Going Beyond with Helen Proctor April 07 2021

Helen Proctor is an Australian abstract landscape painter and a large-scale muralist. Born and raised in Sydney, Helen is now living and working in Amsterdam. Her vibrant paintings explore the relationship between time and place, with sharp picturesque scenery often evoking a strong emotional nostalgia.

Interview by Joseph Estorninho. Photos supplied by Helen Proctor.

Helen, we're so excited to have you back with us. I feel like every time we see your work you transport us to a new place.  Where are you taking us this time?

These works are the start of some new concepts I’ve been exploring. My work has always responded to the connection I’ve felt to place and the natural environment. These pieces start to look at human isolation within a landscape. Houses and structures that have been built completely surrounded by nature and why humans crave isolation in these locations. Being isolated within a city can have such a negative affect on the human psyche, but being alone in nature is rejuvenating for the mind.

Previously your colours have been saturated and joyful when showing an Australian beach, or muted and quiet, like with Kalsoy lighthouse. What is it you're trying to convey with your colours this time?

Whilst living in Amsterdam one of the most obvious differences I’ve notices is how drastically the seasons change and how this is reflected in the nature. Not only do the colours in trees and flowers change but it’s also a completely different kind of light between seasons. I love the changes here and wanted to capture the feeling of the seasons. I have also been looking at a lot of Impressionist works and how they capture the light in the European landscape. At the start of the year I saw a Van Gogh and David Hockney exhibition that blew me away. I guess that was the start of a new colour exploration for me. The pieces aren’t necessarily depicting European landscapes, but just exploring the seasons.

I have noticed the addition of houses being the focus in these works. Is home something on your mind?

We all know the feeling of not being able to travel right now. I guess these little houses are where I would rather be. I had planned to be back in Australia this year but the flights and caps on entry has made it really difficult. So whilst stuck in my little Amsterdam apartment without access to mountains and nature I really was just dreaming of being in these little shacks connected to the elements.

The pandemic has been an interesting time for artists: some have relished the forced introversion and time alone it has given them and some have found their work and inspiration took a steep dive as they were forced to stay home. How is your creativity surviving the pandemic?

2020 was actually still a pretty busy year for me. I did move house and downsize to a new ‘work from home’ studio. So it was important to get into a different routine and try to connect with more people online.

Over summer I still got to paint a couple of walls and had some projects go ahead. And right before the pandemic I had a big trip painting in New Zealand and Australia so I felt lucky to get to do that.

The latest lockdown over here has been pretty tough. Most things have been closed for about five months now over a pretty bleak European winter. But I guess it’s given me the time to escape into my paintings a bit. The trick is not to be too hard on myself. Everyone is going through it, no one is at peak productivity.

Being a street artist and being used to working on such a large scale, what are some of the considerations that you have when creating much smaller works for a gallery show?

I have always worked on canvases and smaller scale. Trying to translate this onto a wall is usually the biggest challenge. Not everything that works in a gallery setting can be taken onto the streets so it really is just about navigating what works and what seems forced. Working in a studio on canvas I can really experiment with colour and tone more. When I paint walls everything has to be pre-planned on a computer, paint ready to go and hope it doesn’t rain.

In your last interview you named some Australian street artists that influenced you. Can you introduce us to some new artists you've discovered in Amsterdam?

Last year I got to paint a wall for the new street art museum here in Amsterdam called Straat Museum. Its an amazing place in a huge old shipping warehouse, the people that run it are amazing and everyone should check it out (even on a virtual tour). 

Some of my other favourite humans I have met over here are: Hepacan, Tymon de laat, Said Kinos, Floor Milou Smit, Danny Rumbl and Joram Roukes.

What is one thing/idea/way of doing something that you discovered in Amsterdam that you will keep with you forever?

Drinking a beer whilst riding a bike… usually in the rain.

You work in quite a few different mediums and on different surfaces.  Is there something you still haven't tried that you'd like to?

I’d like to jump into oil painting a bit more, get some proper training with the medium. It’s probably just a prestige thing and the fumes and clean up are a nightmare but I think it will be something I'd get more into over time. Also painting ‘en plein air’ on location. I want to get a little kit of gouache together and make some proper work whilst I travel rather than just little sketches. And I really want to learn how to weld. But maybe I just like the playing with fire aspect of that.

What are you most looking forward to in 2021?

Over here in Europe things are pretty up in the air in terms of COVID, vaccines and border restrictions. Nobody really knows what summer will bring, but plans are still being made. At this point I have a residency locked in for a chateau in the south of France called La_Vigneron. I will be painting a wall down there and getting to create some work responding to the area. It’s where Van Gogh and Paul Cezanne spent a lot of time so there is a strong history of landscape painting through the area that I can’t wait to dive into. Plus some great wineries which I will also be diving into.

Thank you for your time, Helen! We can't wait to see your works.