We make our way through the doorway of a beautiful Victorian home and step into the world of Unskilled Worker. Her kitchen is bathed in light, where her two dogs Oscar and Herbert are gleefully wandering. This is contrasted by the atmospheric front room where we sit down in conversation with Helen Downie, the woman behind the moniker of Unskilled Worker.
Dressed head to toe in Gucci, Helen Downie tells us about the colourful life she’s lived, and about her deep and meaningful relationship with her work. From the initial grand vision in her imagination, to the dark and whimsical paintings that have become her signature, Unskilled Worker lives in the point between naivety and knowing, her commitment to her art is astounding - immersing herself to painting almost nine hours a day.
It is no wonder that she has become a darling of the fashion world, albeit fortuitously, and has built lasting friendships with some of fashion’s most influential creatives. Despite the fact that Helen’s life has been completely transformed since fatefully picking up the paint brush just a couple of years ago, her heart remains in her studio; with her inks, chalks, and the blank canvases that contain her disquietingly beautiful dreams.
Before launching your insanely successful Instagram account Unskilled Worker, what experiences have you had with painting and social media?
None! I started my Instagram account around the same time I started painting; and it was very accidental. I originally wanted to try painting for six weeks and just see what happened, but I ripped up the first few paintings I made. Luckily, I took photos of them before I ripped them up and a friend of mine told me to start an Instagram account.
I had always wanted to paint and become an artist, but life happened and I forgot about that side of me. I took up painting when I was 48, and my work has changed so much from when I started. When the six weeks were up, I decided to completely commit myself to painting, I hadn’t thought anything would come off the back of it, I had absolutely no agenda.
What was it like starting out as a creative in London?
I had done different things. I created jewellery that sold in shops in London and New York, I fiddled around in leather, and I also have four children and was a stay at home mum for a very long time. It was when they grew up and I had more time to really commit myself to something that I discovered painting. I started out painting nine hours a day, three days a week - that eventually became nine hours a day, 6 days a week. It never felt like a job, it was something that I needed to do.
How would you describe your work? Talk us through your creative process.
I think it is very difficult to describe my work, simply because I don’t know if it can be described. Painting is a very different experience for me, than for the viewer looking at it. My work usually begins with a grand and opulent vision in my head, which is quite usual for my work with Gucci. The way my work comes out is something very different to how they are in my head. For me, it is more of an emotional response to how what I see or feel. With Gucci for example, the point isn’t the clothing, but the character and the fantasy behind it.
There is a delicate balance between naivety and knowing. You can paint a rose a million times, but never get near to the beauty of an actual rose. The only thing you can hope for, is that you capture the beauty that hits you. How I am when I paint, is how I am out there in the world. I have learned more about myself through painting than any other experience I’ve had. I’m not in the market where I am creating a commodity, I’m in the market where I am simply creating, and that makes me happy.
Are there any particular artists you look up to? In what ways do they influence your work?
Oh there are lots! I look at Tudor paintings for technique and also for their stillness; they were the first paintings I fell in love with. I adore Otto Dix. I also love a lot of photographers; Robert Frank, Nan Golden, and Dorothea Lange who took these stunning photographs from the Great Depression. Man Ray because he took out the background and took the sitter out of context and status.
I’m from a working class background and I grew up around the concept of “best clothes”. I paint all kinds of portraits and not all of them are wearing Gucci - I could be painting someone I grew up with, wearing their best clothes. I started painting when I was forty-eight; I had a lot of life and met a lot of people, made and lost friendships and relationships through the years. Sometimes, they come back subconsciously through my work - I always have an idea of the character that I want to portray. I don’t keep sketch books, all my paintings begin with a face and once I start, very little work remains incomplete or is thrown away - it’s kind of a commitment. Everything is done on paper, I start with a blank canvas and build the world. The colours are in my head and then I am just working until I can get as close as possible to my vision, the opulent renaissance painting in my mind, but the last result is never like the one in my head and I don’t think I want them to.
In 2015 you were discovered by renowned fashion photographer Nick Knight, and was immediately embraced by the fashion world. How have things changed since then?
