, Gill Button, Stella Vine, Eugenie Vronskaya, Susannah Garrod are a few that I enjoy living with.
What is your studio like? What are your artist essentials, what do you listen to etc…?
I work in London and Orvieto, a little town in Italy, both studios are at home. I like that because I’m able to work into the middle of the night when I’m unable to sleep. The down side is that sometimes it’s difficult to pull away, the painting is always there chatting and calling me back in. I’ve learnt though that if I don’t have an answer to a situation within the painting, if I walk away, sleep or do something else, the answer will come.
Music is essential to me, it always has been, my earliest memory’s are musical ones. it changes the way I feel and for me is the most emotionally evocative art form. I listen to songs on repeat over and over while I paint, it’s so euphoric but terrible for others in the house, I blame the behaviour on being an artist but in truth I’ve always done that.
If you were to describe yourself as a colour, what colour would that be and why?
I don’t think I’d be one colour, I’d probably change colour throughout the day. Waking up yellow at some point be purple and on a good day going to sleep violet.
If you could have a meal with any artist from any time, what would the meal be and who would the artist be?
I’d like to have dinner with the person that made the first painting on the wall of a cave, it’s always presumed that a man did, how do they know! I think it may have been a woman. I’d ask them why they did that? It would be like finding the DNA, im sure we’re still having the same conversation. Maybe I’ll take them a steak and kidney pie, although I don’t think they’ll like the pasty.
Who are all your favourite practicing female artists and their instagram handles?