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  • Writer's pictureHaydn Dickenson

BEGINNINGS

Updated: May 6, 2023




In my April newsletter, I announced a new feature for the blog, in the form of occasional articles by guest contributors. Today I am delighted to introduce to you Helen Long, a UK-based ceramicist who produces deeply thought-provoking work, often ethereal and sensual, influenced by human issues, the natural world and by matters highly relevant to our time.**


So, over to Helen:


When Haydn asked if I would like to contribute to this blog I felt somewhat conflicted. On the one hand I was flattered that he suggested it, but on the other, I was unsure as to what to write.


Readers of this blog will not be familiar with my work so an introduction seems appropriate. I work as a ceramicist now, but this is a relatively recent path for me; a second career later in life.


I had a long career in the NHS lasting over 35 years, so what inspired me to take up ceramics?


In 2014 I heard an interview with David Hockney. (James Naughtie At Home With David Hockney 2014). At 77, he was as busy as ever with the work he loved. He couldn’t envisage ever stopping. It dawned on me that I didn’t feel that way about my job at all. I didn’t love it; I would gladly give it up. After 35 years in the NHS, I wondered exactly when was it that I stopped loving what I did for a living?


I envied Hockney his passion for painting. I remembered how I had loved art at school but had not pursued it. Art was a ‘wasted’ subject, I was told by my teachers. For some inexplicable reason, I did what I was told, so art was dropped and forgotten about.


Until that interview. That Hockney interview was a turning point for me, at which point I started considering the next stage of my life.


I started going to a pottery workshop and there I found an affinity for clay. I discovered that I loved the way it feels when you work with it, so cool to the touch, so silky and malleable. I found it deeply meditative. Time would evaporate when I was making. My teacher was inspirational and encouraged experimentation. It was she who supported my embryonic notions of taking my learning further. I left the NHS and studied for a degree in ceramics at UCA. I was lucky enough to have inspirational teachers who not only taught me ceramic techniques, but how to think and express myself creatively.


Looking back on my course, I can see that my previous career, supporting women with young families, strongly influenced the work I produced. These pieces below; “Altered States” and “Rebirth” both relate to women’s mental health.



ALTERED STATES by Helen Long, 2018 (Now part of a permanent collection at Dankook University, Seoul.)

This work, completed in my second year, examined the damage that mental illness causes. The elements, which are profiles of faces, in the round, started out whole and were systematically scarred incrementally and eventually destroyed by the action of water on the unfired clay. I was inspired by Sherry Amatenstein, a New York therapist and writer who equated depression to “…drowning, except everyone around you is breathing.” (Amatenstein 2018)



RE-BIRTH by Helen Long, 2019 (NFS)


“Re-Birth” is a joyful look at the lives of women, reaching their mid-life. The vessels express damage and scarring but from them emerge bright shafts of colour and light, showing a new direction and hope for the future. There is clearly an autobiographical element to this piece.

As the distance from my old life grew, the tenor of my work shifted. My love of the natural world and concerns about the destruction of our planet started to find expression in what I made. My graduate work (below, “Stone Circle”) was made in response to conservation efforts in Farnham Heath. The circle, representing a need for a holistic approach to land management. In this work I was clearly influenced by the esteemed Andy Goldsworthy, and by Alan Sonfist, whose site-specific work draws attention to what is being lost in the natural world.




STONE CIRCLE, by Helen Long, 2020 (NFS)


If I’m honest, there is often a semi-political, or campaigning theme to my work. I am drawn to “Art Activism” as I find it enthralling I and love the controversial. Jason deCaires Taylor is one such artist. His work, ‘Rising Waters’ is a series of sculptures on the seabed designed to highlight the issues of global warming and the destruction of coral reefs. (deCaires Taylor 2020).



VICISSITUDES, by Jason deCaires-Taylor, 2006


All Jason's works are dual purposed; as a political statement and , as in this example, an active site for nature to start to colonise with new coral growth.


More recent work has continued to focus on the loss of the natural world. In 2022, I created a series called “Soft Vessels”; these are altered, wheel thrown vessels which were a response to the woodland damage wrought by the January storms. These pieces obliquely reference the torn tree stumps left in the tempest’s wake.




SOFT VESSEL, 26cm high, by Helen Long, 2022


This year, my work has focussed on the plight of the sea. The oceans of the world are undergoing tumultuous change due to climate change, overfishing and the dumping of plastic waste. Through my work, I hope to inspire others to connect with the ocean and explore the depths of its power and mystery, sparking conversations about the importance of environmental conservation, and to inspire people to make a difference.




ROLLING SURF, 35 x 54 cm, by Helen Long, 2023 (Currently on exhibition at INSIGHT at The Base, Greenham Common, Newbury, until 29th May.


With this collection, I am attempting to capture the majesty of the ocean's dance creating a sense of movement and evoking wonder. By harnessing the relationship between form and light, I deliver pieces which are both visually beautiful and emotionally evocative. *



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Reading Helen's beautiful piece and looking at the wonderful images of her art, I am moved by the way in which her exquisite work flows and dances with the rhythm of human life and our precious relationship with the planet which is not ours, but in whose environs we are privileged to exist.


You can read more about Helen's magnificent work at https://www.helenlongceramics.com/ where you can of course contact her regarding purchase of her work.


If you're in the UK (or even if you're not!), why not drop by Helen's current exhibition at https://www.helenlongceramics.com/events


Thank you, Helen, for inaugurating the guest spot on my blog so splendidly!**


Thank you also, readers, for reading. If you have enjoyed Helen's wonderful article, please take a look at some of mine also, and consider subscribing to and sharing this website.



*Copyright Helen Long 2023


**Copyright Haydn Dickenson 2023






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