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Meet The Artist: Unskilled Worker

Meet The Artist: Unskilled Worker

At 14, a young Helen Downie enjoyed painting people’s faces but she didn’t pick up a paintbrush again until the age of 48. Finding her feet, she began posting her finished works on Instagram under the handle @unskilledworker, where her wide-eyed, doll-like portraits became hugely popular. Telling complex stories through themes of family, nature, mortality, femininity, dreamscapes and the subconscious, she found herself an avid fan base.

Among those was renowned photographer Nick Knight, who stumbled across her Instagram just as it was taking off. Knight quickly offered her a residency, commissioning her to paint a series of portraits. Then in 2015, Alessandro Michele, the newly appointed Creative Director of Gucci, caught wind of her work and invited her to participate in Gucci’s No Longer / Not Yet art exhibition at the Minsheng Art Museum in Shanghai. What followed was a 40-piece capsule collection of ready-to-wear garments, shoes, bags, silks and accessories with the label which featured prints of her eclectic characters and imagined worlds.

Following exhibitions in Hong Kong, Tokyo and Seoul, this week, Unskilled Worker has gone on display across the W1 Curates screens that wrap FLANNELS London flagship on Oxford Street. To mark the launch, and to kick start our International Women’s Day celebrations, we chatted with Helen about what it’s like to be a woman in the art world today, what style means to her and the complex relationship between fashion and art.

Tell us about about the pieces in this exhibition.
The paintings featured in this exhibition are chosen from the work I’ve been making over the last five years. I felt it important to show a progression. Some subjects are imaginary, some are real, like Beloved, a painting of my granddaughter Maggie. My work is quickly changing, morphing into something quite different. It’s been a wonderful opportunity to document the last few years in this way.

What are your thoughts on W1 Curates, and do you think it’s important that art is made accessible to all?
It’s been such a pleasure to work with W1 Curates. Taking art to places that are usually bombarded with advertising has been such an amazing project to be a part of. I feel that art can have a hugely positive impact on people - it has the power to change someone’s day for the better and we need it more than ever right now.

How does it feel to have your work displayed on Oxford Street, the hub of British fashion?  
 I’m excited to see my work on Oxford Street, it’s been such a prominent place, with so many memories threaded throughout my life: shopping with my Mum and then hanging out as a teenager at the 100 Club, which hasn’t changed at all since the '80s.

It’s International Women’s Day on the 8th of March and we’re paying tribute to the amazing women that have inspired us. Which female artists have inspired you, both past and present? 
There are so many. I’m drawn to female art, it’s a beautiful energy and I relate to it before I’m even aware that a work is rendered by a woman. Finding Alice Neal was a special moment, her work is so important. Looking at art can feel like time travel. A painting rendered with the zeitgeist of its time will draw me back and Alice Neal’s does that -  it gives me a spark of the atmosphere it was created in. I love Laura Owens, Aya Takano, Cecily Brown and Genieve Figgis. I like work that’s multi-layered, transportive and humorous, work that sucks everything in and blasts it out.

Women feature strongly in your work. Why is it important to you to represent them? And is there a way you want your women to be seen?
Painting women feels a familiar and comfortable place for me. Women’s bodies are so commented on and sexualised. I find the reality more clumsily sweet and strong, not often how I see women portrayed. I feel it’s important to paint the female form through my own eye -. I’m pushing back at the hundreds of years of the male gaze. When I paint men, it will be on a day when I feel particularly boyish and they just come out usually looking vulnerable.

You start your portraits with their eyes. What can someone’s eyes give away about their character or their story? 
So much is expressed through our eyes - and hands too. Once I have the eyes, a subject becomes real to me and with that a responsibility to bring a painting to life, to give them a place to be. The hands give away secrets. In photographs, the positioning of hands really reflect emotion, maybe because hands are forgotten about, we’re too busy thinking of our facial expression and holding our stomachs in.

Your paintings are often in domestic settings, is ‘the home’ a special place for you? And has this relationship changed over the past 12 months?
The home is a special place, although it’s probably a place for most of us that is also the most problematic. It’s possible to feel disconnected and lonely within a family, partly because of the expectations of what we believe a family “should be”. In some of my work I look at the gap between the reality and fantasy of family life, although the bodies are intertwined, the eyes send a contradictory message.

What was Alessandro Michele (Gucci) like to work with?
I’d been painting for a short time when Alessandro Michele found me. Alessandro had just become creative director and it was a magical journey which I felt very fortunate to be a part of in those years. I was given complete autonomy to express the way I felt about the Gucci collections - it felt like a conversation.

How do you see the relationship between fashion and art? What was it like taking your paintings from canvas to garment?
Art and fashion do bump alongside each other. I see them as very different energies though. Fashion is very fast, always looking for the next shape, it morphs so quickly. Art is much slower and feels heavier. Looking at fashion retrospectively, I feel it communicates as much information about a period of time as art is able to do.

The relationship culminated in the Gucci X Unskilled Worker clothing collection. The clothes and campaign were so amazing. It was wonderful to see my work in London, Paris, New York and Shanghai on huge posters in unexpected parts of the city. It felt a wonderful way to close that part of my journey as an artist.

What does style and fashion mean to you? 
Clothes are amazing tools of self-expression, which we all take part in whether we care for fashion or not. We’re free to create ourselves, hiding or exaggerating qualities we want or don’t want seen. Clothes send out signals - it a subconscious language that most of us are adept at reading. Most days, I wear paint splattered clothes, they are a tool - I wipe my brushes on my jeans to get the exact amount of paint I need. My style when I do dress has always been boyish - I love simple, exquisitely made clothes, with a school-uniform feel.

Unskilled Worker will be on display at W1 Curates at FLANNELS London until 14th of March 2021.