Artist talk & Q&A: Helen Beard
‘You have a lot of ups and downs working with clay. There are so many things that can go wrong in a final firing, whether things crack or slump, when you put as much detail and effort into every illustration it can be very, very nerve-wracking firing things. But the joy of it is when you take them out of the kiln and they’ve formed a new life of their own.'
Helen Beard is an acclaimed potter and illustrator. Her highly collected work is all about observations of our everyday lives - some are whimsical, some cheeky and some are nostalgic, each telling their individual narrative.
Our solo exhibition ‘Helen Beard: A Sense of Place’ opened with our doors after lockdown on Friday 19th May, marked with a digital private view where our Gallery Director Claire was joined by Helen in the gallery to give a personal introduction to the work on show. The text below is a written up version of this conversation to share with you:
Helen: ‘This exhibition has been an absolute pleasure for me. I make a lot of work that is commission based, whether it’s for Fortnum and Masons, Chelesa Physic Garden, a lot of my work is illustration based around a project. So this is the first time where I’ve been invited to a gallery to play entirely on my theme, my own story.
Window and interior view of 'Helen Beard: A Sense of Place' (19th June - 19th July 2020)
‘We have been planning this exhibition about a year and my hope was to fully immerse myself in the pond life and to become a regular swimmer at the ponds – to get to know everyone there. To take my sketchbook and really see it from the inside. As until now, I’ve only really been an observer, a people-watcher, I’ve never been able to fully immerse myself in it. I booked off 3 months to work entirely on this show and then lockdown started and the ponds closed. So instead I started to work through my archive sketches - of swimmers, local people, the markets... and I’ve also added in things from the last three months. There’s a bowl in the window with no swimmers. There’s an emphasis on the allotments so the quiet solitude that we all have been experiencing over the last three months. There’s a combination of the busyness, the life before lockdown, but also a sense of reflection of our sense of place. It’s all about the places that I feel very connected to, my local environment.’
[Going to the window to show looking in at the exhibition] ‘This is one of the bowls with the empty ponds and then the swimmers in the mixed ponds, splashing about.’
Claire: ‘This is a great one to speak about with the empty pond. It does feel quite poignant with the ponds being empty but people doing their one-hour exercise perhaps around the outside. Did you create this in the middle of lockdown or how did it come into the collection?’
H: ‘Yes, it was in the middle of lockdown. It felt quite surreal to be creating my normal busy market scenes in the middle of it all and in reaction to that I was deciding how to decorate this bowl. We’d been up to Hampstead quite a lot over the past couple of months, it just feels so quiet now, its lovely to see the nature taking over and I wanted to capture that. Although, at the same time, we all miss being able to swim.’
C: 'Absolutely, so many people have been saying that!'
H: ‘There’s another piece that is a reflection on the ponds [pointing out the swimmers hut, swimmers and ladder in the grey box on our wall] which is a new style of working for me. I’m doing a lot more of the props and hand-built pieces. It’s a really nice way for me to be able to play around with the story. So this one is the swimmers hut and swimmers and ladder and I like the playful element of mixing thrown pots and non-functional props. It becomes an illustration in 3D.’
‘And then [gesturing to the bowl on the plinth below] we have a busier picture of the ponds – this is the ladies ponds. And I like to imagine on the first day back with it being really full.’
[Walking over to show the largest piece in the collection, a large cylinder of Columbia Road] ‘This is Columbia Road flower market. From the outside, I hoped to create times of it being really quiet as people set up before it starts. On the inside, I wanted to create the flower market as as busy as it gets – maybe it even gets even busier than that. It’s very difficult to decorate on the inside like this as I’m using a method of drawing on clay using a sheet of carbon paper that I make myself using stain impregnated newspaper. I do the line drawing holding the piece of paper and drawing through it. It’s a huge amount of work, trying to keep my lines roughly straight and to get the actual visual of the people and all the flowers.'
Flower Market Cylinder
C: ‘Were you a painter or a ceramicist first?
H: ‘I’d like to say they came at the same time. I’ve always been a drawer, probably since I was a little girl, a tiny young one, and I’ve always built sketchbooks. The ceramics are something I did at art college and it was very natural to want to draw and decorate on clay. From the beginning I’ve always combined the two.’
C: 'For your ceramics, is there a reason you work with Limoge porcelain in particular?'
H: 'I adopted this from Edmund de Waal, I trained with him in 2004 and this is the clay that he used. I love it for its buttery texture and it’s lovely to throw with. But since I’ve moved in to doing the hand-built pieces I’ve discovered I need to use a different clay as it doesn’t join in the same way so I’ve moved on Audrey Blackman, a Stoke clay. It’s lovely to work with as well. So I now use the Limoge for throwing and then the Audrey Blackman for the others. '
'It’s all very new to me, hand-building. It’s really me playing and developing this story idea, I’m discovering all sorts of new things every day. I had made a bridge for the ponds with a ladder going in but as I fired them everything just drooped. It’s been a steep learning curve actually, self-taught hand-building. With porcelain, you fire it so high it can really sink and change in the firing.'
'The trees are new as well. I love the idea of bringing illustration into the 3D so they’re intentionally quite flat trees, flat buildings, a flat bus. It’s bringing the picture alive but still feeling a bit like a picture.
Georgian Terrace, Tree & car
'I love the idea that people collect these and create their own stories through them so people might take home a bus from an exhibition and then at the next exhibition choose the people to go with it. It’s so much fun to explore that story-telling element.'