Set within an old industrial sewing factory in Melbourne’s multicultural suburb of Brunswick, lives Australian artist Helga Groves. The open plan home reveals its former use with exposed metal pipes in the kitchen and living area and polished concrete flooring. This shelter is a true artist’s home, with an eclectic collection of artworks on display created by Helga, her artist husband Matthew Johnson and works by artist friends. Colors resonate against a backdrop of rugs, books and Scandinavian ceramics that acknowledge her Finnish heritage.
With a love of the wilderness it appears Helga could not be further away from a closeness to nature in her urban dwelling. However, as we inspect closer beyond the metal bars that protect the windows from the street inside her adjoining studio, an orderly treasure trove of specimens from the natural world are uncovered. Striking crystals, lava rocks, stones and coral are the source of inspiration and connection to time spent in extreme natural settings that inform her intuitive and scientifically based artistic practice.
Considered and measured, natural phenomena and places are poetically re-interpreted in her utilitarian studio. Luminous colors referenced from moss, lichen and gemstones find translation in manmade materials. On our visit, Helga shares her interest in geophysics, climactic extremes and topography while discussing artist residencies that have seen her travel from the Australian outback to the northern hemisphere.
This portrait is part of our ongoing collaboration with ZEIT Online who present a special curation of our pictures on ZEIT Magazin Online.
Can you tell me about your home and how you discovered the building?
I live with my husband Matthew and son Remy in a lowset brick factory. The building has three street frontages and is approximately 320 square meters in size. We divided the building into three spaces, one for open plan living and two other spaces as studios. Shortly after moving to Melbourne we bought the factory. We found it around the corner from where we were renting at the time as we were looking for something to buy in the area.
Did you always intend it to be a combined living and working space?
Yes that was the intention. We had been searching for several years for a building big enough to accommodate our needs as artists. Remy was young the time. We had already looked further afield for suitable properties in country Queensland and the southern coast of New South Wales. We actually came close to buying something in those areas, but I realized it was a romantic ideal and knew we’d feel too isolated. When we made the decision to move to Melbourne it was at a time when properties were relatively affordable here and it was more financially viable for us to buy something than to keep renting as we’d been paying double rent for two studios and a living space.
What was the appeal of converting a pre-existing industrial space into a domestic space?
The interior of the factory was one big open space enabling us to convert it to our own design specifications. The large windows along the length of one side of the factory were also part of the appeal, providing plenty of natural light for the living space and studios. The conversion was relatively straight forward. We employed two builders with a good sense of vision and design. There was input from both sides when we planned the configuration of the space and they built it for us.
It only took three months to create a living space, two bedrooms, kitchen, bathroom and studios. We had the ceiling in the living space raised, the existing heating system was reconfigured to reveal the metal pipes as a ceiling feature.
Our approach to setting up the studio area was much simpler, we decided to retain most of the original features of the factory – the industrial ceiling, the fluro lighting etc. A dividing wall and door was installed in the center of the space between the two studios. We had the concrete floor polished throughout the building to retain the industrial look and for practical use as studio flooring.
Can you explain the elevated platform in the bedroom?
The room with the elevated platform is Remy’s bedroom. Matthew renovated it early last year in an attempt to create an environment more suitable for a teenager. He is in his final year of high school and he needed a quiet place to study, so we came up with the idea of the elevated platform as a study nook. He gave us his input into the new design and suggested using wood as the main feature and helped build, sand and varnish the wooden shelving system. It was a team effort.
How long have you lived in Melbourne?
I lived in Queensland until the early 1980s then moved to London for two years. When I came back to Australia I lived in Queensland again briefly before moving to Sydney to go to art school. I lived in Sydney for 14 years. Matthew and I met there and Remy was also born there. We left Sydney in 1997 to live in France for a year and following that we travelled around other parts of Australia doing artist residencies for a few years before settling in Melbourne. We’ve been here for 14 years now.
This is quite a change of scenery for you, from a rural sub tropical atmosphere to that of a built up urban environment. Do you consider yourself a city person these days?
I relate to both environments equally and try to balance my time between city and country life. I travel back to rural Queensland regularly to visit family. I am lucky that I still have the opportunity to maintain that connection and it’s important to me. I do crave being immersed in nature. When I travel overseas I seek out wilderness areas that inform my art practice. However, I chose to live and work in an urban environment for practical reasons. I am totally reliant on public transport because I never learnt to drive a car. As an artist I need to access galleries, framers, art suppliers, printers and Perspex fabricators easily. City living provides all of that for me.
