The premise of Helen Peyton’s Smart Gallery is simple. “Absolutely everything from anyone is considered for display,” says Helen. “The entire exhibition depends on people’s desire to share with other museum visitors their very special possessions. My only stipulation is that it must engage you… it doesn’t have to be old or historic… just special and personal to you.”
With an assortment of artefacts that ranged from a six-year-old child’s Chinese white rabbit sweets to a handbag made out of an armadillo, sourced on Charles Darwin’s round the world voyage on the Beagle in the 1830s, it becomes easier to grasp the eclectic and fascinating variety of items that were among the 1200 exhibits at Helen’s prototype Smart Gallery, which she hosted last year. Longlisted for this year’s Turner Prize, and with two linocut prints imminently on display at the Royal Academy in London, Helen is definitely one of Yorkshire’s most lauded artists of the moment.
She is also an ambassador of the Picture Library at Leeds Art Gallery, which makes her one of the few living artists that the gallery is still collecting. It also means that her distinctive reduction linocuts are hanging among what has been described as “probably the best collection of twentieth century British art outside London”.
“It’s an honour to be part of Leeds City Gallery, as it’s so inspirational,” adds Helen. “I love the Picture Library which is a scheme where you can borrow incredible works of art from very important artists and have them in your own home. It’s an extraordinary opportunity to be able to borrow a work of art and get to know it intimately. I currently have a piece by Victor Pasmore hung at home, and I’m just thoroughly absorbed by this beautiful contemporary original print… and because it’s on loan I really feel my time with it is precious.”
Helen has also just been appointed creative practitioner at the Hepworth Wakefield, a prestigious opportunity and one which will gain her unfettered access to the works of one of the world’s most prominent artists.
“It’s little known that Barbara Hepworth was also a printmaker like me,” reveals Helen. “So I am incredibly excited about exploring her print practice and creating artworks linked to her.”
As already mentioned, Helen’s specialist artistic medium is printmaking, in particular the reduction linocut, a technique that Picasso is credited with inventing. It’s a complicated technique that is often referred to as the “suicide linocut” – as with repeated cuttings and printings the lino is gradually reduced down to nothing, and so there is no opportunity to go back to amend previously printed colours.
“Accuracy is vitally important in this art form as a millimetre out and an image can be lost, wasting weeks of cutting and printing,” she adds.
It was Helen’s residency at Skipton’s Craven Museum that sparked the inspiration for Smart Gallery. “I had been artist in residence at the museum for about six years, which meant I’d been producing works of arts based on the exhibits there. I’d actually been producing them on this fantastic antique Britannia printing press that they have as an exhibit there; so I had become a kind of living exhibit, talking to people and helping them explore the printing process, as well as showing them things in the exhibition that were inspiring me.
“From this participation with the public evolved the realisation that often what the public enjoys is different to what museum curators expect them to enjoy.
“For example, people would admire the Victorian dresses and appreciate the workmanship in them, but when it came to the 1950s New World Cooker exhibit, people would suddenly talk animatedly about the memories it evoked… which was what made me start to become fascinated with what the public might want to see in an exhibition, if they had the chance to choose.”
So was born the idea for Smart Gallery, Helen’s unique concept of a social museum and art gallery which is created and curated by the public. All items are loaned to the museum for the duration of the exhibition, and as mentioned earlier – literally anything will be considered for inclusion and display. “Anyone can submit something they consider art, whether that is an ornament, a self-penned poem, family heirloom, found object, flotsam picked up on a beach, self-portrait, anything,” says Helen with a smile. “It just has to speak to you.”
Smart Gallery was hailed a critical success when it was trialled in Skipton last year, attracting in excess of 30,000 visitors in just four months, double the number that would usually pass through the museum’s doors. The concept won the Judges’ Award at Flourish Printmaker of the Year last year, as well as earning Helen her Turner Prize nomination.
This year Helen is bringing her Smart Gallery to Grassington Festival – a 15-day music and arts festival in the heart of the Yorkshire Dales, where it will enjoy a residency until June 27.
“Smart Gallery is going to be open seven days a week in Grassington,” adds Helen. “It’s very exciting not knowing what might be brought into the gallery. Every item will be treated as it would be in any other museum; its condition assessed and recorded, then a label will be created describing the object, which will also explain a little of its ‘story’, and what makes it special to the owner. This is then displayed with the object. I am keen to see the items that people bring in, and to discover what makes them special. I also like seeing what other people respond to in the exhibition as well.”
Throughout its residency in Grassington, Smart Gallery will once again start to become a living and breathing art installation in its own right. Visitors to the gallery will be invited by Helen to create works of art in response to their reaction to the artefacts on display – perhaps a drawing, a papier-mâché sculpture, an abstract painting or even a print.
Helen too will be creating her famous reduction linocuts on the premises, using her Georgian Parlour Press to produce hand-crafted representations of items in the gallery that have inspired her through their form or their story. The owners of the items which Helen selects to base her work on will receive a limited-edition linocut print as a thank-you.
Helen will also be holding a five-hour workshop at Smart Gallery on June 16 for those who are interested in exploring their understanding of colour, line and shape to a deeper level, with the opportunity of producing more complex pieces of art linked to some of the objects within Smart Gallery.
For those who are unfamiliar with Helen’s work, a little look round the gallery on her website quickly reveals the skill and scope of the discipline that she has mastered, a discipline that ironically dates back a hundred years, and is created using an antique printing press recovered from a printworks in Hull – and yet it is one that looks astonishingly contemporary.
“Lino reduction printing is time consuming but it gives me such a thrill to see the artwork slowly emerge in the way I envisioned it,” adds Helen.“It encourages the sculpture in me, the fine artist and the colourist.
“Printing is everything; it’s a superb medium for exploration. You can never fully master it and it will always drive your imagination.”
• www.helenpeyton.com; www.grassington-festival.org.uk; www.smartgallery.org.uk