In that very 2015, when new creative director at Gucci Alessandro Michele got British Fashion Award and their sales were so high, that they refused to lower the prices on Black Friday, a significant collaboration happened. Michele liked Instagram of self-taught artist naming herself Unskilled Worker so much, that he invited her to take part in art exhibition Longer/ No Yet in Shanghai. Now, two years later, you even can wear paintings of Unskilled Worker!
Little Helen dreamed about becoming an artist, but she forgot it in her teenage years. She was getting older, studied, worked, raised four kids, fought cancer and then was dealing with its consequences, and then suddenly in her 48 realized, that she wants to draw. Today oval shaped eyes, reminding mandalas, are staring from her paintings, like bright beads framed with lightly tinted eyelids. Helen Downie draws people she knew and imaginary persons, who should have existed. She dresses them in bright flower printed clothes, decorates with hundreds of details and shares in Instagram under the nickname Unskilled Worker. She created a microblog in 2013 and then one year late Nick Knight invited the artist to illustrate key projects of Alexander McQueen for exhibition, which took place alongside with grandiose show Savage Beauty. Afterwards, one of Helen’s paintings – Oh to be a Boy was presented to Michele from Gucci staff as a gift, and it came out that he was a big fan of her fashionably visual Instagram. Floristic patterns, fabulous characters…In a word, Unskilled Worker’s naïve style appealed to Michele so much that he did not put it on the back burner. This fall we reaped the fruits of their artistic collaboration: 40 items of Gucci’s ready-to-wear capsule collection illustrated by Unskilled Worker came out on the brand’s website October 11th. Today our guest – Helen Downie will tell us her story of becoming popular through Instagram from the very beginning…
Without having any arts education, what did you start with?
I was drawing nonstop, until I became really good at it. I was in Italy, looking for something to get myself busy with, while my partner was working. It all happened occasionally: following a sudden impulse, I started from couple of feathers and ink. At first, I thought I’d draw a month a half, but then I just could not stop. Seems to me, that it happened just in time. I needed a personal space, and in many ways, the more I drew, the harder it was getting. I thought it would get easier with time, but no such luck! It’s like falling in love.
What are your paintings about?
I always wondered how people invent themselves through their appearance. Obviously, it became a part of my job: my paintings are structured around the the way different people wear clothes, what do they want to show or hide. All my works show how I see human relationships.
Where do you get your inspiration?
My mind keeps a lot of characters from the past: those are the people I knew personally, faces in the crowd, bringing memories…I often get inspired from talking to people, and then I carry them in memory, till I realize how to use them in my work. Sometimes my pictures is a response to an incorrect judgment or prejudice. Words can cheat, but the drawing allows self-expressing clearly and fully.
I do not always realize myself, where the inspiration comes from.
I draw instinctively. And as I work on the details, I fall in love with characters, get attached to them.
For example, picture “Family” was drawn as a response to homophobic comments in Instagram. I just wanted to declare, that as for me, family is a feeling. One of the men from painting has a tattoo of name Jenny. This is a name of woman, who affected my life very positively. She was a very good, tolerant person, I found it appropriate, to paint her name in this picture. I will wear this shirt with pleasure…
And to create blue flower print for Gucci I got inspiration from the smell of my grandmother’s scarf. Ladies used to wear the same perfume for years before, and the scent was becoming a part of them, so, if they left a scarf somewhere, it was easy to find out whom it belonged.
What comes first: the face of whole composition? Do you know for sure the final look of the painting, when you take a brush?
Usually I start from face, and then I build the composition around the character. My drawings are instinctive, so I rarely go with a certain plan.
In one of the interviews, you said that there are many hidden messages in Alessandro Michele’s designs as well, many of which are linked with London. Can you show an example?
I saw, for example, names of the roads embroidered on the pockets of jackets. Haircuts, typical for London in early 1980’s…
Did you have to change anything, to fit in a vision of Gucci?
Gucci gives me full freedom for creativity. My drawings for Gucci come out spontaneously, like an artistic dialogue: I try to catch Alessandro’s references and connect them with my associations.
What kind of person he is?
He is actually an amazing, outstanding person! I know that you cannot use word “genius” a lot, but to be honest, I really think of him exactly like that.
Do you remember the moment when your hobby turned into a job?
I feel like my personal life stays aside from my paintings. Like it’s happening to someone else, and I’m just observing from outside. I cannot stop being glad that people are interested with my art, giving me the honor. It feels so amazing. Sometimes these feelings just hit you all at once…
Did painting change you and your life?
Don’t think that I have changed, but my life has certainly changed. I draw every day and spend most of the time by myself, so I don’t get to see my friends as often as I wished to. And drawing shows me who I am: the same character traits that once caused life problems, encourage me to paint now. It was a revelation!
Who was Helen Downie, before she took a brush?
I was swimming with the tide for a long time. I never liked the idea of growing up, and I never felt like an adult, even when I acted like one. I live my life backwards.
I am against the rules, telling us who we should be and what to obtain at different stages of life. Before drawing, at the breaks between raising my kids, I worked with precious stones, clay and leather, crafting stuff, which you can do at a kitchen table. Then I was selling them through Liberty mall and couple of fashionable shops in London.
Besides, you studied at monastic school with strict appearance policy...The story about you being expelled because of the pink moccasins is true?
Absolutely true. Nuns did not love me so much, so this, probably, was a last straw…
According to Business of Fashion you are in the list of 500 authorities of fashion industry. Does this oblige you to anything else besides a huge amount of interviews?
No, it does not. It was a nice and completely unexpected surprise.
Can we expect your personal exhibition?
My works will be presented at the international fair Art Central Hong Kong in 2018. But I don’t know what comes next. Probably, Shanghai of Seoul…
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