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Surprising herself: from Police to Portage Awards

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Helen2Police work might not seem an obvious pathway to artistry, but it’s worked out well for Upper Hutt ceramic artist Helen Lenihan.

Before arriving at The Learning Connexion School of Creativity and Art in 2013, Helen had spent 12 years working for the police, both in Counties-Manukau and Wellington, the last seven of those years as an Intelligence Analyst.

“I was in need of a break and came across an advertisement for The Learning Connexion (TLC) in a magazine. I had always been creative but didn’t have any fine arts experience or training and knew I wanted to learn by doing, rather than learning art history and theory.”

Beginning with a New Zealand Certificate in Creativity (Level 4), Helen has studied part time and completed each level available at TLC. She will graduate with an Advanced Diploma of Art and Creativity (Level 7) in April.

After initially experimenting in drawing, mixed media and printmaking, it was not until she discovered ceramics in Level 5 that she found her calling. “Initially I struggled to come up with creative original ideas of my own – it felt as though every idea I came up with had been done before. However, I persisted and now I have so many ideas I'll have to live to 150 to be able to try them all.”

Helen uses ceramics, mixed media and found objects to produce work that often references human emotional responses to the world around us. She says her artwork is inspired by the relationship between memories, emotion and the passing of time, and calls her style Contemporary Nostalgia.

These themes informed one of her most recent works, ‘688’ (pictured below) which was chosen as a finalist in the prestigious Portage Ceramic Awards.

“Being a finalist in the Portage Awards has been very encouraging. It was great to know that someone else – in this case well known Australian Ceramicist Merran Essan liked my work enough to include it in the finalists.”

688 details stacks688 was on display in Te Uru Gallery in Titirangi for three months, giving Helen exposure in Auckland's art market. It is one of eight pieces she produced for her Level 7 graduate exhibition. The remarkable work includes 688 handmade and smoked clay tiles.

“This particular piece relates to suicide,” says Helen. “688 is the number of New Zealanders who took their own lives during 2017.”

Helen has seen her confidence as an artist grow since beginning study at TLC.

“By the time I got to Level 7, I was more confident. I had had a couple of group exhibitions, had ceramic work in a Greytown Gallery and a small solo exhibition in the Expressions Rotary Gallery in Upper Hutt. I was comfortable making things I liked and enjoyed the processes I was already familiar with.”

She says Level 7, under the direction of her mentor John Cornish, took her creativity to the next level.

“I wanted to work outside my comfort zone and push myself into working differently. I found the first six weeks or so difficult because it required me to stop making an expected outcome and just explore the material. After a while though I found it very freeing, I didn't have to produce a finished product, it was more like play which was contrary to the way I always worked.”

She says Level 7, with its focus on experimentation, has changed the way she works as an artist. “I use more repetition, simpler finishes, I work on a larger scale and the work has a meaning and a narrative that is mine.”

“It (Level 7) gets under your skin and changes your thinking without you realising it and you get to share in the warmth and knowledge of John Cornish and Peter Adsett, which is invaluable for anyone wanting to pursue life as a maker/creator.”

Want to Surprise Yourself? Enrol now at The Learning Connexion – you can start any time of the year.


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