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Helen Lack: How my art has helped me cope with cancer

6 years ago, Helen Lack innocently picked up a leaflet that took her on an incredible artistic journey. A journey that has seen her work showcased around the world. Her stunning abstract paintings are full of emotion and have become, not only a visual diary but have given Helen a strength and focus during the last 18 months since she was sadly diagnosed with triple negative breast cancer.

We recently had the wonderful opportunity to chat with Helen to discuss her journey and find out how art has played such an important role…

So let’s start at the beginning. Where did this wonderful artistic journey begin?

Ok, so I got into art about 6 years ago. I was sitting in a wonderful café with my parents in Bedfordshire and I spotted this leaflet advertising art lessons. To be honest it took me completely by surprise, it wasn’t something I was searching for but I immediately felt it was something I wanted to do. It sounds deep and philosophical but it almost felt like a kind of calling… something I needed to do. That same day I gave the number a call and the following Monday I was attending.

Had you been creative prior to the art lessons or was this your first experience?

I’d never really painted before but I’ve always been creative. For many years I was a fashion photographer working for model agencies like Storm and Select. I’d help the models create their portfolios before they went to casting agencies and fashion magazines. It was a very exciting experience spending my time between the UK and Australia.

We’re not sure if you remember but we actually first met at the very first Roy’s People Art Fair in Islington, London about 4 or 5 years ago. Was that your first experience of exhibiting? How did you find it?

Of course, yes! That was an incredible experience and one of my first times showing my work to the general public. It was fantastic to meet people, talk about art and meet all the artists exhibiting. It really got my artistic passion burning and it was then I knew this was what I wanted to do full time.

That was also the first time we got to see your abstract paintings. So why abstract? What is it about abstract art that appeals to you?

In a nutshell it’s the freedom it gives me. There’s no boundaries. If I was to do a more traditional landscape I’d be confined by depth and shape. Abstract allows me to let go and takes me away from reality into a new and exciting universe. It allows me to pour myself into the work and depending on how I’m feeling almost dictates how the work will turn out. It’s like my emotions become visualised through my paintings.

That’s a perfect explanation, your work really is very emotion based. How do you start your paintings? Do you start with a colour palette? Or maybe a word, or feeling or something?

The first one, definitely the first one. Although the paintings in the last two years have become more emotion based, maybe a location or song lyric or memory could trigger an emotion and that starts the wheels turning. Sometimes I’ll be taking a walk through the countryside and I’ll take a small section of the view and that will decide the colour palette then I’ll maybe add words or lyrics to the piece that will represent my emotion at the time. Whatever the inspiration I always feel there is a sense of urgency with the piece. I need to do it NOW! If I have to wait for canvasses or materials I start to feel overwhelmed and agitated as if I might lose part of that feeling if I have to delay.

So there’s almost a timescale in which you need to get the painting out of your head?

Exactly! When I first got to the hospice I really felt I had paintings I needed to do but it took a few days to get things organised so I could paint and those few days made me feel very irritated, but once they were done I felt instantly better, so yes it certainly feels like there’s a timescale attached.

'I love you baby' by Helen Lack
‘I love you baby’ by Helen Lack

Do you create your work then in one sitting? Rather than many artists who will take a break and go back to them?

One sitting. If the idea strikes then I need to get it out of me asap. I might answer a phone call or something but that’s about it. I’d rather keep going until it is finished.

So, you briefly mentioned the fact you are now in a hospice and obviously there’s sadly no denying or hiding from the reality of your situation. Would you mind telling us about your journey with cancer and how your emotive work ties in with it and has helped during these traumatic times?

Of course not, so I was diagnosed with triple negative cancer in January 2020 and went through chemo treatment etc and eventually was declared cancer free. Unfortunately what I didn’t realise is that since January of this year until a few weeks ago the cancer had come back. It is now stage four terminal cancer that is now spreading through my body but to be honest I’m sort of relieved that I didn’t know back in January as I may have done things very differently instead of living my life.

When I was told, my world just crumbled. Every little piece of information that I was being fed seemed to get worse, and that’s not easy. As human beings we can take a certain amount of news, but when it’s within such a short space of time, it becomes almost impossible to process.

I remember sitting in the consultancy room having just been given the devasting diagnosis and saying to the nurse, “I will paint through this”. I said it almost defiantly. And I did. It gave me strength. My first 3 paintings I did just after this were very sentimental to me – ‘Hush hush darling’, ‘Hold my hand’ and ‘Believe in me’. These was done before I’d shared the news with anyone except my family.

So at that point you weren’t ready to share the news? This was your own personal journey?

Exactly. Those early pieces were very, very precious. They were me dealing with the news and nobody knew what the meanings behind them really related to.

Have you found your style change during all of this?

I think so yes. If I look back there are definitely pieces where I see a change. I did one called ‘Chemo’ dedicated to the NHS which is an explosion of colour. It’s energetic and fast and was done just after I’d finished my chemotherapy sessions. It felt like all those months of toxic drugs were just released out of me into that piece.

