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Helen Back

I spoke with Helen (@helenbackart) about her practice. She started to create art in her early forties in response to dealing with challenging health issues, her work is autobiographical, she asks questions and makes comments on her situation, what things mean to her and how she is shaped by her life and experiences. Themes we discussed include both physical and mental health, identity and the use of humour in some of her work. Find her amazing work on Instagram and on her Website.

Making Friends (Succulent Sara) – All photographs are displayed with kind permission of the artist ©Helen Back

Sara – Hi Helen. Thank you for taking time to talk to me. 

I saw your art on your website and on your Instagram and I also read your bio. There are a few things that I absolutely loved. Can I ask you about the Self Care Bear that is on your Instagram page?

Helen – Yes, the inspiration to make the self care bear came from a document I received in my NHS breast cancer survivorship pack, it was a list called ‘be kind to yourself – ten commandments’ it was a post treatment guide that basically listed changes that I needed to make such as, learn to say no, switch off, try not to be all things to all people, and be inelegant. I suppose a bit of a self-help list, be kind to me and not just those around me.

My neighbour made the bear for me, I wanted to use it as a blank canvas and write daily kindness reminders to myself.  I’m actually struggling to move forward with this project, I intend to keep the concept behind the bear, but I don’t think the written words are physical enough, I’m toying with the idea of making it a larger piece and using thread instead of ink to make the notes.

Self Care Bear – All photographs are displayed with kind permission of the artist ©Helen Back

I really like these ideas of ‘write it out’ activities. You can find online many versions and make it yourself. For example, having a jar that you fill with your notes of your worries or write letters or speak your thoughts out loud.

The other thing I really loved seeing was your ‘Sew WTF’s it all about?’ Love the title by the way.

Thank you, this project originally started out around COVID and sadly hangs only half finished in my studio, another work in progress.  I decided to make a patchwork quilt in response to a letter I received from the government stating that I had to remain indoors for 12 weeks. I was placed on the extremely vulnerable list due to the chemo as it lowers the immune system and if you catch COVID you’re more likely to be hospitalised.  The guidelines basically said lock yourself away for 12 weeks, you can sit near an open window for fresh air and don’t go anywhere near your husband, I just thought ‘What the fuck?’. In addition to the letter, I also questioned the NHS in this piece of work as they had spent thousands on my treatment and breast reconstruction, yet months later the nurses were struggling for PPI equipment. It just felt wrong that they had spent all of that money on me and weren’t able to provide the basic necessary equipment to help the nurses. It really makes you think about the whole system that we live in, I just wanted to hide away from the world under my quilt.

WTF Quilt – All photographs are displayed with kind permission of the artist ©Helen Back

I know, I think we all would have loved to do that. It was mental. I saw that you also painted something in a similar style?

Yes, the paintings are more about learning about myself and why I got sick.

At my initial consultation I was told that it’s very unlikely to be breast cancer as it’s not in the family. 2 weeks later I was in theatre having my lymph nodes removed to see if the cancer had spread.

I started to question and look into alternative reasons to why I had cancer and I came across a guy online called Dr Gabor Maté, he has written a book called ‘When the body says no’. He’s got very different ideas on why people get sick, not just with cancer but other diseases too such as autoimmune disorders. He explores the role of the mind-body link and explains through a number of patient case studies how disease can be the body’s way of saying no to what the mind cannot or will not acknowledge. The book focuses on hiding and building emotions up inside your body and if those feelings are not expressed then we become ill.

Not long before my diagnosis I had a few traumatic experiences, I was made redundant, I also had to have a hysterectomy and come to terms with the fact that I would never have children and on top of this I felt lonely and quite isolated.

Running Away From The Pain Infertility – All photographs are displayed with kind permission of the artist ©Helen Back

The book made me really look into myself, it was me who got sick, not a sickness or disease passed down from family or caused by something I’d consumed.  My artwork is like cancer ‘me-search’, questioning and trying to understand why I got sick.

