Some artists can work anywhere. The ideas are in their heads. All they need are their hands and whatever medium they work in. For other artists, the work is inextricably linked to a sense of place. End product and location can’t exist without each other.
Sculptor Helen Sinclair is emphatically in the latter cohort. Helen was born in South Wales. She lives in South Wales.
She has worked from a studio on the Gower coast for 30 years. This corner of the world defines her art – sometimes literally. In fact, Helen frequently uses the coastline debris she happens across as the start point for her sculptures.
“I collect driftwood, broken furniture, discarded plastic debris and other beach-found stuff, all of which regularly introduce new and unexpected vocabulary to explore,” she says. “The materials I work with are as stimulating to me as the subject matter."
Thus, Helen goes on long walks and is constantly alert for whatever inspiration the ocean can deliver. In her new show for the Catto, you can see numerous examples of driftwood transformed by the artist’s imagination into something grand and mysterious. In ‘Sea Wall’, for instance, Helen reinvents driftwood as the platform for a lonely contemplative figure. In Deserted City and Monument she makes found objects the basis for enigmatic abstract works.
Though found material is often at the core of Helen’s output, the artist doesn’t simply re-format what she finds.
Instead, she casts resin or bronze sculpture from originals which she composes from plaster, clay, wax, cardboard and wood. Helen does all her own mould making and resin casting in partnership with her technician Gary Ley.
It’s arduous work that requires a great deal of skill and often painstaking persistence. But she has been doing it since she became a full-time sculptor in 1988. This was after studying sculpture at Wimbledon School of Art in the seventies and then teaching for 12 years.
Helen had admired the Renaissance greats since she was a student and at the start of her professional career, Helen focused on neo-classical styled work. She thought it was what people wanted.
But switching focus to the local landscape supercharged Helen’s art and her fortunes. The work became more personal and uniquely hers. The use of ‘real’ material gave Helen’s sculptures a vivid emotional core. Unsurprisingly, success followed.
Helen now exhibits all over the world. Her work is displayed every year at the Chelsea Flower Show. Her customers include Lord Melvyn Bragg, Gary Rhodes, Sheila Hancock and even Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Helen has also received many public commissions. Her ‘The Mother and the Child’ can be seen at All Saints Church, Fulham, while ‘Five Figures’ is on display at St Mary’s Hospital, Chichester. Nearer still is ’Doo Wah Diddy' at the Royal Free Hospital in Hampstead.
It’s no wonder public bodies are so keen on Helen’s oeuvre. She pulls off the rare feat of creating deep and profound work that is accessible but never crass. There is no finer example of this than a piece called The Journey that we have in her new show. Here, Helen transmutes typically expressive found wood into a mountainous terrain for a parade of weary but determined travellers to cross. There’s pain here. Hope too. We can all connect with The Journey’s simple but universal message. It’s a wonderful work among many highlights in a landmark show by one of the UK’s greatest living sculptors.
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