Interview: Artist & Gucci Collaborator, Helen Downie of Unskilled Worker

The Tiger That Lost Its Stripes by Unskilled Worker, exhibited at Art Central Hong Kong 

Anyone who’s on Instagram will immediately recognise the whimsical yet melancholic portraits by Helen Downie aka Unskilled Worker. The mum-turned-artist was first discovered by ShowStudio’s Nick Knight, before being tapped by Gucci’s Alessandro Michele for a series of collaborations with the fashion label.

This week she is exhibiting her series of paintings at Art Central Hong Kong, so we took the opportunity to talk to her about her style, the fashion world and her ultimate dream collaboration.

You are a self-taught artist – how did you discover painting?

I drifted for a long time. I have lived my life back to front. I don’t like rules that dictate what we should be or what we should have at any given age. Before I started to paint I was working with precious stones, clay and leather. Painting wasn’t planned – I was in Italy looking for something to do with my time while my partner was working, so I think the time was right. Once I started I couldn’t stop.

How do you describe your style?

I’ve never really thought about my work in terms of a style; I still don’t. My practice of portrait painting has recently evolved to a more narrative style and for the most part has been in response to a misjustice or a social prejudice. Words trip me up. I find painting clearer and more absolute.

Where did the name Unskilled Worker come from? 

I’ve had the name in my head for a long time but I didn’t know what to do with it or what it was for. I’m self-taught and so when I started to paint it seemed like the most appropriate name … it still is.  I relate to the word, it has a beautiful shape when written.

What is it about the fashion world that draws you in as an artist?

I love the way that we use fashion to invent and express ourselves. Fashion encapsulates many of the anxieties that are characteristic of modern life whether it’s through a sense of belonging or by marking ourselves out to be different. We all make choices on how we cover our body, whether we’re into fashion or not, it has a complex language all of its own.

Some of the work exhibited at Art Central Hong Kong 

How has the Gucci collaboration changed your life?

My story feels very separate from my paintings. The story feels like it’s happening to someone else and I’m on the outside watching in. I’ve always felt very humbled that people are interested in what I do. It’s been an incredible adventure and at times a little overwhelming.

I don’t think I’ve changed but how I live has. Painting everyday means I spend a lot of time by myself. It has a way of teaching me who I am; the things about my character that have caused problems in my life are the same things that drive me to paint, and that’s a relief…

Why do you think more fashion brands are gravitating towards mediums such as painting and illustration?

For me the artist’s hand is a warm and personal experience. Bringing the subject to life through the eyes of an artist offers a different narrative and aesthetic, it’s a completely different interpretation from many of the other mediums.

If you could work with any fashion brand/designer who would it be and why?

To make a skateboard with Supreme would be amazing. I love the idea of my artwork travelling through cities at speed, under the feet of cool boys and girls.

Tell us about your exhibition in Hong Kong…

The works, in the most part, reference something I’ve experienced in my life. My head is filled with characters from the past with people I’ve known personally or whose stories I have related to. I get a lot of my references from interacting with people and those images stay with me until I know where to put them in a painting. I’m attracted to stories of human dignity and survival, especially people that have felt locked outside of the normal social constructs.

What message do you want people to take away from your art?

The dream would be to pass some of the energy that I felt while working. I like to think of it as being more like a musical energy and not definable. Standing in front of a painting can be a portal to another world; I hope my artwork triggers this response.

Unskilled Worker, March 27 – April 1 2018 at Booth E16, Art Central, Central Harbourfront, Hong Kong; www.unskilledworker.co.uk.

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