Home is where the art is: Helen Pinkney

Bill Freeman investigates his artist godmother’s inspirations and her relation to the process of creation

Sketchbook, Helen Pinkney

On the wall of my room in Brasenose hangs a framed watercolour of Old Quad with the Radcliffe Camera behind. Back at home, in front of a large high resolution photograph of a bud on the cusp of opening, there sits a birthday card composed of 18 busts of Homer, each with a candle emerging from the top of his head. A large print portraying a bent metal teapot amid a forest of stalks and leaves hangs above the armchair in the sitting room. I am dog-walking on a misty morning with the artist behind these works: Helen Pinkney—my artist-godmother.

Amused at my sudden formality when I ask her a clumsy question about her beginnings as an artist, she recalls how her father, a furniture designer, used to make her playdough. The giraffe she formed at the age of 3 hinted at future proficiency in the field of ceramics—this early masterpiece prompted her mother to run down the street, displaying it proudly to the neighbours. More mature creations include the sculptures of chickens she used to own, poking out from the shrubbery, and later still, a series of abstract ceramics.

She objects to my use of the word ‘abstract’, insofar as it implies divorce from reality as it first appears. She has held true to a precept learnt from her father: “Never make up a line”. Every curve, every pattern is derived from some wave or leaf recorded in her sketchbook. Keeping each piece grounded in observation results in a strong sense of the “spirit of a place” running through her work.

Looking at my Brasenose watercolour, I am amazed at how she can suggest depth and detail with very few strokes. Helen leaves gaps for the mind to fi ll, and in so doing allows it to inhabit the space she observes.

Her style is intimately connected with a wish to record, as she says, “physical space and movement through it”. This is a way we can make sense of our lives. The path she pots is principally understood in terms of cycles of destruction and renewal, explored recently in her exhibition Things Fall Apart. Here, a kiln malfunction which left several pieces warped was accommodated as the presence of the title in both process and product—a demonstration of ruin’s productive potential.

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Just as Ai Weiwei pronounced one of his sculptures more beautiful after it had been demolished by strong winds, so Helen, unlike so many artists of the “join-the-dots” school, allows the character of her material and its response to circumstance to actually have a voice in her art.

The title “Things Fall Apart” comes from the third line of Yeats’ “The Second Coming”.
During our brief conversation, we touch also on Ted Hughes, Alice Oswald, and J.M. Barrie.
Helen’s ability to draw just as easily from the chickens in her garden as from Yeats’s cosmological model of widening gyres is symptomatic of the artist’s condition. She suffers, she tells me, from “a compulsion to create things all the time”. Long may it afflict her.