I met Helen a couple of years ago inside an abandoned factory in Germany. After several festivals, we recently caught up in Aberdeen. She told me about the murals she painted for Nuart, and shared insights into the path that brought her there.
When Nuart’s founder and curator Martyn Reed sent her photos of potential walls in Aberdeen, Helen noticed they all have a diptych structure. Not just of any shape: it was the same format as the two boards she had just bought to try out different techniques in her studio.
Bring characters to walls that she first painted on canvas is unusual for Helen Bur. She did feel comfortable doing it for Nuart Aberdeen, though, where she painted the two characters on the sides of the façade of an empty building.
I’m in a constant battle trying to bring together my canvas work and the wall work. I’m happy with what I painted in Aberdeen because they look like canvases to me. It feels closer to my studio work, which is nice
As she tries to bring her studio work to the streets, Helen also pushes herself to be braver -both with her narrative and with the trust she needs to place in the public.
Helen Bur: “I’m trying to make the narrative less obvious and the meaning subtler, or at least less instruction based. I enjoy playing with that line between narrative and abstraction”
Until last year, the stories that Helen was painting on walls all around the world were inspired by her interest in other people’s lives. Through making art, she was learning things she had no experience with before, breaking down the world around her, and understanding it a bit more with each brush stroke.
Helen Bur: “Then I gradually realized that the only way I was receiving all that information was through newspapers, and there is only so much truth you can get from journalistic representations of situations. So I turned it around and started to look inwards. In the last months I painted from personal experiences, which made me reconnect with my work. Now I examine my life first, then what’s around me or what I can have a first time real experience of – and finally I paint about it”
From the people in London who she is sharing a big warehouse with, whose intense social interactions accidentally became part of her material, to Albert Camus’ ‘Myth of Sisyphus’ on Absurdism, everything she has painted in the last year comes from Helen’s personal experiences, thoughts, and meanings.
Helen Bur: “Me finding my creativity is me finding my own meaning. I’m also intrigued about making that the content of my narrative, the concept of the work itself. Like I did in Nuart Stavanger last year”
Invited to Nuart Stavanger in 2018, Helen painted a guy that, after having thrown a dart, is painting the target around it. By adding meaning to the act after it has been committed , that guy is a metaphor of our lives: there’s the mere act of living and there’s us, creating whatever meaning we want around it.
Helen Bur: “Drawing circles around things is like adding meaning to things. Having gone to art school, I think it’s important to add meaning to my work, but when people ask me ‘What’s the meaning behind the piece?’ I always invite them to find their own meaning, to find what makes them want to know more about it, or just to simply look at it”
For Nuart Aberdeen, Helen painted yet two more characters – a guy holding a ball and a girl with the hoop – recalling the idea of a game she already played with in Stavanger.
Helen Bur: “When I began painting the guy holding a ball, most people were like ‘Is that a famous football player?’ That was the basic understanding of the image, which – at a first reading – is fair enough. But then when I added the woman with the hoop, they were like ‘Maybe there is some kind of innuendo going on… is this a painting about sex, right?’ and yeah, well, I can go with that. I’d rather the painting was about sex than it was about football!”
Never expository, Helen’s art is open to people’s different points of view and interpretations. However, she does enjoy throwing hints into what she thinks the artwork is about.
Helen Bur: “It’s interesting to throw that out at people because we don’t walk around in our daily environment in the streets trying to undercover the meaning of everything around us. Rather, everything usually is very black and white, because advertising is telling you exactly what to think. After realizing how bombarded we are with being told how to think, it’s kind of a small act of rebellion to start critically looking at what’s around you, breaking it down. I think people are becoming more and more aware of how they have been insulted to or how they have been manipulated by advertising”
Helen only started painting in the streets in 2011, after many years of painting in the studio. Her first mural was a wall outside her university, although she had already painted inside old, abandoned farmhouses in Chichester, down the road from where her mother lives. She used to go there either on her own or with fellow studio painters to experiment with different techniques on walls.
Helen Bur: “When I started painting on walls, my work was illustrational and very different from my studio work at that time. Gradually and gradually, I’ve been pushing them closer and closer together, and now I think they can exist together. Now the balance works”
Unburdened from the weight that painting on canvas has, when in the streets Helen enjoys the lightness and the freedom of doing something fresh, together with the excitement of being part of the newest art movement in history.
Helen Bur: “Painting with brushes on wall is an older tradition than painting with spray cans; it goes way beyond that, and this is why I don’t feel an ‘outsider’. What I do is mural painting, which goes back even further. I’ve recently spent some time in Spain, and there it feels completely normal to paint with brushes on walls. We are painters and we have used brushes for a very long time. There are also quite a few people using brushes here at Nuart Aberdeen; I think it’s becoming more and more popular to use brushes in the streets”
After an Art Foundation year in Brighton, where she tried a bit of every creative discipline from animation to jewellery making, Helen took some time off to travel and explore the world before enrolling into Cardiff’s School of Art. From Art School, she went straight into running The Abacus, an art gallery with artist studios and an event space. She runs it voluntarily together with her “other half” Sam Worthington (a.k.a. Wasp Elder). At the same time, they were also organizing Cardiff’s street art festival ‘Empty Walls’ (covered).
Helen Bur: “We were watching street art festivals happening all around the world. We both tried to apply to some through competitions and didn’t get in. So we were like ‘You know what? We can start our own party if nobody is going to invite us’. It was the same with the gallery. We realized that, as a student coming out from university, and especially when you paint on canvas, there is not a place for you in the art world. You are not accepted into that, there is no way you can show your work, no one would take you seriously. So we did start our own gallery”
Empty Walls was born as part of a bigger creative festival in Cardiff -Made in Roath- a platform to which, in 2013 and in 2014, Helen and Sam invited their favourite street artists.
Helen Bur: “They all said yes, and that was great! We got to meet some lovely people who had more experience. From them we learnt more about street art festivals and – in general – about painting in the streets. Just having these people staying at our home got us incredibly inspired. Moreover, we kind of accepted that we did have enough to push, and to be on the other side if we want to be”
When the building of The Abacus was knocked down, Helen was already feeling that – despite being empowering – the overall experience was also a lot to deal with. She felt like an artist mimicking a manager, which made her uncomfortable. After six years in Cardiff, it was time to go on.
You have to give it your all. It’s a cliché, but it’s true. Being told that the building was being demolished turned into my ticket to freedom. I took the risk and I’m glad I did. Just sticking with it for the last few years is truly paying off
A very successful pay-off that looks like a circle of red paint around Helen’s dart.