Throughout history the universal themes of mortality and death have been explored by artists from every possible angle: the dead and the dying, a brush with death, its inevitability, the aftermath of a violent act, the tragic loss of a loved one and resurrections aplenty. Even the reasons behind each work are equally disparate. For some it is a way of coping with grief, others are mostly interested in keeping memories alive or recording historical evidence. For Helen Lee it was, and still is, a matter of discovery.
The artist lost her mother in 2010, though she would argue that it sort of happened long before, and her partner in 2011.
The bedside scenes were painted solely by memory, years after they took place. And when I ask if she sketched them in situ beforehand, I am already regretting the question even before I utter the last words. She didn’t. She was there respectively as a daughter and a lover. She has been painting more and more outside of her studio in recent years as she finds that what goes on around her brings a new unpredictable and exciting dimension to her work, but she would have found drawing in those circumstances disrespectful and troubling.
While looking at ‘Death of My Mother and Plymouth Brethren on Blackberries‘, the painter reminds me that her mother had not been allowed to have contact with her family for eighteen years.
When they met in those last days of her life, it was not a private matter. The bed was surrounded by the brethren, mostly going about their business and constantly talking on their blackberries. The people might have been different, but the same scene took place every day for a week.
In the painting, she is the woman wearing a faux fur coat. She remembers being made aware that, given the situation, it looked rather worldly and quite vulgar. She had found herself wearing it without thinking and being judged for it. Yet the hypocrisy of the people around her wasn’t under scrutiny. And neither was the lack of respect shown by the brethren talking on their phones.
Though there is an underlying love for her mother in this painting – there is a softness, a watercolour effect on her face – she did not paint it as a homage, to help her own healing process or to bring closure.
Helen’s reason for painting was, and still is, to discover. She quotes Agnes Varda in ‘Places and Faces’: ‘Chance has always been my best assistant’. Her works allow an exploration that is not feasible when living in the moment. The scope is so much broader as the focus is no longer on a subject alone. She tells me ‘When we create, we give ourselves permission to examine’.
She remembers being near to her brothers at one end of the bed. Now when she looks back at the painting, the closeness strikes her as out of place and dishonest as she does not share a loving relationship with her siblings.
Similarly to the one of her mother, Bed Ends Broken Heart Ward is a very architectural painting. Patterns and positive/negative spaces are regular features in her visual compositions. Helen is sitting by the last bed on the upper left corner. You can just about see her ponytail as she is hidden by the large tv screen.
The theme of barriers, both physical and psychological, runs through both works: the overbearing presence of strangers surrounding her mother’s bed, the anti-pigeon spikes on the window sill, the medical equipment, the monitor hiding her face, the strain relations and, ultimately, the divide between life and death.
When stretching it, she tore the paper of Bed Ends Broken Heart Ward. She panicked, glued it back together and later noticed a visible rip running through. And before I have the time to ask anything too taxing about the possible meaning of it, she is already laughing at a bowl of satsumas and a bottle of M&S lemonade that she painted in front of her partner, a plasma bag looking like a giant cupcake and the nurse being so small that she looks like a Russian doll.
Both her mother’s and her partner’s name are not mentioned in the titles. Their figures are not central in these works. Yet when you look at Death of My Mother and Plymouth Brethren on Blackberries, all the women look like her mother. In Bed Ends Broken Heart Ward you can only see the feet of the other patients in the room. Her partner could be any of them.
As such, her loved ones are nowhere, but also everywhere in her paintings. And so is death.