Meet the Auckland artist whose colourful artwork is seen in homes all over the world

After two decades away, an art school graduate returned to a lost love, creating beautiful abstract paintings from her studio in Titirangi

A backpacking trip with a friend to Kenya and Uganda when she was 22 tapped into Helen Dean’s adventurous spirit. It was an enormous cultural contrast to life in the English coal-mining village where she was born and raised.

“Visiting the developing world at this age had a big impact and led to my interest in working with migrant communities,” says Auckland-based artist Helen, who also teaches English to refugees and migrants.

After finishing art school, she travelled and worked in France and Spain before taking off on another big trip, this time to South America travelling through Brazil, Argentina and Paraguay. Helen settled back in the United Kingdom, living in London for the first time. It was here she met her Kiwi partner Tony Drumm and how she ultimately landed in New Zealand in 2004.

These days home for Helen, Tony and their daughter Albertine, 11, is a 1950s house in the bush at Titirangi, Auckland. It is also the place where she began to paint again seriously for the first time since art school. “Titirangi is a lovely place to live. It has a village centre and a friendly community where you can bump into people you know. And it’s close to both the beaches and city.”

Were you always creative?
I always loved to draw and paint growing up. I went to art school to study painting but the reality was that I left knowing how to paint but knowing nothing about how to be an artist. So I ended up teaching English, which allowed me to travel and work overseas. I always thought I would get back to making art again someday.

How did you turn your passion for art into a full-time job?
I’m not quite there yet – I still do a few hours each week teaching English to refugees and migrants. In 2015, after we moved to Titirangi, I started creating small colour studies and posting them on Instagram. Through this I met other creatives from around the world and really enjoyed being part of an online community. After a year or so people started asking to buy my work. I made my own website and started selling paintings to people in the UK, US and Australia. When I started creating larger pieces, shipping costs pushed me to focus on the New Zealand market. So I switched my focus to participating in Auckland art shows, and taking part in open studio events.

Over the last couple of years I’ve reduced my teaching hours and spent more time on my art, and now my work is available at a couple of great galleries, as well as on my website. I have also done commissions and have worked with interior designers to create artwork for specific spaces.

What influences and inspires your work?
So many things. It is often the beauty of colour combinations in everyday life. It might be a yellow bag left next to a wall casting a mauve shadow, or driving along I might see rust-coloured leaves at the side of the road and the dust-covered quarry truck in front that has neon orange reflectors. Another influence is my immediate environment, the light and shadow of the native bush. The forms appear in my paintings, though I don’t try to reproduce them. I’m also influenced by a lot of graphic art and textile design, especially hard-edged shapes and the kind of flat colour you find in screen printing. I’m drawn to cheerful, playful designs that look like cut-outs and I often find this coming out in my paintings. When it comes to painters, then it’s the abstract expressionists of the ’40s and ’50s that have resonated most with me. There are so many female artists of that period, which I was only aware of later in life like Grace Hartigan, Mary Abbott and Yvonne Thomas. As well as Matisse for colour, he’s so inspiring.

How important is having your own studio at home?
Very important. After beginning painting again, I realised after a while that I needed a dedicated space, so we converted the large downstairs bedroom to a painting studio.

Do you have a favourite subject?
As a non-representational painter I don’t really have a subject matter – it’s all about the paint and what I can do with it.

What’s the biggest challenge?
Because of the way I paint, I don’t know how a finished painting is going to look when I begin. There is a middle stage where I feel like I’m getting nowhere and I can start to overthink everything and that’s where self-doubt can come in. In the past this would derail me, but lately I’ve realised that this is something my paintings go through and I need to keep going. I tell myself it will work out in the end.

And the best part?
I love that moment when I take a risk in a painting by doing something bold and it just works, and I know the painting is complete. It feels so exciting – nothing compares.

What have learned from working for yourself?
As an emerging artist I’ve discovered I need to be the website designer, the marketing department, social media manager, the shipping department, the photographer, the accountant and more. I’ve had to learn so many new skills, but over the years I’ve realised that you can find out most things by googling to find a tutorial. As it has developed and grown, I’ve found I can’t rely on remembering things or writing things on scraps of paper. I’ve learnt that having systems in place makes everything easier.

What role does social media play in your work and how do you navigate it?
I’m active on Instagram and I use it to share my work in progress, as well as things like going to the framers or work that’s in a show. I don’t post every day and don’t have a strategy, but I enjoy sharing there and I’ve had genuine conversations with strangers who have become online friends. I find that art and interiors communities are really supportive. I try to confine my Instagram use to a specific time of the day, and sometimes even set a timer of 15 minutes. Otherwise, it’s so easy for me to start mindlessly scrolling.

What is it about your work that gets you excited?
The beginning of a new series is exciting, or when I’m using a new technique. But also new opportunities, doing things I haven’t done before. I like to say yes to things that sound exciting.

How do you juggle being a full-time artist with staying connected to family and friends?
For the first few years it was hard to find enough time for everything. I was teaching, and Albertine was at primary school, so I used to sit up late at night trying to get things done and would spend any free time at weekends on my painting. Things have become easier since painting has become more my main work during the weekdays. Now I can keep weekends free for family and friends.

Anything in the pipeline?
Yes, I’ve been creating a new body of work for an exhibition, which opens July 29 at Turua Gallery in St Heliers, where I’ll be exhibiting with a sculptor, John Allen.

How do you define success?
I think it’s when you get to do what you are passionate about, make your own decisions about how you organise your time and still get opportunities to experience new things.

Does your work make your happy?
Yes, definitely. Painting offers me a place for unpredictability, spontaneity and risk taking, and this has had a good effect on my life in general. My life has also become much richer from the connections I’ve formed since taking up painting again – people I work with, collectors and the other artists I’ve met. I can’t believe I get to do this for a job now – yes, so happy. My 22-year-old self would be pleased with how it’s turned out.

Words by: Leanne Moore. Photography by: Babiche Martens.

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