Cavaliero Finn has been working with Helen Ballardie since 2014 when her work was spotted by Juliana whilst she attended the Private View of the Dulwich Picture Gallery Open 2014 with Cavaliero Finn artist Gill Rocca whose work was also selected for the show.
Drawn to a small framed painting in the first room by Helen, a little mixed media work entitled Blind Man’s Buff, Juliana wasn’t surprised when they announced the winner of the Dulwich Open Prize was none other than….‘Helen Ballardie’
Since then Helen’s work has featured regularly in our exhibitions. In this interview we find out more about our artist and what inspires her to create her work.
In Conversation with Helen Ballardie
You are often inspired by old paintings that you see, such as A Boy as a Shepherd by Peter Lely and The Blind’s Man Buff painting by Sir David Wilkie, what attracts you to a particular painting and what makes you return to it again?
With Blind Man’s Buff, I found an old battered, monochrome engraving after David Wilkie, years ago in a barn in Somerset. There were bits missing from some of the characters, scratched back to bare white, adjacent to details of their faces or hands etc. I liked that visual juxtaposition; I also liked their writhing movements and positions. I thought about the game they were playing -blind man’s buff- an innocent game but based on a really nasty premise: poking at, jeering and hiding from a blind-folded person.
It was probably the boy’s hair in Peter Lely’s painting that first attracted me, but then his facial expression. Something about it didn’t ring true, too clean and haughty for a shepherd boy, and the title, ‘A Boy as a Shepherd’. I liked the idea of this boy becoming whatever he liked, and taking to his new role with great seriousness, almost transplanting himself portentously, into someone else’s life or identity. So I took some minor events in my life, and exaggerated them hugely into fantastic, glittering proportions, with The Young Boy as the star of the show. Sometimes memories become like that: singled out and glorified.
Tell us about your new body of work, The Gossips
The Gossips are a series of paintings and etchings. All the characters have been taken from images of people playing blind man’s buff: from paintings; prints; and photographs which is why there’s a mixture of styles and times spans in their clothes etc. They are all fairly innocent but just like gossip I have taken them out of their original contexts and mixed them up so that they look as if they are doing something else. The resulting scenes are more salacious and gossipy than their original beginnings. I’ve also begun taking just one character, or a group, such as Three Loves, and leaving them on their own so that we are not sure what they are doing or what their motives are.
What drives you to paint?
I’ve always been interested in paint and disguises. When I was a child I was fascinated by theatrical makeup, and saved any birthday or Christmas money to send away for a new bit of kit: face putty, tooth blackener, facial hair and gum, etc. I was probably 8 and would spend ages making myself up as an old man with a bald wig, thread veins, wrinkles, dark eye sockets, whiskers etc, then I’d dress up with tweed jacket, hat, old shoes, walking stick, and take the dog for a walk around the block to see if I could get away with it. I do remember once a young couple looking quite startled as they walked passed!
I don’t feel right if I’m not painting. Paint is where I feel most comfortable.
Your paintings deal with ideas concerning truth, fiction, perception, and identity. Tell us why these issues are important to you.
Fairness. I think fairness is important to everyone. When one person’s perception becomes a truth, and a fiction gets attached to and distorts someone’s identity, these are important things. I see it happening all the time, truths and fictions being woven into one cloth.
Talk us through your approach to a body of work?
It varies really, sometimes I do drawings, sometimes I make collages, sometimes I make small paintings on board, and sometimes I go straight in to a big painting. As long as I can visualize a painting and map out a composition, the small works are to experiment with colours, or techniques I might be curious about etc. but sometimes just because I think it should be a small work.
You are often found working with other established artists and you recently worked with Mat Collishaw, how do you juggle your workload and what do these experiences bring to your own work?
I’ve done work for a number of fellow artists in the past. I used to work as a model maker, a specialist decorator and a scenic artist, so I’m used to doing that sort of work. I occasionally still do bits of work like that here and there but I don’t like to take too much time away from my studio as it interrupts the development of work. Last year a friend asked if I’d like to help Mat Collishaw on one of his projects. First I was hesitant to be out of my studio, but in the end I decided to do it because I thought it might be a good experience. It turned out to be an amazing life experience. Mat is a truly great artist. He thoroughly deserves his place at the top. His work is phenomenal and to talk with him about it was like treasure! I learnt so much from him and being in that working environment.
How will you get inspired for future work and do you have any ideas?
I have a lot of ideas! I get inspiration from unexpected places. I’ve been looking at Henry Darger again recently. I love the colours and compositions in The Vivian Girls, as well as the story telling. There seems to be a resurgence of interest in his work lately: It’s so incredibly beautiful and exciting. There’s a good article on him in the Guardian from 2005 which explains his life and gives possible reasons why the work is so strange. I love the fact that in paint you can do anything, say anything, and make anything happen. But however my visual idea starts, the process of painting often changes it.