Helena Clarke: Drawing Threads by Sara Bowler 

Helena Clarke uses an exquisite language of marks to create strange unsettling forms reminiscent of flora in this world yet clearly not of it. Applied in layers through processes of accretion and erasure, they are manifestations of her meditative stance, drawings of time, or a question, rather than a physical object. Through this she explores the bodily impact of anxiety and the healing affect her practice brings. Based in Cornwall, the opportunity to interview her arose through her participation in GASS, a graduate artist start-up scheme initiated by Cultivator Cornwall, a programme of support for creative practitioners in the county funded by the European Structural and Investment Fund, Arts Council England and Cornwall Council.

Clarke describes her way of drawing as weaving, or knitting, with a pencil, finding parallels in a weaver’s use of yarn or an embroiderer’s, of thread. Knowledge of fabric is central to her approach, born of time spent with a grandmother who encouraged play and experimentation, offering a way to express thoughts and emotions during her early years when she struggled with conventional communication.  Through this, she built a library of drawn marks akin to a painter’s palette, developing a language with which to share her enquiry and understanding of the world. Later, educators encouraged her to explore this further, enabling her to expand both language and library. For Clarke, drawing is a form of dissection, a way of investigating how and why things are as they are. It’s a long thoughtful process through which she hopes to gain deeper insights. If this doesn’t occur, the drawings are photocopied multiple times, cut and reassembled until she arrives at the understanding she seeks. Collaged works were initially seen as steps along the way rather than complete in themselves but increasingly are viewed as works in their own right.

Walking is an important part of the process; it enables her to formulate questions about scientific and ecological issues to explore within the drawing. She is interested in how anxiety manifests in her body, how she feels it in her gut and how the deliberate and slow act of mark making enables her to work through these experiences and recover. The meticulous, repetitive acts suggest a spiritual aspect to her practice. Before embarking on an art career, she spent time at a convent with nuns, discussing her wish to follow a meditative life, coming to the conclusion that creativity was an essential aspect of who she is and not something she could or should forego. Her library and language of marks and willingness to commit to a painstaking process reveal a disciplined and structured approach, not far removed from a religious life.

By creating conversations between processes, she took her drawings into three dimensions, a way to “make them more alive.” Translating two-dimensional graphic works into three dimensional spatial ones was challenging but opened new approaches to presentation. Using a basket weaving method she created forms for the body to be worn in quasi performances and as freestanding works. Ironically, she grew frustrated by their stasis, their inability to be reformed and collaged despite their capacity for movement. A new focus, “clay companions” is enabling her to return to this idea of the anima or spirit in things. Referencing her collection of ceramic objects made by artist friends, she is creating layered, subtly coloured drawings of these creature-like objects, seeing them as alive and as animated as the people who made them. It’s a new departure, a steady unfolding for her enquiring mind. It will be fascinating to see where it leads her.

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