Australian Artist Helen Norton has given us an insight into herself as an artist in this Up Close and Personal Q&A. She has opened her studio and her thoughts on what her artistic journey is all about. Helen Norton’s career began over 29 years ago, when she began putting colour on canvas as an avenue of expression, a way to have wonderful adventures and as an outlet for her bold views on the human condition.
For those who know Helen Norton’s art, I am sure you will be as excited to read this as I was.
Enjoy getting to know Helen Norton
When did you first feel the desire to be artistic and realise you had talent?
Probably (unconsciously) the day I was born! I don’t associate painting with creativity or creativity with painting particularly. I was always an ideas kid from as early as I remember and my mother told me I was the ‘creator’ of games, and worlds as a small child. I just wanted to invent them, and had no interest at all in playing inside the games or with the games. Once they were created I needed to move onto the next thing, the next challenge. My brothers would enjoy playing them. I just wanted to make things and concepts that were not there, that I could not have in real life. I worked out quickly I could by using invention and my imagination. I wanted to be an astronaut, not a painter. I am pretty sure that’s because that was the ultimate adventure.
I was not aware of ‘talent’, and still don’t see my work in this way. It’s the tool I use to make stuff up all the time. I don’t really care what medium it is. It just happened that painting was a way I could exercise that invention over and over and take it to crazy limits and still fit in society with it.
Where did you learn your art?
I suppose I was what is called ‘self taught’, but I don’t think even self taught artists are self taught. They all learn from looking at other artists, talking to other painters and reading books about technique. What is different in that to someone who goes to university? I think a self taught painter gets to ‘do it’ more, and spends less time procrastinating about what art is. I was painting pretty strong work in junior high school. I just winged it.
What inspires you most?
Just about everything in life given my paintings are about the human condition or life on earth (through a human lense). I do get quite charged up about hypocrisy. I like to draw all the threads of culture together now and again and work in themes that pull in references to mythology, spiritual foundation, the natural world – and all its animals including the humans.
What message are you sending to the viewer of your art?
As I get older I don’t really want to do anything other than make them feel excited when they look at the work. Perhaps they can be transfixed a bit, moved out of their rut, shifted out of a pattern of thinking. I used to see myself as a kind of troll on the bridge, a vanguard for sending warnings about how crazy the world was in my earlier stronger narrative paintings.
Describe your studio…
The usual chaos, which transforms into neat and tidy now and again. When a show is in progress, there are canvas everywhere, mediums, and junk to the ceiling. I currently have my studio set up in a very large room in the house which overlooks wonderful city views and the hills on the other side. That is a bit distracting. I think a studio should be like a prison cell to allow you to focus on your work to be honest. When I finish a show I try to clear out all canvas before I start another one so I have a blank slate to start with. I get quite confused if there are too many half finished works around when I am trying to work new ideas out. Sometimes I do get inspired by a small area of an old painting so it’s a bit contradictory.
Describe your typical day of creating art…
Have about 50 cups of coffee. Go there, and wiggle all over the place like a loose goose until I finally settle by late afternoon and start to concentrate. Work till I am hungry and tired.
What mediums do you use and why?
I mostly use oil. I switch to acrylic and watercolour now and again to break out of bad working patterns. It helps to break up a sort of spiral down a deep hole I get into if I stay with one thing too long. All mediums have completely different qualities, and I generally like the mediums to do their own thing rather than me make all the mediums do one thing.
What are you working on now?
I have just finished an exhibition for JahRoc Gallery! I decided to focus on a lighter themed body of work where I celebrated the joys and love of life instead of the darker side. There are a few sneaky dark bits that I popped in but they are a bit hidden. I do this because I think life is like this. You can be really happy with your lot, and count your blessings only once you realise that evil exists in every man, woman and child, and what we do about that is what separates us from monsters. I might keep on that kind of ‘Adam and Eve’ theme for a while. I have a show coming up for Sydney later this year.
What are your recent career achievements you feel proud of?
Not one thing in particular. I recently remade my website and loaded all my historic work over the past 25+ years. I felt proud of the massive body of work once I could see it all on the screen. That’s a long time in the making and I am glad I stuck with it. There are many stories there. Many invented worlds – that others are playing in on their walls!
What do you love most about what you do?
I guess it’s the space to experiment and explore ideas. It can get a bit weird in that regard though when you are painting for a living. When you have success with a particular ‘style or theme’, there is quite a lot of pressure both from your ‘sensible commercial self’, those selling your work, and those wanting it, to keep on painting more of the same. I think artists need to CHANGE, to take risks all the time and not be scared of confusing the audience. People grow with you. Sometimes you lose money over it but we are here for the ride right? What is the point of being in artist if you are not being creative. This brings me back to the first question – being an artist does not mean you are being creative and being creative is not the automatic premise of all artists.
Where can you see yourself in 10 years time?
I hope alive! As far as painting – I have been thinking of sharing myself and my ‘talents’ with others instead of being locked up in my studio with me all the time. I might do some really odd workshops that focus on that issue of being creative. I would like to offer these to non-artists and maybe artists who feel a bit stuck and not creative. I think I could do this quite well.