Always Coming Back with Helen Proctor April 09 2019
Helen Proctor is an Australian abstract landscape painter and a large-scale muralist born and raised in Sydney, now in living and working in Amsterdam. Helen’s vibrant paintings explore the relationship between time and place, with sharp picturesque scenery often evoking a strong emotional nostalgia.
Ahead of her show It Always Comes Back at Outré Gallery, we spoke to Helen about her beginnings in the Sydney street art scene, working as an artist in Amsterdam, her influences and creating artwork inspired by landscapes.
Interview by Jessica Steger. Photography provided by Helen Proctor.
Can you tell us about your early years – how you started out in the Sydney street art scene? Did you have any prior formal study or were you self-taught?
I grew up running around painting on the train lines in the Blue Mountains. It’s a pretty sleepy area but the graffiti and hip-hop scene was booming. After moving to the city I continued my street practice whilst also studying design and art education at Uni. The two worlds didn’t cross over much so I guess I am self-taught within my art practice. I was best known for my stencil pieces and large paste-ups. My friends and I would also sit on the street in Newtown and art busk, painting on bits of cardboard and giving them away by donation. It was a great way of meeting other artists and experimenting with my work.
Who are your biggest artistic influences and how have they influenced your murals, paintings and sculptural work?
Living in Sydney’s inner west I crew up with a lot of murals popping up. This was a big influence because I got to know the artists and see their progression. People like Phibs, Beastman, Numbskull and Georgia Hill have really motivated me to go bigger and challenge the ideas of what a mural can be. I take influence from a lot of different art periods. David Hockney is coming to Amsterdam soon, which I am looking forward to. And those German abstract expressionists had it going on. With the rise of Instagram I’m also discovering so many amazing artists, but it can also be overwhelming at times so I try not focus too much on other artists.
How does the contemporary mural street art scene in Amsterdam compare and contrast to that of Sydney?
Amsterdam is actually a really small ‘and cute’ city. Everything is heritage listed so there aren’t really a lot of mural projects around, although some are starting to pop up in the more industrial areas. Rotterdam seems to have a bigger street art culture with the second POW WOW festival is happening there this year. After travelling through a lot of European cities I actually feel that Australia has a very progressive mural art scene. There is an appreciation and a bit of money being put into creating murals in both cities and regional areas.
What impact has moving to the Netherlands had on your work? Was it an easy, positive transition for you artistically?
I had built up so many contacts and connections in Australia, it was difficult leaving the safety net of Sydney and starting all over again. But after a bit of hustle things are starting to happen here. The Dutch landscape is a bit grey in comparison to Australia but I am more focused on travelling the rest of Europe and visiting other landscape. For me Amsterdam is just a home base to pursue other opportunities around Europe. I have gotten to travel so much whilst being here and its great to combine that with my practice.
Late last year you did an artist residency in Greece. Tell us a little about it, your work and overall experience with it. Is this something you’d like to do more of in future?
The Greek islands have also been a highlight for me. I love the colours and surreal landscapes that blend in with the traditional white buildings. I went back to Greece for a residency after spending a month travelling around the islands in 2017. I chose the residency because it had a focus on creating a mural for the community. It was located in a run-down area of Heraklion and the guy who runs the residency is trying to turn the area into an artist’s hub. I spent a month there, meeting all the locals and working on a large mural that sits at the entrance to the neighbourhood. My favourite part was immersing myself in the community. I couldn’t go anywhere without people offering me freddo espressos or homemade raki (spirits). It was more about the experience than anything, and the mural is just a gift back to the community as a thank you for having me.
How do you go about selecting your mural locations and what is it that attracts you?
I am mostly attracted to the landscape of a place and the natural formations of an area. It stems from my own connection to the Australian landscape and I like to explore how locals in an area connect to their landscape. Living in cities you don’t get that same connection. If I’m painting in a city I like to remind people of the landscapes that are surrounding them.
What are some of the technical things you may take into consideration before starting a large-scale project?
Putting time into planning helps the process go more smoothly. The last thing I want to be doing is making multiple paint runs to the hardware or realising that I don’t have the right materials. There is something that always goes wrong and that’s part of the excitement of painting murals. You really have to be innovative whilst on location, and I like that element. You really have to think on your feet, I like how those elements influence the end result of the artwork. If you have to mix a new colour on the run or change the design because there is a huge storm cloud coming, it all adds to the overall artwork and experience.
Exploring new environments is an important part of being a landscape painter. What are some of your favourite places you’ve travelled and that have inspired your work?
Iceland and the Faroe Islands literally blew my mind. Sleeping in a van next to a glacier lagoon or climbing up cliffs to find a waterfall that goes straight into the ocean, the natural formations that exist are crazy. There is just a unique energy when you are in those kinds of places, it makes you feel so small and insignificant.
How often do you come back to Australia? Do you have any exciting travel plans coming up in 2019?
I made a trip back to Australia over Christmas and new year this year. I hadn’t been back in two years, so it was nice to be back for a bit of Sydney summer. Lots of beach action, bushwalks and road trips. The plan is to make the trip back across every year but I might also have some big projects coming up that I will fly back for. I am also doing a trip around Scotland combined with a residency on the Isle of Skye later in the year. Hopefully I will get to do a little mural in Edinburgh during my trip.
We are excited to have you as part of Outré Gallery’s Small Wall exhibition in April. What can we expect to see from this body of work?
I’m making some pieces based around my trip back to Australia and the dose of nostalgia that came after being away for two years. But I’m shying away from painting actual locations. I want to create something that everyone can resonate with.
Thank you so much, Helen. We look forward to seeing your show!