I’m trying to relate this book and Dr Maté’s ideas with my art. In my work I try to reflect on what he is saying in his book because I agree with him.

It sounds quite different from what doctors tell you. I guess they had to look at illnesses in a more practical way. I wonder if they are allowed to believe in ideas like these?

Yes, it is very different, Dr Maté explains that medical students are not taught that mind and body are connected, you have specialists who treat individual organs but not the whole body.  I must admit it did surprise me when I read the NHS ‘Be kind to yourself’ list, it’s not something I would have expected from them. So maybe his work is creeping into mainstream thinking/teaching.

Yes, that is interesting, and I hope so.

Did you start making your art when you got sick or were you working on things before?

I never created art when I was working as a draughtsman, it was only when I was made redundant that I connected with a local art gallery and joined in with life drawing classes. We weren’t wealthy but my husband said take time out and do something for you. He was so supportive, he wanted me to have time to be an artist. At every opportunity he would buy me pencils and paper to try and encourage me to create but I never did, I suppose my job got in the way and I never felt the need to draw as I did that all day on a computer.

Art really started to get serious when I got sick, I had a lot of time on my hands, I’m sure the work was, and still is a life saver, it helped me work through my situation and to find some answers to my questions regarding my health.

Your art is a way of finding yourself. It helps you react and respond to the uncertain areas of your life and your illness. Does your art help with your mental health as well? To be able to express your thoughts, to help you find within you what you’re feeling or to work through those feelings?

I think it’s all those things. Art helps me to get to know me and my thoughts. Creating has also helped me connect with other artists, especially during COVID. I see the similarities in their works, of how they are dealing with their feelings and exploring themselves to be able to express emotion through their art, you soon realise it is a coping mechanism.

Running Away From The Pain Breast Cancer – All photographs are displayed with kind permission of the artist ©Helen Back

I understand. Being able to relate to others and their feelings through art sounds like a great way to connect with people and to make sure you’re not feeling alone.

I would like to ask about your art. You called it concept art in which you use materials and mediums that you find fitting to the theme or topic of a specific work. Could you tell me about your process of how you think of the right medium or material? Do you start with the theme and what you will need for it or are you influenced by the medium and what you feel like doing to inspire you to the theme?

A lot of it goes on in my head. I don’t have a sketchbook as such, I use a note pad or scraps of paper to write down my ideas, it’s a very messy process really. Whenever I get an idea, I write it down and then that idea can further develop in my head or on those scraps of paper until something clicks and then I can create, bit of a light bulb moment really.  I do like to gather things like fabric, beads, threads, googly eyes, paints, pens etc so I have materials at hand.

Do you have a preferred medium to work with? I love your range of art – embroidery, funny flowerpots, sewing, sketching and painting, poetry… Do you have a favourite one?

I think sewing is my favourite, I like using thread. Painting feels more like a necessity, when I have nothing else to do or no ideas flying around, I paint. It seems to be the most serious part of my practice too.  I tend to paint when I need some thinking time. Painting takes me away somewhere and gives me headspace, I think working with fabric and thread is softer and a more sensitive material to work with and I love using it in my practice.

I love that. I really loved the underwear series you made with embroidered poems on them

Pants Poem – All photographs are displayed with kind permission of the artist ©Helen Back

Yeah, one of the things that Dr Maté talks about in his book is using humour to deflect pain, I see it quite a lot in my work, sometimes I don’t know whether that’s healthy.

It’s a way of coping, I guess. It’s one of your ways to work through feelings.

It is a coping mechanism, isn’t it? I do sometimes get embarrassed about that kind of work as it feels silly, but I just can’t drop that part of me, I’m nearly 48 and I think ‘should I really be sitting here sewing poems on pants’?

Yeah, you should! I think there is a bit of societal judgement on older generations and what they should be doing and wearing, and I think we need to talk more about this. There are no rules you should follow, even if you’re over 70, wear trainers if you like, or go dancing if you can and want.

