Unskilled Worker Helen Downie Discusses Acting on Forgotten Dreams
It's Never too Late to Start Something New According to the International Artist Who Only Began to Paint at 48
Photograph by Henry Bourne
As the 21st century unfolds, so does the realisation that we have less time than ever to stand and stare. How can, and should, our society and economy best use its time? It’s to this question that Vanity Fair and UNLIMITED have turned their attention, presenting five individuals each thinking blue-sky about time, and what it means for them. In the second of the series, the artist Helen Downie muses on how acting on a long-forgotten dream in her late forties gave her a lifetime of material to draw upon.
There’s no denying we are a society obsessed with youth. We fetishize youthful looks and youthful achievement above all else, the logic running that the former is something to be prized and preserved, while the latter is exceptional thanks to immaturity and inexperience. But the story of artist Helen Downie suggests a counter narrative. Trying and succeeding at something new in your twenties is one thing, but doing it in your late forties after raising four children and beating an aggressive form of cancer? We’d put money on that being the far greater exception.
“Whenever I was asked ‘what do you want to be?’ it was only ever to be an artist —there wasn’t anything else,” Downie explains. “But somewhere from the age of 14 through to 48, I forgot. I just forgot, and then one day walking down the road I remembered.” With forgetting came other experiences—getting expelled from her convent school for wearing pink moccasins, training as a hairdresser, having four children by the time she was 28—but since she remembered her early goal, her life has changed dramatically.
Watch Helen Downie’s interview filmed and directed by Kinvara Balfour, shot on iPhone 7 Plus, below
Shortly after she started painting, Downie set up an Instagram platform under the moniker @UnskilledWorker. Sharing her work online, she was quickly discovered by fashion photographer Nick Knight, who commissioned her in 2014 to create a series of portraits of Alexander McQueen’s most iconic looks.
“Up until then I hadn’t really thought of what I was doing as fashion. I was painting skinheads and people from my past and kind of collecting them together,” she explains. From there, she was asked by Gucci to make a series of portraits inspired by the work of their new creative director Alessandro Michele. He loved her work and invited her to attend his next show.
“It was the first fashion show I’d ever been to and it made me cry, actually, just the thought behind it, so many people coming together to make these 17 minutes of perfection. There was something very spiritual about it, like walking into a cathedral, that kind of feeling, where you’re seeing the very best of what humans can create.”
Since then, her following has grown exponentially, but it hasn’t changed the fact that sharing her portraits online is a private, intimate process. “Although there are lots of people watching what’s happening, it still seems to me a private place, and a place to put my work that’s immaculate, and away from this mess,” she explains, gesturing to her small studio in her house in Wimbledon.
Her subjects are often people from her past. “There’s a painting called Where’s Ted? and I would like to find this person called Ted that I used to hang around with when I was 17 or 18,” Downie continues. “It’s looking back from an adult perspective into a situation that actually I had no understanding of and could only piece together as an adult… [when I] could see actually that his situation was very complex and quite sad. And at the time I didn’t see it that way.
“But I do get an emotional attachment, because of this thing of falling in love with people as I paint them, to the point where I have painted people that I have never met and then I’ve met them and been really overfamiliar,” she laughs. She describes this intimacy as being akin to that of a surgeon. “I’ve had a lot of surgery in my life, through illness, and one of the surgeries I had lasted for seven to eight hours and I noticed that when I went to see the surgeon after surgery, he spoke to me in that similar way.”
With delving into her past such a common theme in her work, how does she experience the passing of time now? “Time when I paint is irrelevant,” she explains. “I have never worn a watch. I’ve always known the time—I think if you don’t wear a watch then you have an inbuilt idea of what the time is. But when I paint I have no idea. I can lose hours and hours. It’s almost like a meditation.
“I learned more about myself painting than in any other situation I’ve been in, and I’ve been in lots of situations,” explains Downie. “If you start painting at 48, you’ve got a lot of life behind you.”