Helen Britton is a multidisciplinary Australian artist based in Munich, Germany. Her practice creates jewelry and objects, drawings, stencils, and installations, and is informed by popular culture and folk art, disappearing traditions on the backdrop of a strong underlying influence of her natural Australian environment. Originally from Western Australia she received her Master of Fine Arts from Curtin University including studies at the Sandberg Institute, Amsterdam, and San Diego State University, California. She currently works and lives in Munich, Germany. Since completing her postgraduate study at the Academy of Fine Arts in Munich her work has been seen in museums and galleries around the world.
Flowers and Stars
Helen Britton’s recent jewelry series, Flowers and Stars, was started last year at the beginning of the pandemic. In line with her intimate sculptural works and tender and dreamlike drawings, this jewelry series gathers ruins and relics that in Helen’s hands start to radiate and thrive. This growth bore delectable fruit in the form of these exuberant neckpieces, above.
“I would love to be able to make simple things and perhaps the chasing of this wish is what drives me on. With this recent group of pieces, I thought to pursue my dream with the straightforward form of the bead necklace. Drawing from my archive, I selected components collected over my lifetime, literally since my childhood, to begin anew with this ancient form. In the most difficult phase of the pandemic, performing the task of arranging beads in lines to create sequences of color and texture was a calming, mediative exercise. However, practice is an entangled encounter of energies, processes, and materials that rub up against each other and shift in equal capacities, where I am consciously aware of how deeply embedded I am in the entirety of experience, time and materiality. Produced on all continents, from the widest variety of materials, under circumstances and for purposes ranging from idyllic to horrendous the beads began to tell me their stories, recounting the ontological inseparability of all entities in the world. This simple form connects libraries of information, strung along these lines of string.
Helen Britton July 2021
A recipient of the renowned Herbert Hofmann prize for excellence in contemporary jewelry and the state prize of Bavaria for craftsmanship, Britton was honored by The Neue Sammlung in Munich with a 2013 solo exhibition at the Neues Museum, Nürnberg, Germany. This exhibition included over 20 years of Britton’s work. That same year she was awarded the Förder Preis of the city of Munich, and in 2014 was artist in residence at Villa Bengel in Idar-Oberstein. The 2017 exhibition Intersticies at The Lawrence Wilson Art Gallery, UWA, Western Australia was a complete overview of Britton’s practice in conjunction with the Festival of Perth, including her large-scale drawing works, Ghost Train installation, and a selection of small sculpture and objects. In 2019 Helen Britton was made Adjunct Professor of RMIT University in Melbourne and in 2020 she was invited by the Bavarian Chamber of Crafts to curate Schmuck for the International Handwerksmesse. In 2021 Elena Alvarez-Lutz released her documentary film Hunter from Elsewhere, A Journey with Helen Britton at Dok.Fest Munich. Helen’s work is held in the public collections of LACMA (Los Angeles County Museum of Art), National Gallery of Australia, The Pinakothek der Modern, Munich, The Schmuck Museum Pforzheim, The Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam, the Museum of Fine Art Boston, The Metropolitan Museum, New York, The Hermatige, St Petersburg and The Victoria and Albert Museum, London among others.
2019 Arachne’s Garden (solo exhibition)
2018 special project | Devils and their Friends II
2017 Helen Britton | Interstices Lawrence Wilson Art Gallery, University of Western Australia
2016 Wildstone (solo exhibition)
2015 special project | Devils and their Friends I
2014 special project | Awkward Beauty T-Shirts
2012 Cornucopia (solo exhibition)
…Violence, love, riches, sentimentally, humour, wisdom, the exotic, the precious, the rare; a friendly small companion, a lucky charm, an amulet. Hope. The small and the large refrain. While the components themselves are in the form of the cheapest trinket, the sentiment that they intend to convey reaches into the deepest abyss. Primal concerns. These components have come bubbling out of the history of humanity and have drifted around the planet collecting along the tidelines of human activity.
There truly are great piles of these kinds of components, stacked boxes full, all glittering and jittering and demanding attention with their giggle, their glint, and their snarl. These accumulated inhabitants of the jungle of material emotions. How did they come about? What were the circumstances of their production? Did they change anything? Did they help? Where did the impetus come from to embark on their production?