How would you describe the suburb you live in?
I live in the inner city suburb of Brunswick, in amongst a mix of residential and industrial buildings. Brunswick has a history of light industry and textile manufacturing, as a result many artists are attracted to the area because they can find studios here. Brunswick is rapidly changing like many inner city suburbs in the world. Buildings are being re-zoned and high rise apartments are popping up more and more. There are still many lovely old houses in the area with beautiful gardens which creates a nice contrast to the industrial buildings.
What do you love about living here?
I love that fact that I can walk to local amenities and have access to all modes of public transport. Brunswick is an interesting hub of artists, musicians, designers and jewellers. It has great bars, cafes, restaurants, fresh food markets and wholesalers that reflect its cultural diversity, in particular there are many authentic Turkish restaurants in the area. It is one of the most multicultural suburbs I have ever lived in.
Can you explain your family connection to Finland?
I am a first generation Australian and was born in the small town of Ayr in North Queensland. Both of my parents emigrated to Australia as teenagers with their families in the 1950s. My father came from England and my mother from Finland. My maternal grandmother was from Karelia in the eastern part of Finland and my grandfather was from Helsinki in the south. I still have relatives in Finland and have visited the country four times now. I really like Finnish design. I remember my mother always had lovely things from Finland in our house when I was growing up. I too have several key pieces of Marimekko fabric and Iittala ceramics in my own home.
You have many artworks hanging in your home. I can see there are some of your works, and a painting hanging above your dining table by your husband who is also an artist. Do you have any favorite pieces or works that hold a particular story?
Yes we have an eclectic collection of artworks including some indigenous artifacts and contemporary artworks. Several of my works are hanging near the kitchen and there are also some in Remy’s bedroom. We have a major early work of mine hanging above the couch in the living area. The work on the wall above the dining table by Matthew is an early painting of his. Matthew’s father Michael Johnson is also a painter and one of his large paintings features in our living space; a painting he gave Matthew for his 50th birthday.
I have many favorites and our collection exists of artworks we have bought and some that have been given to us over the years. For example a small stripy abstract painting by the late Robert Jacks and two works given to me for my 50th birthday, a black and white photograph by Andrew Curtis and a drawing by Charles Anderson. Another favorite of mine is a piece Matthew bought me when we first met – a small work on paper by the German artist Rebecca Horn. It’s a text piece in the form of a poem written in French, the title is ‘Les Funerailles des instruments No 39’. The poem tells the story of the final moments in the life of a female cricket as she crawls from a hole in the ground, climbs a tree to sing a love song using her legs as the instrument, she plays until she is exhausted then falls from the tree to lay her eggs and then dies. It is a modest artwork.
What is it like to share a profession with your partner?
Matthew and I are mutually supportive of each other’s art practice. We both have to work long hours by ourselves in the studio when we have deadlines to meet however, because we have a good understanding of each other’s practice it makes it easier to keep family life in balance. We tend to work as a team in that regard. Matthew is a colorist so I often seek his advice if I’m undecided about a color combination when I’m painting. He is more prolific than I am and asks my advice during his editing process before an exhibition. We trust each other’s judgement and provide constructive criticism before our works go out into the world.
Your studio is extremely orderly and sparse.
Yes I do generally keep an orderly studio and it looks that way at the moment because I’ve recently finished a body of work that was exhibited at Sutton Gallery in Melbourne. Before I begin a new body of work I organize and clean my studio so I can start again without too much visual distraction – apart from retaining some elements of past works as a reminder of previous developments. My process of working is stage by stage. I keep my oil paints and mediums organized and in color groupings so I can find them easily. Because I make minimal work I attempt to keep my studio dust free so it doesn’t settle on my paintings. My studio is deliberately sparse. It’s quite a big space without partitions. I prefer it that way so I can view my paintings from a distance as well as close up while I’m working on them.
Which artists have influenced you in the past?
Throughout my art practice I have maintained an interest in the works of a range of artists and art movements such as Conceptual art, Minimal and Abstract painting, artists that experiment with unusual materials and address subject matter similar to my own. To name a few – artists such as Robert Ryman, Sol Lewitt, Agnes martin, Francois Morellet, Robert MacPherson, Eva Hesse, Blinky Palermo, Imi knoebel and more recently Roni Horn. I also still find Vija Clemins’ drawings very inspiring.
