helen barker

painting and writing

New text: Deities at the bottom of the garden


Photo Credit: Richard Bartle, Deities at the bottom of the garden

I was recently commissioned to write the accompanying text to Richard Bartle’s forthcoming solo exhibition, Deities at the bottom of the garden.

You can read the full text here.

The catalogue (design by The Designers Republic and text by myself) will be available from 12th December.

20-21 Visual Arts Centre, preview Wed 12 Dec, 6-8pm. Exhibition continues 15 Dec to 23 Feb, 2013.

Decide or Decidir – a small evening thought

There’s a word written in chalk across the top of my blackboard, above my computer, that has been looking at me for some time. It was chosen quite at random, but it seems to want to say something tonight. The word is Decide (Decidir in Spanish). It was written as part of my ‘7 words to learn in Spanish’ one week, only I haven’t yet rubbed it out. I know it now, that’s for sure. But tonight I seem to find myself glancing at it and seeing something else.

What is the difference between decide and decidir? Two things: e and ir. Decide and Decidir.

e: The most common of our vowels. According to its etymology, could begun life as a praying human figure.

ir: In Spanish, this is the verb meaning to go.

Two things intrigue and please me about this speculative logic – firstly, that the definition of to decide (decidir) is to do something (To settle conclusively all contention or uncertainty about that something), and that to do something one must actively go (ir) somewhere (move from here to there- make the decision). Secondly, the image of a human figure praying conjures up the very nature of what it is to get to that place – to decide, to go, to decidir – to call, plea and pray in order to make that move forward.

Sometimes in life we find that we get stuck inside a word. Whether we find ourselves in the language of praying or the language of going, we can still feel stuck, unable to unfix ourselves from the etymological root of a decision: unable to cut off (de) our difficulties.

Sometimes we make decisions to move, sometimes we make decisions to dwell. But whether we feel sure of our decision or not, we must make it. One of the most common causes of anxiety in today’s world is the fear of making the ‘wrong’ decision, which is born out of an overwhelming sense of choice. We have more choice about things today that we have ever done. What to wear, who to see, where to live, what job to do, when to do it etc. Go or stay. Move or pray.

But sometimes we move in prayer, or we pray as we move. Sometimes we both decide and decidir. The uncomfortable feeling of being stuck can open up a reliance on something we never knew we had. There’s a rather famous Biblical quote that I am beginning to learn to lean upon: that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. When the way forward seems to crumble into a calm, unsettling blanket of fog, I persevere in order that hope may be produced within me – and the decision, whatever it might be, suddenly seems much smaller and simpler to make. Because although the journeys may differ, both paths have the same ending.




Stuck on the slow path

I used to be a massive fan of Doctor Who. Well, alright, I used to be a massive fan of David Tennant playing Doctor Who. Tall, skinny guy in a mad suit with an unprecedented sense of adventure – who wouldn’t love him? But one of my all time favourite episodes has to be The Girl in the Fireplace. If you haven’t seen it, you have to. It’s set on board a 51st Century spaceship subject to the confused workings of a group of clockwork androids who use their ability to jump through windows in time to stalk the life of Madame de Pompadour (played by Sophie Myles – one of my favourite actresses).

As the clockwork androids hop across Madame de Pompadour’s timeline, the Doctor jumps in and out of the fireplace in her room, and (as all good stories go) falls in love with her. But he has access to her life at any given point, while she must live out every day in real-time, waiting for the days when he reappears.

I love this episode because it reminds me of just how painfully wonderful being “stuck on the slow path” can be. As I live out every day of my life, not knowing when something or someone may jump into my timeline, I am forced to appreciate every second that passes me by. Every so often, though, something jumps into my world and rattles my impatience. I long to skip ahead to the next chapter, I’m desperate for my very own fireplace man to leap through the flames and into my existence. Waiting is not always as beautiful as we would like it to be. It can be slow, it can hurt. And when the ending does not come, it can feel fruitless.

At the end of the episode, the Doctor arrives too late to reunite with Madame de Pompadour – and she has passed away, as all things mortal do. He is left watching as the real world slowly decays before his eyes. Her life, which included details he could never share, was long and slow and glorious – but he did not live it alongside her. He left too early, he arrived too late.

