‘Art is cathartic: it’s what got me through this crisis’

Helen outside her garden studio. Image: Helen Lack

Helen outside her garden studio. Image: Helen Lack - Credit: Helen Lack

Internationally-acclaimed abstract artist Helen Lack describes how painting helped her fight cancer

Pink Haven. Image: Helen Lack

Pink Haven. Image: Helen Lack - Credit: Helen Lack

The past 12 months have, for Helen Lack, been defined by two journeys. One, an art career, fledgling, yet increasingly recognised with awards and international acclaim. And the other, illness. On return from an ‘amazing’ family holiday in Australia, Helen was diagnosed with triple negative breast cancer, an aggressive strain that demands ongoing and invasive treatment.

‘It’s been a traumatic year,’ she admits. ‘During my lumpectomy the surgeon had to sever a nerve which means I’m numb between my shoulder and elbow, making painting tricky because my work is energetic, full of movement, texture and vitality.’

The operation took place on her 54th birthday. Yet despite the physical restrictions and an imminent round of radiotherapy, Helen’s positivity is energising. Cancer has informed her art rather than restricted it, presenting her abstract style with an opportunity to be ever more progressive. The paintings she produced in the aftermath of her operation Helen entitled her Healing images. The latest batch, illustrative, spontaneous and loose, reflect the increasing strength of the artist. And although painting was initially a distraction from the disease, Helen says she was always determined to ‘paint my way’ through the illness.

The artist, who lives in Aldenham, took up painting five years ago, but already a maturity of style is evident. Previously, as a fashion photographer, she was based in London, and then Australia for two years before returning to the UK and eventually settling in her home county with her husband Chris and three children. At a point in her life when she felt ‘something was missing’ she enrolled on an art course. It sparked a new creative passion.

Untitled. Image: Helen Lack

Untitled. Image: Helen Lack - Credit: Helen Lack

‘Each week in class we’d do something different. Then I’d go home and do extra work. In the end the tutor told me I needed to do my own thing. I was raring to go!’

Within a few months an exhibition at the Gordon Craig Theatre in Stevenage was followed by sales at London art fairs. She is currently represented by Italian and American art agencies having won the International Prize Botticelli in 2019 for artistic merit, presented at the Borghese Palace in Florence. And in the same year was included in the Best Modern and Contemporary Artists book.

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‘I have worked hard for this,’ she says. ‘It doesn’t land on your lap. You have to go that extra mile and be confident.’

Many of Helen’s large-format landscapes are created on recycled board though she also favours canvas. Aluminium, glass, ‘and maybe slate’, are future possibilities. Lengthy drying time aside, oils are appreciated for their mixing properties and ‘incredible texture’. She uses acrylics, too, and sometimes watercolour and charcoal, and intends trying oil sticks and pastels.

Healing 3. Image Helen Lack

Healing 3. Image Helen Lack - Credit: Helen Lack

In her small studio at the bottom of the garden – ‘a private place, I never go in there unless I’m going to paint’ – each painting is completed in one sitting, without a break; lengthy concentration periods neither fazing nor deterring her. And while many titles for pieces ‘come straight away’, should one not be forthcoming, Helen is content to leave the piece untitled. She is a fan of the Impressionists - their style, brush strokes and romanticism.

Does she take much note of the competition in the contemporary art landscape? And how would she describe her art?

‘Good questions,’ she responds. ‘There are many artists out there and I’ve now branded myself as myself. I feel I’m gaining a real community behind me. I paint from the heart and soul, my paintings sharing emotions and feelings, almost like a reality show running through my art.’

After the capital and the other side of the world, living in a small Herts village suits her down to the ground. ‘This is really home,’ Helen smiles, ‘And we love visiting Ashridge and Verulamium Park and nearby Radlett.’

Healing. Image: Helen Lack

Healing. Image: Helen Lack - Credit: Helen Lack

Now in remission but with medical treatment ongoing and an awareness that the disease could recur in the next two years, Helen’s upbeat nature continues to fuel her focus and ambition. She shares her need to ‘paint bigger’ and the possibility of breaking out from the flat surface to installations. Reluctant at this stage to divulge more, she nevertheless enthuses about a long-term plan to explore boundaries and mediums while growing her audience here in the UK as well as internationally. ‘I like the idea of my work changing, evolving. Art is cathartic; it’s what has got me through this crisis.’