Artist on File: Helen Robinson

This month Freya Davies interviewed Helen Robinson, stained glass artist at her studio in Harpenden.

I recently had the pleasure of visiting Oriel Glass Studio, home of accomplished stained glass artist Helen Robinson. Back when I was a student myself at a local school, I had the privilege to work with Helen on a solo piece as part of my art studies. Having thoroughly enjoyed the experience and grateful for the opportunity to experience a craft that is not readily available, I returned to see Helen keen to learn more about how her work had developed in the interim years and how the economic downturn may have affected the direction of the stained glass craft.

Helen is extremely warm and welcoming and a keen conversationalist, unsurprising since the ability to listen, understand and attend to the desires of her clients is one of the most important skills she utilises to understand their taste. So with a cup of tea and a blizzard threatening outside, we sat down together to discuss Helen’s origins and how she began her career in stained glass.

Growing up in Manchester with a church architect father, it is perhaps inevitable that Helen’s interests lie in the historic and appropriately periodic storytelling of glasswork. She comments that “stained glass is one of the last remaining skilled examples of what things must have looked like or how they would’ve been.” Despite this thorough knowledge of religious and historical periodical art, one shouldn’t presume that it dominates her work; Helen’s portfolio – or rather her volume of five portfolios and hundreds of commissions – are also full of modern pastels, geometric shapes and landscapes.

Art was a rather unstructured subject during Helen’s school studies; practically ignored since it was regarded as a subject that couldn’t possibly provide a career, let alone a business. So it is perhaps due to this undirected approach that when Helen’s mother suggested becoming a nurse, because she was “good at folding towels,” Helen followed suit. Ultimately, Helen served over twenty years as a proficient nurse in the intensive care unit before having children, after whose arrival she decided to give up part-time work. The moves Helen made next – attending a summer school in stained glass at Manchester University in 1991, attending night school at the Workers’ Educational Association, and ultimately graduating from Central St Martins College of Art and Design in 2003 – have allowed her to turn her stained glass hobby, with its humble beginnings in her parents’ garage, into a successful business.

Understanding Helen’s interest in the disciplined art of stained glass allows for a greater appreciation of the art itself: the range of techniques, materials, equipment and contextual knowledge amalgamated into a suitable, perfect piece of glass work is certainly a daunting catalogue. Perhaps it is the lack of financial funds that have contributed toward the dwindling interest in the craft. Other current downfalls of the stained glass industry include the diminishing quality of the glass used and the preference for more casual contemporary techniques that save on time and cost. When I enquired as to what Helen’s opinion was regarding the popularity of stained glass today, especially with younger generations, Helen explains that she believes that “people associate the medium with religious artefacts and decoration, an association that many people can’t help but think of negatively.”

What impresses me about Helen is the pride with which she regards her work. Obviously it is desirable for all of us to take pride in our work, especially artists, for whom making a career and business from their craft may be a frustrating, drawn-out prospect. Yet Helen’s enthusiasm is contagious and her keenness to share her knowledge is heartening. She channels this tutorial spirit into her work as an occasional tutor at West Dean College where in August she will run a seven day summer school for adults, offering the opportunity to learn basic techniques and design and implement them on an individual piece. Countless times she has been embroiled in the various art-weeks within local schools in her area, such as Sir John Lawes, Kimpton Primary School and Abbey Primary School. These workshops have often yielded quite beautiful murals and mosaics that have enlivened the study environment.

Abandoning our teas, Helen leads the way to her studio, a professional space of her own where examples of her work decorate the walls and windows. The unrelenting snow outside provides a muted backdrop against which her work shines. I always think of it as quite a privilege to be allowed into an artist’s own space and it is very much Helen’s space. A work in progress is laid out on the island bench in the middle of the studio and one wall on the immediate left bears the brunt of various pictures of previous work and inspirational images and colours. It offers a perspective into Helen’s commendable taste.

One particular image catches my eye: Going for Gold. Hung against a window, the square composite features a human figure clutching a discus; reminiscent of Myron’s Discobulus. Based on a model provided by her heptathlete brother, this prize-winning artwork was displayed during the 2012 ‘GAMES’ glass exhibition at the University of Swansea, in association with the British Society of Master Glass Painters, of which Helen is an associate and a member of their Council. Woven into the golden yellow anatomical muscles are words associated with the training and gold medal-winning achievements of such athletic figures: sure, courage, focus, zeal, and so on so forth.

Zeal is definitely a quality with which Helen approaches her daily work as she finds herself developing with the challenges of, particularly domestic, commissions. Complying with building regulations on newly-built houses means regarding safety and thermal guidelines, as well as triple glazing windows. But despite these limitations, Helen says that some of her “best results” come from clients who first and foremost approach Helen “because they like my work, I can understand their taste, and then they leave me alone!” It appears that those clients who recognise and respect the discipline and knowledge of the stained glass artist almost always obtain the most desirable pieces.

I certainly agree with Helen when we speak of how stained glass is occasionally over-looked or taken for granted in religious or public institutions or perhaps plays second fiddle to more aggressive art in the forefront. But it is important to recognise the dedication needed to create this art, as well as the satisfaction it can offer by building something so unique. As an enthused Helen hurls words such as ‘carteuche’, ‘leaded light’, ‘diaspora’ and ‘helation’ into our conversation, I find myself increasingly humbled by just how much I don’t know about stained glass. What is apparent is that the combination of beauty and science in Helen’s artwork certainly makes her a credit to the traditional discipline and intelligence keeping this artistic craft alive.

by FREYA DAVIES

For more information on Helen Robinson’s work at Oriel Glass Studio, please contact her via oriel.glass@btinternet.com or visit her website at www.orielglassstudio.co.uk. She is also an active member of the HVA and her gallery is accessible via the HVA website: www.hvaf.org.uk/Helen-Robinson/gallery.

Advertisements