Your work has been praised for an amazing use of colour and harmony of shapes. How did you come up with this complex technique?
I don’t know if it’s complex…The main inspiration comes from where I live – possibly the rainiest part of Ireland – it’s very rural, dark and bleak so you have to have enough colour and inspiration coming from your head. We cover one half of my studio, which is an old duck hatchery, in white canvas. I mainly paint on canvas, although I love painting on Perspex as well, especially when I’m using Perspex and acrylic. A couple of years ago, I was working at the London Art Fair with my agent Helga – she showed me some Hermann Nitsch’s work and I found his whole creative concept incredible, especially the aggression and the physical way of working. I thought it would be interesting to create work under the same ethos, but to experiment more with colour.
Your style is very expressionist. You’ve mentioned the subconscious and the unconscious as two vital forces shaping you work. So there’s no intellectual inspiration behind it?
Definitely, there’s no intellectual inspiration.
How do you get access to this sphere of life that remains hidden from the real world? Do you meditate or analyse your dreams?
It’s a mixture – Irish people are very spiritual. I’ve used kundalini yoga as a form of work which opens up the creative part of the subconscious. But I also use neuro-linguistic programming and trough self-hypnosis I’m able to retain images from dreams and usually that is where the essence of colour comes from.
What would you consider the main message of your work?
The main message of my work is joy. A lot of the time my work is created very spontaneously, obviously there’s a serious thought process behind it but the actual physical process of making it is very spontaneous, so the end result is energy and colour, which equals joy.
It’s a very rare approach in contemporary art, where works tend to be ironic, ugly, depressing, shocking – and you just want to share the joy…
There’s so much negativity in the world, so why not seek out happiness and good things instead of focusing on the dark side.
Do you consider painting as a form of therapy? Is it a way to deal with chaos of life? Contrary to some artists who choose to put intellectual restraints on chaos, you seem to embrace it…
Yes, I absolutely agree that it’s therapeutic. Personally, I think art should be for everyone. To intellectualise art, to a certain extent, marginalizes the amount of people who are going to appreciate it. Art snobbery is really a bad thing for the whole art world. The essence of art, the purity of it, is the visual attraction.
Do you have a personal relationship with your paintings?
Yes, I have about three or four pieces hanging in my house. For one of the pieces I was offered a disgraceful amount of money during the boom. These days my husband looks at it and says, “Can’t believe you turned down that amount of money.” It’s a piece that has fluorescence in it and at night it guides you along the walls of our kitchen.
Have you experienced crucial moments of self-discovery in your life that helped to define your aesthetic?
Getting married and having children, all those big moments in life, definitely had an effect on my paintings. More recently my life has gone through a lot of turmoil and I think that really helped to define my work. Life is cyclical and every point of change is a learning curve and it’s all about how you deal with change in your life to find out who you are.
Was there a moment of change that had a particular impact on your work?
Behind any change in my work, there has always been a mistake I’ve had to correct, ever since I was 5 and started to paint and create works of art, obviously debatable at the time. This continuous process of correcting is very similar to change in that it can be really defining. Recently, we created a video performance for Harvey Nichols – it was a bit evil, but joyous and fun as well – I created music to go with the video performance. It sounded very pop; the lyrics didn’t make sense (laughs). That was a defining moment in my work, very liberating as well.
You’ve been in a rock band?
Yes, I got a contract with Polygram records when I was 23 and then I left that band and about three years later I set up a trash-metal-industrial-hardcore band. It was amazing energy, fantastic inspiration for what I’m doing now. A lot of work we created then I’ve been using more recently and someone actually came up to me after the show we did for Harvey Nichols and said, “Is your band signed?” and I was like “You should have come to me seven years ago!”
When did you realise that painting is something you want to do professionally?
The music wasn’t selling and in fashion I find it really hard to conform, to create clothes for other people and ultimately you have to think along commercial lines. So everything kept going back to painting – I was selling works to finance the band so at one point I thought I would continue full-time painting. I have never regretted it, I’m extremely lucky to be able to work at something I love and be able to make a living from it. 70% of people I studied with are not working in the arts at all and that’s really sad.
These days many artists have turned their back on painting – they’re more into installations and performance. Is this the direction contemporary art is heading in?
I do video performance as well – the reason why I’ve had to look at other ways of getting my work out there is because I can’t afford to ship big canvases all over the world. In these economical times, I think it’s important to explore new modes. This period, for a lot of my friends- designers, painters, sculptors, and writers – is a great time for creativity because there’s not much money around.
The world of art is opening up to other creative fields – also fashion and graphic design. Do you feel inspired by contemporary fashion/graphic designers?
Definitely, in fact I studied Art and Design, so fashion is a passion of mine. At the moment, I admire the beautiful prints of Holly Fulton and Mary Katrantzou, and of course the work of Alexander McQueen who was the conceptual artist himself. Also graffiti art has had a significant influence on my paintings, especially the incredible work of the Bogside Muralists in Northern Ireland that helped to bring to attention political problems in the North – it’s a good and inspiring way to explore what happened in the past.
You once confessed that you wanted to spend your First Communion money on a Katharine Hamnett t-shirt?
Yes, I did (laughs). But eventually my mother didn’t allow me…
Katharine Hamnett’s work has been very political. Do you consider your art political in any way?
No, it’s purposely not political because politics and religion, where I live, have ruined the lives of so many people… I just try to stay out of it.
I know you’re really into eco issues – you even study climate change maps. When did you become engaged in protecting environment?
My husband is a duck farmer, he produces a special breed of Peking duck and created most amazing environmental projects, mainly about recycling duck waste, for which his company – Silver Hill Foods – won awards in Europe. His work has been inspirational…I use recycled duck feathers to paint, instead of a paintbrush, and also they often become part of my paintings too.
You have slightly altered your style recently. Tell us more about it…
There are newer works that are a little calmer and more pastel, subdued, thoughtful and relaxed. They’re more figurative as well. I also have my alter-ego Hank – I always wanted to be a man – he “creates” the performance pieces…I love being a woman, I love the fact that we can have children, but regardless of that, it’s a men’s world.
You have always wanted to be a man, why?
I think if I had male genitalia my work would be viewed a little bit differently. It takes more time for a female artist to establish herself. Feminism has done so much, but it’s been quite stagnant right now and I do think we still live in a sexist world. Men in Ireland are paid more than women for exactly the same job, that’s absolutely ridiculous.
Who’s your Idol?
The late Alexander McQueen. I love the work of Matthew Stone. My music idols are Patti Smith and Sinead O’Connor – we were in school when she came out and pissed off the Catholic Church and she was right – the Church needs to change a lot in Ireland. And Tracey Emin – I admire her courage and the fact that her work is so personal.
Would you go as far in getting personal as Tracey Emin?
I would have done that 15 years ago, no problem,,. Now I have children and everything I do embarrasses them, so it would be a really painful experience for them and they could end up in therapy [laughs].
What’s the next step for you?
I’m putting together two proposals – one for Harvey Nichols’ autumn/winter show to do a performance art piece and an installation for them, and the other proposal for Electric Picnic, which is the best music festival in Ireland, to set up the canvas theatre, a massive tent painted through video performance. We already did it at the Flat Lake festival, which is run by a film producer Kevin Allen and an Irish writer Patrick McCabe, and it was quite successful. We created a podium for children to come and read creative writing. I’ve also designed a line of wrist cuffs – the newer pieces will be made from off cuts of vintage leather painted in acrylic [she presents IDOL with a colourful cuff suitably packaged in paint-splashed linen sack].
Helen Steele is represented by HF Contemporary Art
Words by Eva Wilkos