Artist of the Month: December 2012, Helen Snell

Artist of the Month: December 2012, Helen Snell

For the last Artist of the Month for 2012 Ruth catches up with artist Helen Snell and discusses her highlights of 2012, rural living and imperfect editions.

Ruth Wilbur: You've made work based on cheese boxes and Roman sandles. What's been the most unusual starting point for a project? 

Helen Snell: All sorts of unusual things have the potential to spontaneously trigger new work. My son brought home a party box full of sweets and treats in the shape of a fishing boat. I liked the elegant way it was held together with tabs like the top of a butterfly cake, so once he agreed to let me have the box, I flattened it and used the net as a basic template for the 300 paper vessels I made for the show Liquid Landscapes (a collaboration with veteran U.S. choreographer Stephan Koplowitz). They were a very simple boat shape and all hand cut! After that I decided I needed to use a laser cutter and the boats got progressively more complex.

Helen Snell Liquid Landscapes Mayflower Steps Plymouth 2009

Helen Snell, Liquid Landscapes Mayflower Steps Plymouth, 2009

RW:  'Liquid Landscapes' (2009), is an example of you altering commercial packaging design. Can you tell me more about your interest in adapting mass produced objects? 

Helen Snell: Yes, historically, our obsession with the unique has served the commodification of art very well, as rarity value bumps up prices for collectors/investors (particularly detrimental when public galleries have limited budgets, or where artist resale rights are not in evidence). I delight in the unlimited and subverted edition. I am especially interested in the idea of the imperfect edition. Traditionally a printmaker is to be congratulated on the skill required to produce a perfect edition, to subvert the idea of an edition is exciting and a good metaphor for the paradoxical relationship between group identity and individuality.

Multiples are ultimately democratic and liberating; if you have many copies with which to experiment, you can build larger composite structures, installations, use a range of materials, you can immerse works in water, burn them, send them round the world and not need them returned to you. Pieces can be customised, and individualised. 3-D printing offers the prospect of a revolution in every kind of production.

RW: I notice that you have people wearing some of your creations. Do the works ever become a performance?

HS: I like the idea that my work can exist in different incarnations and is not in an absolute form. Primarily the act of wearing a piece changes your relationship with it. You have to touch it, manhandle it, maybe even damage it.

RW: As our last Artist of the Month for 2012, I want to know what's your highlight of 2012 been? 

HS: Being invited to be the first artist in residence at the National Museum of the Royal Navy (NMRN). It's a great honour and very humbling.

RW: You'll be starting a two year residency there in January. Have you made any preparations?

HS: My research is already well underway. I have already made several preliminary visits to the host institutions and their archives, NMRN at the historic dockyards and the three sister organisations (the Royal Navy Submarine Museum, The Fleet Air Arm Museum and the Royal Marines Museum). With each new visit I get a growing sense of the vast and breathtaking scale of the collections that chart such pivotal and diverse moments in our history, from the monumentally epic to the very intimate. To know that I have two years to immerse myself in the vast archives is both thrilling and daunting.

RW: What work have you produced as part of the research? 

HS: I have produced a series of laser cut paper reliefs entitled 'Fighting Fit' (2012). The work tells the story of the young healthy boy who is examined by various medics to be approved and declared 'ready for action', a fate where he would be pock marked, punctured and splintered by missiles and be forced to administer the same fate to the enemy.

Helen Snell Fighting Fit 1 2012

Helen Snell, Fighting Fit 1, 2012

RW: You live in the small village of Combeinteignhead in Devon, what are the benefits and challenges of working in a rural location?

HS: I remember it felt like a leap of faith when we first moved to Devon, we moved away from London because we wanted to raise our son by the sea. Today there is a real vibrancy in the South West, with many artists, curators and designers choosing to work down here, making the occasional foray back to the metropolis.

There is the potential to set our own agenda here, initiate new ventures, find other contexts for our work. There is a sense of solidarity too, we hold together rather than compete against each other, I really like this. For me art is non-competitive. We are all individuals, there is no first-past-the-post. City living is, by its very nature competitive and as an artist I don’t know if it's very productive to be looking over your shoulder all the time.

RW: What was the last exhibition you saw that had an impact on you and why?

HS: Grayson Perry, The Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman at the British Museum stands out for me as the seminal exhibition of the year. I love Perry's candour and humour. He demonstrates so brilliantly how the marrying of fine art and craft practice is such fertile ground for invention and political comment, and also how the systematic fear of the ‘c’ word amongst some of the fine art community is totally misplaced as is the fear of concept driven work in some of the craft community. 

RW: All your work is beautifully photographed and documented. Can you share a few tips on documenting your work? 

HS:  As laser cut paper is so responsive to light, I tend to play around with lighting effects quite a bit while photographing my work. When photographing your work be playful not precious!

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Interview by Ruth Wilbur, December 2012

Coming Up 

You can see work by Helen Snell in her solo exhibition 'BURNT OUT' at Devon Guild of Craftsmen, Bovey Tracey in January 2013. 'Burnt Out' will then continue on to 20-21 Visual Arts Centre, Scunthorpe in autumn 2013, who will tour the exhibition to venues nationally from 2014 onwards.

Helen will also be showing work in September 2013 in the exhibition IntoLACE at Thelma Hulbert Gallery, Honiton. The exhibition will explore the historic uses and values of lace and consider the relevance of lace in contemporary practice.

About Helen Snell 

Helen Snell is based in Combeinteignhead, Devon. She creates paper sculptures using a combination of laser cutting technology and hand printmaking.  Her work references debates around genetics, consumerism and originality.

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