I started painting in the summer of 2013 and Nick Knight found me in January of 2015 - that was really when it all blew up. At that point, I had 18,000 followers and no idea that all these designers were following me. I never thought that I was creating fashion portraits as I drew inspiration from the youth genres that I grew up around. I had always been a viewer and never really participated, but I always found youth culture to be endlessly fascinating.
I never perceived my account from the follower’s point of view, for me it is an immaculate place where I can keep my art, apart from my very small and messy studio. Sometimes I feel that my work looked better in the early days of my Instagram, and now I don’t think it does. It’s very hard to replicate the original artwork. I’m almost never happy with what I make, I mostly only see what it is not. It’s hard for me to describe the sensation of trying to get the painting that’s in my peripheral vision - it never quite happens. For me, the process is always more interesting than the finished result. The feeling I have when making art is incomparable to anything I’ve ever felt - art has its own set of emotions.
My life has completely changed while at the same time remains the same as the early days in my studio. My reality is still me painting in a little room, where it is just me, my ink, my chalks, and a white piece of paper. When the outside world comes crashing in, it can be kind of overwhelming - it is overwhelming to see my art from somebody else’s eyes. While Instagram is a massive social medium, I don’t see my followers as a mass of people but instead as individuals. Whether it is one hundred thousand people looking at it, or just one, my art connects with one person at a time.
Acouple of years ago, you were invited by SHOW Studio for a special commission of Alexander McQueen paintings. Could you tell us a little bit more about this exhibition?
It was a very sad experience; it was very difficult to separate his work from what I knew the outcome of his life was - so the two paintings I made felt quite sad. I loved making them and it was such an honour to work with Nick Knight, who is truly a lovely person and so generous as well. He is a creative who gives a platform for other creatives which is very rare in this industry, and it’s quite amazing what he does.
You were originally inspired by youth culture and punk. Being a London based artist, do you think London serves as an inspiration for your art?
I was thinking the other day, what it would feel like to be a stranger in London and to feel the atmosphere. When I go to New York, I get hit with this new emotion that kind of comes up from the stone of the floors. I was born in London, it is all I know and my past is in the artwork. I draw from the emotions from my past, so London must definitely be in my work.
Alessandro Michele is both a fan of your work, and a constant collaborator — one of your paintings “Oh to Be a Boy” hangs right above his desk in the Gucci office. What is it like collaborating with Alessandro Michele - how do you think your work fits into the Gucci universe?
It’s like a creative conversation. I suppose my work is a reaction to the feeling and atmosphere of a Gucci show. Alessandro uses a lot of hidden codes in what he produces, and uses a lot of different references. I feel that a lot of those references are London based. Our relationship is a conversation - I look at what he does and respond to him through my art work.
With Gucci, there is no balance between personal and corporate vision, as they have never instructed me with how they want me to paint. Although, it is a collaboration, it is not a collaboration wherein I’m being instructed. My work is my personal reaction to Alessandro Michele’s vision, and Gucci allows me to give my perception of what they are doing as a brand. I suppose my role is to create the fantasy of the character that wears these beautiful clothes - a conversation that leads off from the runway.
What are you working on right now, what can we expect from Unskilled Worker in 2017?
While we haven’t decided on a location, there will be an exhibition this year, sometime in September. The concept behind it comes from a place of wanting people to see the work away from Instagram. The paintings are quite different in real life, and they are different from what people think. They are more detailed and far more atmospheric, and I would really love people to see them up close.
Finally, how do you think creators like yourself are changing the Face of the London Art scene?
The art scene today seems quite fragmented. It’s almost like a new art scene has built up from the foundations of the old one - and this is the art scene that I’m involved in. Back in the nineties, there was an interview with David Bowie and Jeremy Paxton that made me cry. In this interview, Bowie explained exactly what has happened in the music, art, and culture scenes of today. He said that the art scene has bypassed the “guards at the gates” bypassing the critics, curators, and editors, and has gone straight to the masses. The London art scene today is exactly as Bowie predicted, and my art is a perfect example of that - totally unplanned but it just happened.
Words by Hannah Tan