Timing, it seems, is everything in this life.

Over the last year I have come to know the true meaning of being stuck on the slow path. I’ve had numerous conversations with friends about perseverance and patience. But there is one truth I have come to know; that my capacity for joy is largely dictated by my capacity for appreciation. And the more I learn to appreciate each day for what it is, and not just what it is not, the more joy I will derive from my own, slow, existence. Joy does not necessarily come from immediate gratification, more often than not it is the long, slow journey through life’s intimate details that forges a deeper sense of appreciation in us, and that appreciation leads to true joy. True joy is tinged with sorrow. Hélène Cixous wrote extensively on the complex relationship between joy and pain, arguing persuasively that the two sit aside a very fine line. And, in a sense, how can we know real joy if we have not known real sorrow?

There is one key ingredient necessary to all of this though and I believe that Madame de Pompadour had it in The Girl in the Fireplace. It is hope. Hope is integral to those of us stuck on the slow path. It is what flips the coin from pain to joy and prevents us from dwelling too long in the place of disappointment. Hope is our companion as we travel snail-like through rain and through sun.

My dear Doctor. The path has never seemed more slow, and yet I fear I am nearing its end. Reason tells me that you and I are unlikely to meet again, but I think I shall not listen to reason. I have seen the world inside your head, and I know that all things are possible. Hurry though, my love. My days grow shorter now, and I am so very weak. God speed.

Whatever your faith is right now, it is most likely hope that allows you to travel from one day to the next. Hope is bigger than reason, it is deeper than experience, and it is more powerful than the shortest of days. Hope is what tells me that I do not love in vain, and that whether or not I die before my Doctor arrives – I have lived a joyful life.



Drawing not drowning

Yesterday I decided to take advantage of a few unexpectedly free minutes and wander down by the river I happened to be passing.  At the start of my stroll the water was rapid, bubbling and throwing foam out onto my shoes. It lapped in all directions, swirling in a vortex and drowning out my thoughts with noisy, senseless sound. Further down the path I reached a clearing. I stopped, relieved to find a quiet break,  and suddenly became aware of the silence. The water was calm, flowing gently in rhythms and patterns – it could have been a different river, it spoke a different language.

Standing in the calm I remember thinking how much my life often resembles the beginning of the river. Projects fly loose, ideas tumble around me, people come and go and a whirlwind of emotions hammer at my sides. When I am standing knee deep in a torrent of water I have no knowledge of the calmer waters which lay ahead. Yesterday I was reminded that just because the sun is not shining, it has not ceased to exist. Clouds pass. Even big ones.

Yesterday I saw a break in the constant grey which has encompassed my creative freedom for some time. I have written about creative block on here before. Artists tend to say they are struggling when they are still ticking along, it’s part of our self-depreciating protection scheme, but I have struggled under a suffocating fog for a long time. The occasional drawing and the odd sporadic participation in someone else’s performance have kept me floating down stream, but generally I have remained unsatisfied. So when the odd chink of light rages against my weather system, I will seize it unthinkingly.

In two weeks I embark on a small adventure. I have never been the explorer-go-getter type –  I prefer to go it alone with other people – no gap years or soul searching vacations in India for me. But this will be my little solo sun-spree. I am traveling to Spain for a month, and I am genuinely excited by the prospect of some art making. I remain optimistic that this will happen, because yesterday I saw a small picture forming in my mind and it did not involve me drowning in any raging torrents of water. Instead it involved drawing.

I am excited by the prospect of drawing. What drawing can do. Where drawing can go. I love drawing. I absolutely love it. Yet I hold it at arms length, fearful of it’s slightly dowdy reputation – a soft, girly, whispering medium. No. Drawing can be strong, powerful, controlled and yet free to break from form. Project Spain: Project Drawing. I go armed with pencils, and I intend to find out just what this medium has to offer, and how its limits can be broken. When all else fails, when I am tired, when I am confused, if I feel lost, or my heart is bruised, drawing leads me back into life with a gentle yet strong line of pull. Drawing allows my thoughts to wander beside its path until they find their form in another kind of line; writing. Drawing and writing appear to be the two loves of my art life. They belong together in my world. It was good to acknowledge that yesterday, by the river, knee deep in squabbling waves.

