Helder Clara, aged 45, is a self-taught artist who first became involved with Turner Contemporary as a Cultural Ambassador. Subsequently he joined Turner Contemporary’s ‘Studio Group’ (a collaboration of artists and makers) in 2012, which was formed around Maria Nepomuceno’s Tempo para Respirar (Breathing Time). This piece, made up of colourful ropes, beads and an eclectic mix of objects was commissioned for Turner Contemporary’s Sunley Gallery in 2012. The ‘Studio Group’ worked directly with Maria over a period of three weeks. They learned and mastered her techniques to create various elements of the piece and help with its installation. Ultimately, Helder led the group to complete Maria’s installation after her departure. Now, the ‘Studio Group’ are working on his conception, sewing, knitting and knotting together again to create large-scale jellyfish for his installation: Bloom.
Helder showed me to his studio with gentle nods and “hellos” toward other artists along the way. As we reached the door, he tugged at the tentacle of one of his knitted jellyfish, which hung outside. The tentacle was a consolidation of the hands of the ‘Studio Group’. “They are blooming”, he said, looking at me. He was affixing the name of his installation to its makers.
“What I enjoyed most was meeting someone like her and, erm, being part of the creation of that installation”, he said, reflecting on his part in Tempo para Respirar. In making an installation of such expansive scale, Helder told me, there was no sense of ownership of a particular part of it. The hands that threaded, and stitched, and weaved on a weekly basis were more powerful together. As such, every participant in the ‘Studio Group’ became an interminable part of the whole: “Imagine, when the work is finished and displayed, everybody can go in there and say – I helped construct this […] it’s a big statement.”
Being part of something bigger was what Helder saw as the true value of the ‘Studio Group’. He spoke, with unswerving belief about its effect: “If we see someone in the group which is a bit […] depressed, […] we advise, we help each other, it’s wonderful what’s happening there.” Individuals grew in conjunction with the installation. Helder told me about one member who has subsequently created a knitting group of her own. “It’s like she is a different person – she was shy […] and now when you see her, she walks straight – she’s kind of completely vibrant.” It was evident that the colours of the fabric and the clacking of needles worked to weave different paths for many of those whose lives were tied into the ‘Studio Group’. Not only did they make friends and nurture networks, but working with Maria meant that the ‘Studio Group’ gained knowledge and skills: “They can become creative because we’re not just talking about painting a portrait or a landscape, we’re talking about using every day materials…”
It was clear that Maria had suffused the group with her energy: “She put music in the background […] so you would feel like you were in Brazil…” Further, Helder had clearly made a friend whose artistic approach impacted his own. He recounted an occasion subsequent to the project at Turner Contemporary where Maria had asked him to help install one of her pieces at Frieze. A development in their artistic relationship and a new experience for Helder: “Was it exciting being part of it?” I asked. “I don’t know, I felt quite proud actually […] I think it was another step towards our trust…” His pride exuded tacitly, as he remembered being responsible for Maria’s work: “She trusted me to go to Frieze which is one of the most prestigious art fairs…”
That Helder is working with the ‘Studio Group’ on his latest installation is a new departure for him: “It was a progression of my work, working with them […] because there is so many people […], I find it challenging and exciting.” [sic] The number of hands means that the scope of Helder’s art has grown. It has also required a change in his approach, a loosening of his rigour and attachment to minute details. He cannot be pernickety about parts of a piece, if it is to grow so must he. It is here that he channels Maria’s approach: “One of the biggest learning things I got from Maria is ‘there is no problems, you’re creating’.” [sic] This manifests in his new, more adaptable style. In our discussion, he recounted a potential problem. In the ‘Studio Group’, one knitter’s loops were distinctively tighter than the rest, interrupting the symmetry of the bigger picture. The answer? He bought a pair of bigger needles to facilitate a looser loop.
“Empowerment,” he said, robustly. This was the word Helder selected, after much contemplation, to describe how he saw Turner Contemporary. He traced ‘empowerment’ across his experiences: the ‘Studio Group’ had become empowered because of the new skills they had learnt and the friendships they had made; he had become empowered because of his relationship with Maria and being part of her installation. Turner Contemporary was the knot that fastened them all together: “Yeah – empowerment – yeah, I like that word – relating to the Turner, to the Studio Group, to Maria – all three of them – empowerment…” Empowerment stood tall; one strand of it hung as manifestation in the knitted jellyfish just outside the door. I got the impression that Helder was blooming too.
This conversation was conducted and written by Moya Stirrup. To read more of Moya’s conversations for Turner Contemporary, click here.
Moya is an avid conversation conservationist. In April 2013, she initiated a project to capture Margate in conversation. To read her ever expanding archive of distinct voices, each bound by their ties to the town, click here.