Likened to the ‘outrageous majesty’ of Renaissance paintings, Helen Downie’s paintings take the audience on a voyage through light, time, and emotion. Each piece is both striking and confidential. “Everything is happening all at once in this place,” she says, “the joy, the beauty but also the terrible horror.” Her work is currently featured in the miniature exhibition Small is Beautiful at the Flowers Gallery until the 6th of January. Catch a glimpse while you still can!
Hello, Helen! How are you? Where are you answering us from?
Hello! I’m good, thank you, I hope you are too. I’m in a blustery London right now, answering these questions in that strange lost week between Christmas and New Year.
Tell us about your artistic name, Unskilled Worker. What’s the story behind it?
I didn’t really give it too much thought, some words are shinier than others and I’d always liked it. The way it writes on a page and the meaning seemed appropriate when I began painting – it still does. Artists don’t really ever become professional, we’re just playing. It was good to have an alias when my Instagram account gained attention, I felt I could hide behind Unskilled Worker and I liked that people assumed I was a young boy. Some of my work is now signed Helen Downie, it depends on my mood.
I see that you participated in the 39th edition of the Small is Beautiful exhibition at Flowers Gallery, can we expect to see your work there this year too?
Oh, yes! I love making work for Small is Beautiful; it’s a wonderful exhibition, there’s such an eclectic mix of artists and somehow with brilliant curation the little works chatter along very well together. It was through the Small is Beautiful exhibition that I fell in love with making small pictures. The physicality is different, being made on my lap, there’s a delicious intensity, it’s more intimate somehow.
There is something rather haunting in the vibrant beauty of your paintings. At first glance, the dazzling bouquets distract from the birds that lie beneath it with their throats slit. The more you stare at each piece, the more jumps out that was previously concealed. What is the intended impact of such an overflow of visual stimulants?
My work is instinctive and, many times, the elements will surprise me. I’ve learnt to listen to the first instruction in my mind and go with what my hands reach for, it always knows more about the picture than I do – it knows the ending. I think I’m painting a joyful flower picture and dead birds will appear, it’s that way with most of my work, there’s a need for the poison. I feel it’s an attempt to say, everything is happening all at once in this place, the joy, the beauty but also the terrible horror – it’s all here.
Ronnie, 2023
The scenes you create seem like they were drawn straight out of a child’s dream: girls wearing one shoe riding on pink ponies in front of erupting volcanoes that spit sparks into a sky speckled with clouds with human faces (The Last Question). When you create, do you tap into a sense of childish wonder? How?
I find that memory morphs into something far more colourful and outrageous with time. Each painting feels to me like an event, a kind of bookmark in my life. I usually work on one painting at a time, I like the intensity and feeling of commitment. A flickering image forms in my mind’s eye, it’s often grand, like a Renaissance painting, many images come and as I don’t keep sketchbooks it’s the ones that nag that will get made into a picture.
When I’m painting I feel more of a connection with people and nature, I feel love more easily. That’s the most important part for me, I see reality more clearly. Maybe that’s what gives them a child-like quality.
Your work presents scenes of harmony between plants and animals. The art exudes a pulse of germination. What would you say is your biggest inspiration when creating?
Thank you, that’s so lovely to hear! As children we know the magic of nature, we feel it everywhere, there is no separation. I’m looking for that feeling again, I wonder why we lose it? I think that’s why I’m drawn to artists that have a kind of accidental psychedelic element in their work. I find it in the outrageous majesty of Renaissance paintings, the way they make my eyes feel. Some inspiration arrives at an unconscious level, like a sponge, sucking it in and spitting it out in a jumble of things that have resonated.
Finding the work of Charles Burchfield was special for me, his work has a magical, musical vibration which I’d like to see in my own work. I’m looking for a musicality in the way colours play together, I feel that making a picture is probably a similar process to making a song.
There are simultaneously euphoric and dystopian elements to your work. How would you describe your style?
I don’t really think about my paintings having a style, there doesn’t seem to be a choice in it, they come the way they are. I think my style is a mixture of possibilities and limitations and what I’m prepared to do at that moment. I know the feeling of the process is dissatisfaction until suddenly it’s not. The picture can be worked on for hundreds of hours and something in the last two, like finding a key that makes it all come alive, everything falls into its place and a feeling of resolution happens and I know it might be finished.
I find myself drawn in particularly by the eyes of your portraits. Heavy, inundated, orbs that seem to breathe a murmur of loneliness and a twinge of accusation. If the people in your portraits could speak, what would they say?
I love that you see them that way! People see in different ways, I’ve found they bring their own experiences to the work. I’ve been told that the characters look a little sad and awkward to some and to others all-knowing. I let go of the way they live in other people’s minds, there really isn’t a fixed narrative.
For me, the characters seem lonely, a little locked in but aware of being watched and yes, probably accusatory. It is exasperating as to why so many horrendous humans rise to rule and create havoc and misery for people. It could be different, we could be better, that’s maybe what they’re saying.
His Name was Gary, 2023
In 2017 you collaborated with Gucci in the creation of a clothing line. Tell us about this experience? What was it like transferring your vision onto clothes?
I’d been painting a year or so when Gucci found my work on Instagram, it was an amazing experience. Alessandro Michele, Gucci’s creative director in those years, is a magical person and it was so exciting to be involved with Gucci at that time. He had such vision yet he allowed me to have creative freedom to realise my own ideas in answer to what he was creating; it was a free-flowing conversation. At the time of making those pictures, I had no idea they would be their own Gucci collection, that happened later, it was thrilling.
If readers wish to be transported to your dreamlike world in person, where could they come across your pieces?
Currently there are two boys showing in the Small is Beautiful exhibition at Flowers Gallery in Mayfair. I’m making a body of work to show at Daniel Cooney Gallery in NYC next September. I’ve always painted boys in between the larger, more complex works, it’s a way for me to refresh from  the last painting. Daniel and I both thought an exhibition of the boys would be lovely to see, I’m excited to concentrate on them for a while to see what happens when I paint them day after day.
Finally, any resolutions or goals for the new year, both personal and professionally?
The thing is personally and professionally don’t exist so much as an artist, it all gets mushed up together and sometimes I can forget not to work. I would like to be less obsessive and sometimes walk away from my painting: go outside and spend some more time with real people rather than my imaginary ones.