In addition, for the past eight weeks or so I have been taking Spanish language classes. I never thought I would fall in love with another language, especially as writing is such a big part of my existence and I can only do that in English. But despite the rudimentary form by which I can understand, write and speak it, learning Spanish has become a refuge for my creative conscience. For one hour every week I get to pretend that nothing else in the world is troubling me other than the verb forms on my chart. It’s wonderful. I feel like a child again, discovering the world for the first time. This is a cat. Is it? Yes! Wow this is a CAT! And because it is so unfamiliar, when one or two things slide together and form an understanding in my mind I feel like a world adventurer spotting land on the distant horizon for the first time in months. “Land ahoy!” I cry, to my small tired self. And my small tired self stirs, leans over the deck and feels a breeze on her face that is completely new.

Project Spain: Project Drawing: Project learning to love what might be around the corner. On a raft built of Derwent drawing pencils I will set sail, arms wide open, into something yet unwritten….


On Friday I took a group of students to Barnsley college for an etching workshop. They weren’t the only ones who came away with new found knowledge of the printmaking technique. I had lots of fun trying out my own stuff. I’d never done it before, and it wasn’t quite as easy as the tutor made out….

First of all we had to make our plate, which we did by scratching into the surface of a square of zinc with a needle. Because the image would be printed in reverse, we had to make sure we drew our picture the wrong way round. Drawing a face back to front was pretty tricky….even though I chose a wrinkly subject with lots of appealing lines, I still couldn’t quite get his scrunched up eyes right.

The reflection has made this a bit of a nightmare to photograph, but you can see the size and get the general idea…

Next we put the plate into a bath of acid to bite, so that the lines we had scratched would form grooves and eventually hold the ink. When the plate had been in long enough (a process that seemed to be measured by some form of secret inner power, bestowed only upon those worthy of being a Master Printmaker), it was taken out and polished up.

Then the inking began! The first couple were a little bit rough, as you can see I didn’t quite get the ink into the grooves firmly enough, so the image is a bit soft…

But then I printed a couple more and found that, depending on where you leave the ink and how much you wipe off, you can get some lovely variations in tone, shade and light….

Finally, the printmaking tutor demonstrated how to use several colours at once by turning my old man into a bit of a Van Gogh rainbow!

All in all I like the etching process. If you enjoy lines, which I do, and the way they can wander about forming shape, tone and image – then etching is for you. In some ways it’s a bit like writing, or calligraphy. The ink flows over the page and settles in a new way every time. It may be machine-orientated in terms of process, but there’s nothing formulaic about it. Etching is a wondrous marriage between the artist’s hand and the printing press!

Time and Memory: A past review

Earlier in the year I wrote a review for a competition. Having been informed that my review was not selected for the prize, I thought I would post it here on my blog. The exhibition has ended, but I hope that you might get an opportunity to see the Artists’ work in the future. It really is worth seeing.


Time and Memory: Cecilia Edefalk and Gunnel Wåhlstrand at Parasol unit, London

Virginia Woolf once said, “I can only note that the past is beautiful because one never realises an emotion at the time. It expands later, and thus we don’t have complete emotions about the present, only about the past.”

Such impalpable truths can be found running through the exhibition Time and Memory at Parasol unit; the first London show by Swedish artists Cecilia Edefalk and Gunnel Wåhlstrand. By revisiting the past both artists explore the intimate notion of ‘self’, delving into a complex mix of memory, heritage and circumstance – all of which contribute to the understanding we have of being here, now, in the present.

Time and Memory is a deceptively rigorous exhibition created by two equally meticulous artists. Paintings referencing personal memories, moments in history and the process of creating work are evenly distributed around the room. Both Edefalk and Wåhlstrand occupy their territory with the same level of concentration, selective behaviour and intentional narrative drive; but their individual excavations of painting and photography produce two vividly dissimilar outcomes.

Inhabiting the ground floor, Edefalk’s paintings offer a strategically mapped critique on human form and behaviour. Confined within a tight palette of muted greys, occasionally punctuated by a splash of red or blue, her series of portraits showcase an unlikely catalogue of figures. From Laurel and Hardy to magazine-inspired duos and marble statues, Edefalk’s images form the disparate elements of a hidden narrative. Like a magician demonstrating the illusion of disappearance, the artist plays with repetition, reproduction and erasure to explore themes of displacement and loss.

