Five minutes with Scarborough artist Helen Birmingham

Local Scarborough artist Helen Birmingham with her cat Dr Johnson
Local Scarborough artist Helen Birmingham with her cat Dr Johnson

Helen Birmingham

Helen lives in Belle Vue Parade with her cat Dr Johnson and has one daughter Hannah who lives in Cambridge.

Her home doubles as an art gallery which she calls Untangled Threads.
She has been a full-time art teacher.

Helen is also involved with Scarborough Poetry Workshop which hosts monthly open mic nights for poets, storytellers and musicians at Woodend.

Once the 1,568 Sawdust Hearts exhibition ends Helen will be concentrating on another art show called 100 Timepieces to coincide with next year’s Coastival event.

Please tell me about yourself:

I’m Helen Birmingham, a mixed-media and textile artist. I run my own business Untangled Threads in Scarborough.

Tell me about how you discovered art and what inspired you to be an artist

I’m not sure that I did really ‘discover’ art. My mother was an art teacher, so it was just part of life; there were books and art all around from before I can remember.

I suppose if anything, you could say that it was by ‘osmosis’ rather than a ‘discovery’.

Whose work do you most admire, and why:

That is such a hard question. It’s virtually impossible to pick just one artist. I’m going to say Leonardo da Vinci, although it isn’t a clear cut decision.

Leonardo was a genius who excelled in so many disciplines it’s virtually impossible not to admire him, or at least be in awe of his genius. Seeing his notebooks in an exhibition made an enormous impact on me, knowing that they were directly produced by his hand, I felt a tangible connection to him, the man.

The notebooks are filled with amazing drawings and diagrams, and are covered with notes written in mirror writing - a real insight into an amazing mind.

You have the chance to go to an art gallery anywhere in the world to see and meet an artist (living or dead). Who would it be and why?

I would love to meet Gustav Vigland in the studio (and now gallery) which is dedicated to his work in Oslo. There is a whole park laid out with his monumental sculptures, which I have visited and sketched in several times.

Although you can read about, and see, how his work was made, I would have loved the chance to talk to him about it personally, and to have seen some of the work being made and the process of erecting them in the park.

Tell me about your 1,568 Sawdust Hearts project:

The intention of the project was to commemorate the centenary of Armistice Day, to recognise the origins of occupational therapy in this country, and also to raise much needed funds for Combat Stress, the veterans’ mental health charity.

The project took as its starting point the inspirational work instigated by Queen Mary at the end of World War One, namely sweetheart pincushions, which were pinned by soldiers as part of their convalescence.

I made 1,568 sawdust filled calico hearts, one to represent each day of the Great War and then asked artists, needleworkers and crafters to decorate and return them.

Every heart will be represented in the exhibition at Woodend in November, and in the limited edition catalogue, which is the culmination of collaboration and shared emotion on a huge scale.

I am enormously proud of what I have achieved with the help and support of literally hundreds of people from across the country.

Why do you think that art makes good therapy?

I like this quotation ascribed to the Greek philosopher, Aristotle (384-322 BC): “The aim of art is to represent not the outward appearance of things, but their inward significance.”

For fun

Holiday – home or away?

Definitely home. I don’t like to be too far away from my own bed. If I do go away, I feel the need to recreate ‘home’ when I get there anyway.

What is the song that means the most to you?

Songs choose you I think, rather than you choose the song. The one which chose me is Honesty by Billy Joel. Ironic? Yes I think so.

How do you switch off?

I’m not sure that is something which I ever do very successfully. I’m a bit all or nothing.

My mind is always busy, and I tend to keep working until exhaustion, physical or mental, forces me to collapse.

Not a very healthy way to live, but one which I’ve got used to over the years. It’s a bit manic and a bit obsessive, and very difficult for others to live with, but it seems to work for me.

Three things you love about Scarborough.

My home, my friends and the sea.

How would you like to be remembered?

I’d like to be remembered as someone who always tried to do the right thing.

1,568 Sawdust Hearts runs at Woodend in The Crescent, Scarborough, until Saturday November 30.

Each heart is decorated with the theme of World War One and everyone is different.

Catalogues have been produced to accompany the exhibition with the names of the creators of each pincushion and the stories behind some of them.

The gallery is open each Monday to Friday from 9am to 5pm and each Saturday and Sunday from 10am to 4pm.Entry is free.