Helen Robinson is a Brooklyn-based artist who was recently part of the Intro 7 exhibition at the Hidell Brooks. The exhibition featured artists whose work had never been seen in the Charlotte area. Helen’s work is derived from photographs and the artist uses her portraiture as a form of self-expression.
When did you first know that you wanted to be an artist?
I probably knew I wanted to be an artist professionally when I was in High School, but I’ve been drawing and painting since I was a little kid. Back in elementary school, I was a huge crayon and marker lover, and I remember praying for rain during recess so I could draw inside. I continued to adore art class throughout middle school, but in high school, I reached a point where I realized I could actually be a full-time painter professionally and go after my dream of being a fine artist.
What is your preferred medium?
I love to experiment and work with a lot of different things, but oils are definitely my preferred medium. I picked up oil painting pretty quickly in high school and college. I think it’s a medium I’m just naturally drawn to and good at. I love drawing with graphite and charcoal as well but find oil painting to be more rewarding. I have to include photography too because all of my work is derived from my own source material. Every painting comes from my own photography.
Who are some of the artists who inspire you the most?
That is a really long list and super hard to narrow down. I am particularly inspired by female artists such as Alice Neel, Hilma af Klint, Georgia O’Keefe, Nancy Holt, Yayoi Kusama, Agnes Martin, and the list goes on. Artists always stayed true to their craft and dedicated their lives to their work despite how male-dominated the art world was at the time. I think their authenticity to themselves and their work is something I aspire to.
Living in New York, you are surrounded by many well-known art museums from The Met to the Guggenheim. What museums do you visit when you need a little inspiration?
I personally really love the Whitney and Guggenheim, because they aren’t too big or overwhelming when I need a quick trip for inspiration. They have both had some really stellar exhibitions the last few years. My best friend lives uptown near the Met, so I also enjoy going there with her for inspiration. The Met is so big that you can always find something new to explore. Lastly, if I need a quick dose of inspiration on a budget I love to go to Chelsea and gallery hop. It’s free and a nice way to get some time outside and walk around a lot. It’s also a great way to see art from younger artists.
When I saw your work, I was intrigued by the fact that some of the paintings featured phrases that had been stitched onto the canvas. At what point during the painting process do you add the hand (or) machine-stitched words?
In my newest body of work, I have been hand embroidering poetry onto my paintings. Before I start a painting I have an idea of what I’m going to embroider and where, but I don’t start the embroidery process until I’m 95% done with my painting. I usually complete my painting first so that I don’t risk getting paint on the embroidery, because that can’t be fixed without taking it out and starting over. Typically, my process goes like this: I paint on a stretched canvas first, then when it’s pretty much done I take the painting off the stretcher to embroider. I then hand embroider the piece which can take anywhere from 7 hours to 30+ hours. Once the embroidery is done I re-stretch the piece on the stretcher bars. Last, I touch up any parts of the painting that need to be repainted. Usually, that’s the background and smaller details. I will say that it is a very extensive process, but I really enjoy it.
In addition to Vanderbilt University, you also studied for a semester abroad at Parsons Paris School of Art and Design, what was the most memorable experience you had while studying in Paris?
I loved studying in Paris and learned a lot while I was there. I wouldn’t say I improved significantly from a technical standpoint, but my professors really pushed me conceptually. The most memorable experience I had there was an assignment to create a portrait. I was working on a self-portrait and my professor really wanted me to push myself to get out of my comfort zone, so I started finger painting and used my fingers to smear big globs of oil paint instead of brushes. I thought that was pretty bold. My professor was unimpressed, so he had me put my finished wet painting on the ground and walk across it. In hindsight, I probably should have taken off my shoes because I spent the second half of class getting oil paint off my boots. Either way, I did as I was told and walked right on top of my wet painting, and it actually made it better. I currently have that painting hanging in my apartment. It’s one of my favorites and reminds me to experiment and not be afraid to ruin a painting.
What would you say is the overall theme of the pieces that you created for the exhibition at the Hidell Brooks?
The paintings I created for Hidell Brooks are the first of this new series and are inspired by poetic moments. In my last series, I started titling my paintings with pieces of poetry that transform meaning when taken out of context and placed next to specific imagery. I really enjoyed that process, so I decided to incorporate it directly into the work. Poetry and painting can serve as protective spaces, a sort of antidote to harsh political or personal realities, so I wanted to experiment with combining them. Overall, I think this is a very contemplative body of work about poetic expression and the human experience.
Out of all of the pieces that you’ve created, what piece (or series) has meant the most to you as an artist?
Man, another hard question. A lot of my work is personal and means a lot to me as an artist. This current series I’m working on has been one of the most challenging I’ve ever done conceptually and technically, and it is definitely taking me out of my comfort zone, so in terms of a series, the embroidery pieces have meant a lot to me. If I had to pick one single painting, it would be my piece A Different Kind Of Road Map from my Observance series. It’s a self-portrait but because it doesn’t include any facial features, it transforms into this ambiguous figurative piece that I think a lot of people are drawn to. It was my first painting with a lot of detailing as well, which is something I’ve continued to include in my work since then.
What did you enjoy the most about working with Katherine and Rebecca prior to the introductions exhibition at the Hidell Brooks Gallery?
Katherine and Rebecca are so awesome and super easy to work with. I only met them a week before the show opened when I drove down my paintings from New York, so we’ve mostly worked together via email correspondence. I loved spending a brief amount of time with them during the opening of the show and can’t say enough nice things about them. I work with a lot of serious and intimidating curators and gallerists in New York, so for me, it is so refreshing to work with such friendly, open, and welcoming gallerists.
Are you currently working on a new series?
I am actually taking a short break from painting for the rest of summer because I’m getting married in September. As an artist, I’ve been very hands-on in the wedding planning process, so the next month is going to be incredibly busy for me. Once I’m back in the studio this fall I’ll continue working on the series that’s being shown at Hidell Brooks. Those pieces are just the beginning of a larger series.