Along one wall hangs Echo, a triptych of figures resembling the artist herself, each one a direct copy of the last. All similarities between the images are immediately overshadowed by a number of small but distinct differences. In the act of painting, the artist allows her hand to deviate from perfection and fulfil its most celebrated attribute – the uniqueness of human approximation. Like ripples moving slowly across a still pond, Echo ruptures the present moment and reverberates around the room causing a glitch in the matrix of time.

On the wall by the entrance hangs a large painting entitled Another Movement. Inspired by an image in a magazine advertisement, a man touches the back of a naked woman who looks out into an opaque, flat background. The sweep of his hand against her skin is a far cry from the perfunctory act of depiction found in the glossy pages of most magazines, indicating that some distance has been travelled between the origin of this image and its final destination. But the superimposed nature of two figures on a lustreless surface of blue, painted with strong and saturated intention, finds the painting at home with its title – thrust into Another Movement, distinct from those around it.

Other works on display by Edefalk are just as particular. Conversations between large images of a statue painted in a deathly pallor of whites and smaller postcard-like paintings of the same subject surround the second ground floor space. Interrupted by a collection of earthy sculptures in weeping bronze, Double Venus alludes to the tomb-like mummification of memory. Bound in the cloth of time, Edfalk paces the room with the determined gaze of a returning pilgrim, and her work pays tribute to the curious intangibility of time gone by.

By stark contrast Wåhlstrand’s paintings apprehend the upstairs rooms with the diligence of a crime scene reconstruction. Immaculately reproduced images of family photographs created in ink wash hover in the space, glowing like negative film. Haunting and evocative, Wåhlstrand uses images of her personal past to prod at the sentiment of family life, and all the impossible moments she can never know.

Along one wall a painting of Wåhlstrand’s mother looks beyond the frame. Depicted in profile, with the perfection of a soft focus lens, Mother Profile is a celebration of flawless beauty. In the vacuum of the gallery these images transcend their roots and take on a universal western quality of representation. The creation of such painstaking work suggests complete dedication to the act of looking; no detail is missed, no part of the image is left unturned.

Like a dramatic still from a movie, New Year’s Day reveals the epic grandeur of intimate family life. In the foreground a girl stands with her hand on the door gazing directly into the eye of the viewer, her posture both hesitant and formal. Behind her a boy (Wåhlstrand’s father) flicks through a book. In the open space of the well-ordered room a sense of something foreboding pollutes the air. Darkness creeps around the furniture, reflections loiter in the mirrors and private lives hide beneath the floorboards. You can almost see the artist waiting in the wings of the room, looking for a secret lost long ago in the shadows of time.

What makes this exhibition such a feast for the eyes is not just the aesthetic pleasure the artist gives us by indulging her love for painting, but the impenetrable truths that emerge from looking into the past and finding the future. Everybody has a family album that may, to some extent, look like somebody else’s. But Wåhlstrand captivates her audience with an ambiguity particular to the process of revisiting the same image over and over again until it starts to look like it belongs to another world. We are thrust into time, washed onto the shore of existence by seductive waves of Indian ink.

Time and Memory draws us into a contemplative space of quiet pleasure and possible remorse. The palpable tension produced between the work of Edefalk and Wåhlstrand is utterly compelling, and the two artists complement one another with a carefully observed distance. If the past seems tried and tested, then this exhibition provides an insightful resurrection of lost time. Just follow the path around the corner, and into the abyss.

Poem (song)

Sometimes when I type I pretend my keyboard is a piano and that the keys are not letters but notes. I make music and I tap to a rhythm. Sometimes the words come out better that way. Mistakes get incorporated into the overall sound of the piece.

Here’s a poem/song/thing I just wrote. I don’t think I’ve written one for quite some time. But I was about to go out when I felt I needed to set it free. It has no formal structure. It is what it is…..mistakes and all.


Sitting in the chair, deep in the back of my mind,
The ocean laps at the shore, and my vision renders me blind.

There’s no way I can know what the future will bring me,
But I can know this – the day to come is when I’ll see.

