Hearing about Helen Seiver’s initial foray into art just goes to show that you should always be open to trying new things as they can lead you to places you never thought you’d go. And, potentially, change your life forever. Thinking she wasn’t remotely artistic, little did Helen know that attending a pottery class with a friend many years ago would lead her to get an honours degree in Visual Arts and become a full-blown multi-media artist creating works for solo and group exhibitions as well as tutoring in art and winning awards.
Helen very kindly took time out from her busy artistic schedule to talk to me over the phone from Western Australia about how she started, the array of recycled materials she uses and the themes and issues inherent in her work.
Tell me about your background and how you’ve ended up where you are today? Was being a multi-media artist something you always wanted to be?
Way back in the 70s I was a young woman with two small children and I had a friend who wanted to go to ceramic classes and wanted someone to go with her. I haven’t stopped making since! And she doesn’t do it anymore, which is quite ironic really.
I was a potter for 25 years or so and then I suddenly decided I didn’t want to be a potter anymore. l left school when I was 15 and always felt a little sad that I’d never gone to university. I shifted from my rural home to another bigger rural centre and went to university. That was in 1996, so really I’m a very late bloomer in the art stakes. Now I don’t work in clay at all; I sculpt and paint and use recycled materials.
Where do you source the recycled materials from?
With the blankets, a lot come from charity shops but a lot come from friends and friends of friends who know I’m collecting. For instance, I was doing a show a couple of years back around tea towels and the amazing fact that we put these incredible philosophical messages on something we wipe dishes with every day. People I didn’t know were giving me their precious tea towels – some from like the 1930s – people who thought of tea towels as important documents.
A lot of the timber and larger or more robust found objects that I use come from street collections. You can’t buy things that come with a history and it’s the history of things that appeals to me. They talk about an era, or a people or a place or a time.
You must have a large stash of stuff you’ve collected over the years.
Yes, I have huge collections of rusty bits, broken china, pieces of domestic fabric, blankets, curtaining that I use in all different ways. For instance, I’ve made pieces using corrugated iron that I’ve pierced using a hole punch hammered into the tin. I’ve actually taken patterns of lace curtain to transcribe onto the tin and that’s what makes the patterning. So sometimes I won’t use the exact object – it’s the inspiration of that object or the colour or the pattern that informs the work.
That was going to be one of my questions – do you start with an idea first or does the inspiration come from a found object?
That’s a chicken or an egg question! Sometimes I get an idea in my head or a bee in my bonnet about something and set about trying to find materials that will enable me to talk about that issue. Or sometimes, as you say, the materials speak to me and I begin.
With your Birdland series, where did that idea come from?
I heard a radio programme talking about diminishing bird populations and what that means. I live on a beautiful property with lots of trees, loads of birds and bird song, and on the programme it talked about how in Tokyo there is no birdsong. It is played on loud speakers! I thought how I would hate to live in a world without bird song. I started making these enormous nests for the day when there are no tree hollows for the birds to nest in.
Then I started to do some research and discovered this term called ‘Goldilocks region’. It’s a scientific term now which means: Not too hot, not too cold but just right. And of course, what’s not too hot, not too cold but just right for birds is right for us as well. In the bigger picture, the work is talking about not just diminishing bird populations and habitats but diminishing habitats for humans as well.
So the environment and sustainability is clearly an important aspect of your work generally and for you personally …?
I suppose I have two streams of work. One is about women’s work and honouring the processes that happen every day at home that often we don’t acknowledge – even as women. And sometimes [my work] is environmental and sometimes it’s social and political – gender, race, that type of thing. It may not be apparent to everybody but to me there has to be an underlying passion or I can’t do it.
A lot of the work has fairly long processes. With all those birds’ nests [for instance], first I find all the sticks, then take the bark of them, which is hours and hours of peeling the bark. Then I cut the blanket and embroider the blanket onto the sticks. So you can imagine the amount of time it takes to make hundreds of sticks. Or, making all those holes in the corrugated iron with a hole punch under a cloth because I’m forever hitting my knuckles.
Gosh, that sounds like quite dangerous work!
Yes, replicating a lace pattern is quite difficult and painful work so unless I feel really passionate about the issues I’m speaking about, I can’t do it. At the moment I’m ripping up all my clothes, making it into string and I’m crocheting a house. It’s for an exhibition I’m having in August.
Is this on a domestic theme?
Yes, it’s called Strangers in my Palace. Using found objects, all chosen as signifiers of place and era, the work embraces themes of inherence (to be a natural and integral part of something) and cultural inheritance. I have a fundamental belief in the strength and power of women that is and has been drawn from the everyday, civil and domestic experience.
My family history goes back to the first ships that came to Western Australia. My great-great-great-grandmother was the first non-indigenous woman born in WA so I often think about the hardships of that time and I guess Strangers in my Palace refers to all the women who have come before me who have made me into the person I am now.
What would be your dream project or commission or have you, perhaps, done it already?
I would love to find a ruined outback community where I could do installations on all of the house sites – that would be a dream to be. And a famous photographer would come and document it and turn it into a book – a book that talks about the lives of the women who lived in those places.
Have you ever had a ‘who’d have thought’ moment?
I often think back to my friend who asked me to go to pottery classes with her and think: Who’d have thought this would become my big passion in life? It’s a passion that has sustained me now for 40-odd years. It was synchronicity that made me meet that person and go pottery classes with her.
Yes, amazing – especially if you’d never entertained the idea before …
No, I hadn’t. In fact, I didn’t think I had an artistic bone in my body!
Thank you so much, Helen – a great story and I can’t wait to see your larger-than-life crochet house when it’s finished! And you can see more of Helen’s work here.