You reference nature and scientific findings associated with geology and atmospheric conditions in your work. How did this interest in connections to places and environments develop?
After I finished art school I began taking a direct interest in images from old science books revealing elements of the natural world invisible to the naked eye – I made artworks related to that idea. When I first travelled to the northern hemisphere I became more aware of my connection to place and contrasting climates in relation to Australia.
I am interested in climatic extremes and that has reflected in the works I’ve made. I continue to be interested in the nexus between art and science and more recent works I’ve made address the broader subject of geophysics, which is the physics of the earth and it’s environment in space. To make the type of artworks I make it is necessary for me to experience and observe environments first hand.
You have an amazing collection of crystals, stones, coral and other beautiful naturally occurring specimens.
Initially my Finnish Grandfather introduced me to the world of gemstones, he was an engineer with an interest in geology which he pursued when he came to Australia. I began rock collecting when I was very young and have a small leather suitcase in my studio containing those early findings. A vast part of my larger collection has come from places I’ve visited, some of which I have found and some I have bought.
When I travel I look for small specimens from the natural world to bring back to my studio. They become subjects for drawings and animations. For example the lava rocks I brought back from Iceland in 2010 were the subject of a hand drawn animation titled ‘Surface of the Earth’. I also have some rocks I brought back from a coastal scree in Norway – arctic lichen is growing on the surface of the rocks. I used them as subject matter for a series of small sculptures and more recently as color references for my paintings. I like to be reminded of the natural world when I’m in my urban studio.
I really love the way you isolate seemingly unnatural colors from nature – for example the iridescent high note palette of lichen – and then transpose this into a man-made artificial materials while retaining an organic form. There is a wonderful tension between the natural and unnatural, organic and fabricated in your work. Would you agree?
Yes, I’ve used transparent materials such as Perspex and fishing line to make artworks for many years now. I select colors that reflect the natural world in a more heightened or exaggerated way – it’s my artistic licence. The colors of these materials are already prescribed and carry their own integrity. The iridescent colors may look unnatural but they do echo some of the colors I’ve seen in the natural world. It’s surprising how brilliantly iridescent deep sea jellyfish are for example. The tension that occurs in my work has to do with the ambiguity between the simultaneous references to science and nature in relation to the materials and the subject matter.
You work across a range of media such as painting, drawing, sculpture, animation, installation and sound, and use a diverse array of different techniques. What is your preferred tool or medium when making work?
That’s a tricky question because I like to experiment with materials and enjoy working in all mediums. I majored in painting at art school. Since then painting has remained my primary medium and continues to inform my approach to the range of media I employ. I’ve always found drawing extremely satisfying because it is so immediate and is a medium just as embedded in my art practice as painting.
You have worked on a large commission and been awarded some international residencies. Are there any projects that you are especially proud of?
I have been very fortunate and am proud of the fact that I won the Moet and Chandon Australian Art Fellowship in 1997. I was a young mother at the time and it gave me the opportunity to live and work in France with my family for twelve months, followed by a solo exhibition at Baudion Lebon in Paris. I also feel extremely privileged to have been awarded the opportunity to create a major commission for a new Children’s Hospital opening in Brisbane this year, it has been a rewarding experience. Having a solo exhibition at Gitte Weise Gallery in Berlin was a milestone in my career and receiving the Australia Council residency to Finland in 2010 was a significant personal achievement. That experience helped strengthen my connection to my cultural background and provided a rich source of inspiration for several series of artworks I have since created.
Where have your travels taken you over the years?
I have travelled quite extensively throughout my life within Australia and abroad. In Australia I’ve undertaken research trips as far west as Broome and the Kimberley and as far north as Cooktown. My first artist residency took me to Hanoi in Vietnam. I’ve been to New York twice and travelled throughout the UK and in relation to other residencies several times to Spain, Italy and France. More recently to Iceland, Finland, Russia and Norway.
Do you have any goals you are working towards or projects you would like to fulfill into the future?
I have several unconfirmed projects on the horizon for 2015. I am always planning new work and I’m beginning a new series of shaped paintings. The next major project I want to pursue is to travel to America to research the geology of New York State, to visit some of the National Parks and natural history museums and to create a new series of paintings and projected animations based on my research.
Helga thank you so much for inviting us into your living and working space and discussing your artistic practice with us. Your sensitivity to your profession is inspirational. To find out more about Helga’s work visit her website here.
View more portraits from Melbourne creatives on FvF here.
Photography: Mary Gaudin
Interview & Text: Rachael Vance