And when it arrives, more than ready I surely will be,
No one gonna stop me from looking, when the tide hits the back of sea.

You don’t know me yet, maybe you never will,
Somethings are meant to stay still.

Think I gotta serve me some dreams, sip from the bottle of hope,
Trust in the pull of the moon, and wait for the loosening of the rope.

No matter what the new day brings, whether new starts or old ends,
It’s coming with or without me – with or without my friends.

I can’t fear the turn of the table, can’t wish for a better seat,
I got what I been given – that’s as solid as the ground beneath my feet.

Dancing on the roof of desire, breathing through the sky in a daze,
I may look like this to you babe, but I ain’t really fazed.

I got a compass truer than a star in the night, brighter than a burning sun,
No matter I can’t always see it, it’s there all the same – ain’t never gone.

Give me a lifetime to learn, then gimme another to make it right,
No time to tell you how, no time to sleep through the night.

I’m shaking like a leaf on a tree, rocking in the chair of my mind,
But I’m truer to you than any other promise you’ll find.



Post-Madrid memories Part 3

I’m trying to write a short story. It’s pretty short at the moment. I’d say a few words. Maybe less.

It’s not that I don’t know what I’m writing about. I do. It’s more that what I’m writing about is mental and emotional space, and what I don’t have right now is mental or emotional space. So I figured I’d follow-up my recent influx of post-Madrid memories with a few more reflections instead. Sometimes we can write calmly and  contemplatively, sometimes we just need to chuck a load of things at the screen and hope we don’t blind whoever is looking – tonight’s one of those nights where people might lose their sight. In advance, I apologize.

Ok so this is a picture of a shadow outside the Reina Sofia. I’d like to say I took the picture of the shadow deliberately, because that would be cool. But actually I pointed my camera into the blinding sun and hoped for the best. I was actually trying to get the monument that cast the shadow but instead I’ve been left with the temporary profile that echoes its form. What I like about this picture is that it speaks to me of something much bigger than the tower outside the frame. It makes me think about the temporary patches of light that move around me, and what sort of shapes and profiles and effects I cast on the world. Obviously if I had an extravagant hat day then my shadow would be pretty ostentatious. But this picture reminds me that wherever I am, I exist beyond my physical limitations – I have a profile that I cast out – a shape that belongs to me – a shadow that echoes who I am. This picture challenges me to remember that my presence is altered by the light in which I stand. If that light is bright and beautiful, then the ‘shape’ of who I am/how I am seen will be clear and well defined.

Here’s a picture of a hand. It’s not mine. I sense a “disembodied” theme coming on…. This picture is another ‘mistake’. And before you ask, yes I do know how to use a camera – just not this camera. I like this photo because it was taken on a day when I re-discovered the power of relinquishing to a higher hand. This photo reminds me that everything I saw whilst I was in Madrid was thrown out before me by the hands of others, and ultimately by creative power. In this image I remember that whilst I am looking through the viewfinder, all that I see is merely a small gesture performed by the hand of creativity. And that my hands, which strive to be creative, are immeasurably small in relation to the expansive world through which I wander. Every so often, a hand wanders into my view finder and affords me that Kairos moment – the moment when things open up, when I realize I am not alone in the frame.

Lastly, this is a picture of a drawing I did. My drawings is some sort of attempt to remind myself that language exists in the gaps between words. I know, that makes no sense. But it sort of does. It makes me stretch my thin brain into a place where I understand that words and images together make a picture that cannot be explained by either of them alone. That language is more than words. That language is doing something that I hunger to explore- and that’s what I love about writing – and that’s why I can’t write my story tonight. Because language is too big for a short story tonight. It has leaked into the gaps of my mind, between the images I’ve shared with you, and it has left me swimming in a mire of memories.

Post-Madrid-memories Part 2

El Nido//The Nest

Several thousand feet above the surface of the earth I felt most at home. Flying in my tin-can nest through the atmosphere of the sky, I felt closer to belonging than I did when I left the surface of the earth, or when I landed upon it again.

Jeremiah Day, Of All Possible Things, Site Gallery, Sheffield

This morning I went to see the end of an exhibition by Jeremiah Day at the Site Gallery in Sheffield. I won’t review it here, as I’ll be writing something for their website shortly, but to give you an idea of what I saw the exhibition featured a performance by Day which was produced in Berlin, and which tackled the history of the sites upon which the Berlin wall used to stand.