So, if you like sewing poems on underwear then totally do it!

Can I ask, do you make them and give it to people or put them up somewhere (idea board) or exhibit them?

I have a pin board in my studio, the work that I’m happy with or that I want to develop usually finds a place there, other work tends to end up in a drawer.

I have exhibited work and sold a few pieces along the way. ‘Payback Stitched Em Up Mastectomy’ is one of the most popular, did you see that on Instagram?

Payback Stitched Em Up Mastectomy – All photographs are displayed with kind permission of the artist ©Helen Back

Yes, I did. First, I thought it was a card with a drawing, but then I looked back, and it’s stitched. Is that right?

Stitched, yes, work from that series has been exhibited twice at the Ferens Art Gallery in Hull. I live in Grimsby and our local contemporary art gallery closed; we only have a fishing heritage centre here so there is nowhere for me to exhibit. My idea is to keep building my portfolio and eventually contact galleries around the Leeds Nottingham area.

In time, my ambition is to do a solo exhibition that would be focused on my autobiographical work and the book (‘When the body says no’). It would be an exhibition of self exploration that highlights the findings of Dr Maté.

At the moment I don’t feel ready to exhibit, I think some of my earlier works are a bit clumsy. I know, it is a work in progress, but I feel that I need to be more sensitive. I am going back and redoing some work, maybe some of the early sewing about my cancer treatment, with the hares everywhere.

Are you redoing them completely or basing new works on them, inspired by them?

Remaking the work.

Before the interview I wasn’t sure if I can ask you questions that are so personal (health and illness) but you have it on your website, so I thought you are quite open about it as it inspires your art. It must be therapeutic on some level and also quite hard with the taboos or sharing personal and physical things.

Some of my work is dealing with ageing, part of my cancer treatment is that they’re forcing me into menopause. I’m too young to go through the menopause and I’m seeing and feeling that ageing process with the medication. I wanted to document through my work what’s happening to me, I wanted to raise awareness that it’s not a matter of ‘you get cancer, you get treatment and you’re well again’, because that is not the case. I was hoping to document those changes that they’re forcing me into. It’s important to a woman – your appearance, I felt that I needed to show the whole story.

I like that on two different levels – first because all women go through that (ageing and menopause). But on another level, yours is forced, it’s not your time yet and you are dealing with all these difficult things.

Yes, it is difficult but there are a lot of women a lot younger than me that accept the treatment to help save/extend their lives.

We tend to ask questions and look at different perspectives when we are unsure. When something happens, you don’t understand or have no clear explanation, it makes you question everything around you. I think we should normalise this a bit more – alternative perspectives and ideas.

Yes, we are lead and force-fed information from a very young age and we should question those things, this is what I liked about ‘When the body says no’. The Dr was using his experience as a GP to inform us of a different way of thinking about our bodies, he argues that cancers and autoimmune diseases often happen because of stress and its physical effect on your body. I agree with him, I’ve learnt so much about myself having read the book. I had a pretty rough time as a child, and I think I have carried that through my life. I believe that I couldn’t express my anger and sadness of all those bad things that were happening in my life pre diagnosis, so they turned on me.  I’ve found that creating my art helps me understand and work through the feelings and thoughts.

After my treatment had finished, I felt a very unusual sensation in my hands. It felt like my body was telling me you need to release something, or you will get sick again. I was making art at the time, but I needed to do something else too, so I bought myself a drum kit and after a few weeks playing the feeling disappeared.

I went through therapy as well to work through some traumas, and I learned a lot about myself. I feel I know what you’re saying with that feeling of needing to get things out of your body and I think it’s amazing you can do this with your art and drumming.

Thank you. How do you express those feelings?

I guess I’m trying to recognise them first, as I struggled with that or remembering. I’m not quite there yet to get them out.

One of the healing processes discussed in the book is that we need to create, I hope you find a way to express yourself, try and find time and a version of art that helps you explore and ask questions.

Thank you. It was really lovely meeting you and hearing your story. 

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