Visitors to Chichester Festival Theatre can’t fail to notice the soaring sculpture of flying birds in the foyer of the Minerva building. Inspired by the swirling starling murmurations often seen at dusk at Brighton Pier, the work created from aluminium vividly encapsulates how Helen Solly’s new-found career has taken off.

Helen’s original plans to go to university and study textile design were put on hold when she was scouted by the Storm model agency and, at the age of 19, flown to Tokyo to take part in a car campaign. She strutted the catwalk and appeared in magazines such as Elle for the next 12 years, even modelling for parenting magazines after marrying and having her first child.

‘Then, having three more children, life got too busy, and I mainly spent my time raising the children with no time for art,’ she says. It wasn’t until 2021 that Helen was finally able to focus on her sculptures and is now a full-time artist.

Great British Life: The former fashion model swapped designer clothes for a boiler suit to create her metal art.The former fashion model swapped designer clothes for a boiler suit to create her metal art. (Image: Helen Solly)

‘The fashion and art worlds are quite closely related as they are all about design and colour,’ reflects Helen, 53, in her studio next to her Chichester home. ‘I was doing A-Levels when I was scouted so I didn’t do my planned degree as they said you’ve got to do modelling now while you’re young.’

It was, she concedes, a dream job at the time and she worked with the world’s top design houses including Christian Dior, John Galliano and Nicole Farhi along with British designers such as Jenny Packman - a favourite with Catherine, Princess of Wales - who designed Helen’s wedding dress. But she always planned to return to her original ambition of going to university to study design. And in 2017 Helen achieved her latent ambition when she embarked on a Fine Art with Sculpture course at Chichester University as a mature student, gaining a first class degree.

‘I enjoyed working in 3D and experimenting with different materials such as wood, plaster, metal, recycled materials, and I also made several bronze sculptures,’ she says. ‘I collaborated with the different university departments to produce a performance where dancers and original music composition interacted with my sculpture designs. Attending Chichester University allowed me to pursue my new career and still juggle my busy home life.’

Great British Life: One of Helen’s pieces entitled ConnectedOne of Helen’s pieces entitled Connected (Image: Helen Solly)

Helen says she was drawn to metal because she wanted to do something different and test herself in the process. ‘I challenged myself for my degree show to make everything out of flat sheets of metal and then create movement and make the sculptures look quite delicate even though they were made from big heavy sheets of steel,’ she says. ‘A lot of pieces are cut and folded, almost like doing origami, and not many people are doing what I do.

‘One of my first sculptures was made from rusty nails welded together to make a phoenix. The nails had come from a bonfire at my parents’ farm and the phoenix literally rose from the ashes and my new career was born. I also made an angel from the Chichester Cathedral roof when they were replacing the copper with lead. There are always challenges when something doesn’t go to plan, but when it is finally worked out it is very satisfying to look at what I have created.’

Nowadays Helen has no regrets about swapping designer clothes for her workday wear of a boiler suit, heavy duty gloves and goggles. In 2021 she was shortlisted for the Lady Petchey Sculpture Prize for emerging female artists, the sculpture element of the prestigious Holly Bush Painting Prize. Her extraordinary hand-made sculptures can now be found in public spaces and private collections as well as being widely exhibited in Sussex and further afield including the recent Chelsea Design Quarter’s autumn arts trail in London, Henley Festival, Suffolk stately home Helmingham Hall and Ramster Gardens in Surrey.

Great British Life: Helen at workHelen at work (Image: Helen Solly)

A huge amount of physical and conceptual work goes into her sculptures, which are often inspired by walks by the sea near the home she shares with husband Richard and her children aged 14 – 21. ‘I love walking along the coast and kayaking,’ says Helen who likes working on a grand scale.

Her sculptures begin with a paper maquette, or model, and are then scaled up onto metal sheets before she folds, welds and burnishes metal to create the finished sculpture. ‘I mainly work in stainless steel and powder coated steel but have also worked with aluminium and copper,’ she says. ‘I often burnish the surface to create different reflective patterns. I have to be careful not to spend too many hours at one time doing metalwork as my hands can start to ache and I can only use my plasma cutter and angle grinder for a few hours a day. The metal work process is very physical, so I enjoy keeping fit by swimming in the local pool and I go in the sea in the summer when it is warmer.

‘When I’m not in the studio I might be out sourcing materials and for each job there are also a lot of meetings to talk about and plan the sculptures. When I am in the studio it’s just me, then I enjoy the social side of my work when I am taking part in exhibitions and having private views when I invite people along.’

Great British Life: Helen wants to create legacy pieces for people to treasureHelen wants to create legacy pieces for people to treasure (Image: Helen Solly)

Helen sources her materials locally and normally they are used for a very different purpose. ‘I get metal from a place where there are big burly men making oil tanks,’ she says with a smile. ‘Then I turn up and ask for a bit of metal and the contrast is amusing when they ask me what I’m going to make and I tell them it’s for a flower or something.’

Helen sells her work through her website (, exhibitions and commissions, which include a second piece for Chichester Festival Theatre which will be completed later this year. It is inspired by a project called Identity and Sound, which has also involved pupils from the city’s Broadfield Primary Academy where Helen ran some art workshops creating willow and paper masks.

Her work spans large outdoor sculptures - the largest 6m tall by 1m (19.6ft by 3.3ft) and smaller pieces for the home starting from 50cm (19in), with prices ranging from £400 to £4,000 depending on the size and material.

Great British Life: Helen loves to work on a grand scaleHelen loves to work on a grand scale (Image: Helen Solly)

‘Some of my work is already made and people can view it and buy that actual piece or if someone approaches me then they have a say in the design. I made one for a family in Chichester who wanted a large stainless steel piece for their garden wall so I went back to them with various designs and they chose one. That is a nice process as it is something people have a hand in and have influenced. I also like the freedom of making what I want and then hopefully people will like it afterwards.’

Helen says she appreciates the longevity of metal and the legacy her sculptures will leave. ‘They will be there long after me,’ she adds. ‘Because I came to this later, you think of it in a slightly different way than if I was 20 and starting out. I want to make really high-quality beautiful pieces and I want them to last. People can buy something laser cut in China, but that’s not what I’m about. I’m creating hand-made pieces and the time and energy I put into them means they are all individual, unique and different. I am not interested in making thousands of pieces, I want the ones I make to be treasured and become heirlooms for whoever buys them.’

See Helen’s sculptures at Oxmarket Contemporary gallery, Chichester, October 1-13.