In a park in Madrid stand three pieces of the Berlin wall. I’ve now seen what’s left of this same wall in three different countries – in Germany, in Spain and in England.

Berlin Wall, Madrid, Image – http://sarahkresh2.wordpress.com

I was struck today by the significance of this. We all carry our histories with us wherever we go in the world. The Berlin wall is a collective memory in which individual memories are buried. It now exists as a fragment of human history in a physical memorial to personal suffering and breakthrough, in several different countries. The wall extends beyond Berlin.

Jeremiah Day, an American artist, reminded me of one of the reasons I become so convinced that life as an artist was the best life for me – he reminded me that the borders of human experience extend beyond the physicality of any walls. When I set foot in another country, I see parts of my own walls have been shipped in ahead of me – I see another fragment of myself, another part of my own personal wall.

El Nido/Nest, Spain

I also saw several stalks nests in Madrid, perched on top of churches and buildings. Arguably I am my own nest, wherever I go I inhabit myself – I make my nest when I arrive and I build it again when I move on. It’s an obvious point, perhaps, but it’s one that enables me to cope with the fact that this planet will always only ever be my temporary home. However many nests I make, none of them will last forever, and I don’t have to take them with me. I love that – because carrying all those nests around would be really heavy work.

Post-Madrid-memories Part 1

Confessions from the Reina Sofia – (notebook honesty).
Sometimes I feel like a load of egg shells stuck to a blank canvas, too….

Marcel Broodthaers, Panel with Eggs and Stool, 1966


In “The Collection”, a book written for the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte – Reina Sofia, Madrid, the following is written about Rothko:

Rothko understood the canvas as a field of action; the outcome was not the creation of pictures as mere color fields, however, but as spaces in which to transpose objective ideas or to make moral and prophetic statements. Rothko considered painting to be the space in which tensions are materialized, deriving from the presence/absence of color produced by the weightless suspension of patches of color, from the contrasts produced and the trace of the brush stroke (the chromatic nuances the brush stroke produces render the expressiveness and emotion of the artist), as can be seen in Untitled (Orange, Plum, Yellow), (1950).

Mark Rothko, No 8, 1952

I can’t pretend that I know much of Rothko’s life, his emotional capacity, however, seems to have been quite big – I understand that much. When I sit in front of his paintings, it’s as though my insides have somehow left my body and are looking back at me. The hidden tears that prick at the back of my mind are driven forward, and the inner smiles I sometimes suppress are forced out of the corners of my mouth. In front of a Rothko, I suspect I look quite mad. But then what else is there to be when faced with an interior world the eye rarely has to look at?

The visual language of human emotion is a spectrum beyond my comprehension, but Rothko somehow manages to open the rift between the heart and mind. Whatever we fear, whatever we assume has died in us, Rothko calls us to re-live it. His canvases hang like giant stretched out amplifiers, enhancing the feelings that course through our veins – however deep and buried.

If you felt like crying, it’s too late now. There’s nothing that can stop you once you’ve stood before his painting and opened your eyes.

Roy Lichtenstein, Brushstroke, 1996

In our western world we are so afraid of our own emotions that we wander through galleries looking as blank as the walls before anything was hung on them. In the atrium of the Reina Sofia a giant scribble slashes its way across the sun-lit space and Lichtenstein reminds me that some things are bigger than words. Bigger than our own physical weight. Some things are just giant brush strokes in the sky, and it’s all we can do to stand in their presence and not get knocked down.

The fact that I don’t know what it is that I’m meant to be doing next, I don’t feel that I am where I belong, and I don’t feel that I can make sense of the trust I have that somehow, something will work itself out, made the Reina Sofia a strange experience. But there’s one sure thing that I was reminded of – that the imprint of human life is an expression which can never be fully understood. If it takes standing in front of a large blob of colour for me to accept this, then so be it. I can think of far worse ways to sit on the edge of incomprehensibility. And feeling small and incomprehensible every now and again is no bad thing.

So, in short, I recommend you go sit in front of your nearest Rothko – there’s probably a part of you there already that you never even knew about.