Aptly named 'Chemo', Helen visually describes the toxicity of the chemotherapy she had endured
Aptly named ‘Chemo’, Helen visually describes the toxicity of the chemotherapy she had endured

That’s one of the things we love about your work. They’re full of meaning. There’s a backstory to them, because every piece is personal and becomes almost like a visual blog, capturing a moment in time.

Completely. During my whole cancer journey I’ve been donating paintings to a lot of hospitals. I mean after all they were the ones trying to save my life and each one captures a feeling or emotion at a certain point in the journey.

When I went in for surgery to remove my lymph nodes I ended up with nerve damage in my right arm. At that point I never thought I’d be able to paint but I just said to myself, “get back on the bike, this is your passion you can find a way”.

So, you’re right handed? Have you had to teach yourself to paint with your left hand?

Right now I’m using both. I’ve managed to create 5 so far and again I’ve seen a slight change in what I’m producing. They’re even more abstract and completely based on colour. There’s no messages contained within them except the title and that’s because I’m at peace with myself. The whole idea of this series is to portray the fact I can still paint despite the fact I am pretty much immobile and in a hospice. When my doctor visits he is always astonished to see another new painting and encourages me to keep going.

There are times I get frustrated like when I’ve run out of canvasses but I always find a way.

You made us smile the other day when we saw you describe yourself as ‘artist-in-residence’

Thank you and it’s true. Although I’m in a hospice and struggling to move I will still make sure I can paint for as long as I can. The nurses have been wonderful here and make sure I have everything I need within easy reach. I can’t put the pieces on the walls but they are surrounding me and that brings me joy. I even got my son involved so he has helped me create my work.

We’ve spoken obviously on the phone and via email before but what strikes us now is just how upbeat and positive you are considering the current situation.

Well I’m certainly trying. I don’t want to dwell on what’s going to happen. I could but I don’t want to waste what precious time I have left. I’ve accepted the situation and now want to make sure I make the most of it the best that I can.

We totally understand and it seems you have an incredible support system through your family and friends?

They are amazing and I get phone calls regularly but I am here a lot on my own. Because of COVID restrictions it means visiting is only for family and only at certain times so I do spend quite a bit of time on my own. I’m also on steroids so it means I don’t get much sleep so again rather than get angry with the situation I spend the time writing letters, my journal, replying to emails etc.

Helen is a huge Craig David fan, so her friends organised an online meeting with the pop star.

But without my family and friends this whole journey would have been so much harder. Even though I can’t see them all as much as I’d like, I know they are there for me and would do anything and just knowing that has really helped.

One question we always want to ask artists is, what advice would you give to someone who wants to become a successful career artist?

Firstly, I would say you have got to work beyond what you think you should. It has to be something inside you and you need to be 100% committed, not only to find your style but also to network. You need to get yourself out there. You need to spend time on social media marketing your work and building up contacts. I know it’s really tough but you need to reach out to people and build relationships. I appreciate many artists don’t like this aspect of being an artist but in order to become successful as an artist in 2021 you need to do all these things as well as just create.

Helen was recently recognised by the Visual Arts Association for her contribution and commitment to the arts
Helen was recently recognised by the Visual Arts Association for her contribution and commitment to the arts

Personally, using social media platforms to promote my work has helped immensely. I also recommend exhibiting at art fairs where you get to meet potential buyers and network with other artists.

I also think there is too much emphasis on being in galleries. When I first started I was hellbent on getting into galleries but with the internet and social media I’ve been able to establish contacts and buyers myself to the point where 50-60% of my work has been sold directly.

Looking back over the last 6 years, from picking up that leaflet for the art lessons, you’ve achieved so much. But for you personally what stands out?

Gosh, to be honest there’s so much. From doing my first art fair in brick lane, then Roy’s People Art Fair, Talented Art Fair, they’re all personal achievements. Then my work was displayed on a huge digital screen in Manilla of all places! I was also very proud of my work being displayed in London through W1 Curates which is a great organisation. Then I had my work displayed on Hyde Park Corner, and of course being a wild card entrant to the Sky Arts Landscape Artist of the Year in 2019 in Kent.

Helen outside Flannels, Oxford Street, London with her artwork on display called 'Dedication to the NHS' organised by W1 Curates
Helen outside Flannels, Oxford Street, London with her artwork on display called ‘Dedication to the NHS’ organised by W1 Curates

At the end of the day I believe you get out what you put so every event or project I’ve worked on has been exciting and different and each one is a personal achievement.

Absolutely. What we also love is how art can take you on these unexpected journeys. Journeys that you could never imagine. Opportunities that can take in directions you never dreamed of.

Completely, it really is like that. And to, I guess put a finishing touch to this, I never really did see an end goal but what I did want, and what I have fulfilled is, I wanted to fill up people’s walls. What I mean by that is I wanted to paint; to have my work in people’s homes, offices, hospitals and that is what I feel I’ve done which is such a wonderful end goal for me. With regards to my cancer I had also wanted to have an exhibition telling my personal story and Collective Gallery in St Albans gave me the opportunity, and that was a dream come true.

We are immensely proud to showcase some of Helen Lack’s abstract art on CreativeFolk and all proceeds of her work will go to Macmillan Cancer Charity

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