I see in these components all the effort, humour, joy and failure of our existence. They seek out in the most unpretentious way everything that has driven our species since time immemorial, right back down to plastic versions of shells so very similar to those found in the Blombos cave, strung together 70 thousand years ago.
All this trailing baggage of history and theory, I leave at the door of my studio. It clutters. The concept has been long since internalized. The components will continue to tell their stories anyway, so for me they then become raw materials that challenge and stretch my powers of creation. The work in the studio is a process of direct, intuitive, integration and construction, an open-ended experiment. I am not trying to dictate what the work will then say. I am conscious of what I have chosen to incorporate, but am completely immersed in my own process of reinvention and creation that lies well outside the limited boundaries of verbalization.
Curiosity, Sentimentality, Compassion, Empathy. Recognition of the continuum of human inventiveness and creativity. It’s all about the great cornucopia of jewellery. Jewellery, containing this and now waiting to be worn…
Increasingly known for her installations and unique presentations, Helen Britton is changing the way we look at jewelry when it is on and off the body.
It is not hard to imagine that the infant Helen Britton lay in a cradle looking up at a mobile of plastic parts floating above her and will spend the rest of her life trying to recreate that object and more importantly, the feeling it gave her. In the abstracted and simultaneously narrative plastic objects she uses we see childhood: curiosity, joy, pain and love. Wishes and dreams. Sadness. A sense that there is little division between the world we live in and the one we came from. Helen’s work is built up from the detritus of our collective memories. Each piece is an enchanted world intended to bewitch us into finding the beauty and story in things that were forgotten.
Helen Britton has an autodidacts approach to her work. Contemplative and intensely absorbed in the process, she attains technical acuity as she needs it. Asking a question and then finding and making the answer. This passion to always continue learning and growing and an almost athletic outlook on her work sustains her. She has stated that she does not consider herself an Australian jeweler – or at least that she doesn’t identify as one. To agree with this is to dismiss what to me is so unique about being born of a country that has strong emotional and physical ties to its indigenous culture both good and bad, past and present. Wherever she is she relates to things that have been lost. She searches them out. German stones carved in the 1940’s by disregarded hands, collections of plastic parts pilled up and long forgotten in a warehouse in the States. By bringing these pieces together she finds them again, cares for them, loves them and gives them a new life and home. That the work goes out into the world and be worn, handled, breathed on and cared for is the completion of the original idea. The imagery! Horses, owls, shimmering diamonds, devils, chains, sharks, knives. The color! Robust oranges, buttery yellows and neon green take a seat next to institutional gray and matted steel. It is the stuff of childhood nightmares and dreams. Instead of counting sheep to fall asleep I imagine she sees dazzling carousel horses jumping the gate and galloping out past the fairground to the fields.
Surface patterns infuse her much of her work and not unlike the way Aboriginal forms and configurations of symbols give spiritual significance to a wall, the sand or the body, the patterns give her work a sense of continuity and hint at a desire in the artist to map and document the surface. Through this mapping, a language is created and the work is intentionally infused each step of the way by her hand. That the piece become jewelry and when activated on the body, transforms the wearer is an extension of this same Aboriginal thought, that human touch and symbol can imbue people and objects with power of transcendence.
Within the story of art there is long history of artists manipulating our understanding of the real and unreal, the transcendent and the grounded. Look at a 16th c Spanish painting of Christ bloody and doe eyed on the cross, become lost in an Anish Kapoor sculpture of deepest ocean blue. The intention of the artist is that these works elicit a response from the viewer that propels them into seeing and feeling something that before was unknowable. They are transformed.
Contemporary jewelry, in its purest sense, is an object of adornment that is intended by the artist to transform the wearer. Jewelry contains an authority well beyond its objectness and this ability to transform the wearer makes it a rich, intimate and exciting art form. In the role of observer rather than maker, wearer or academic there is the unique opportunity to see this transformation take place. When someone puts on the work of Helen Britton, fixing a brooch just so or clasping a necklace and lifting up their eyes to look in the mirror, the person sees himself or herself as fiercer and more potent than they were the half-second before. The objects she makes takes on a value above and independent of the material universe from which they come. There is in the end, little separation between the work that is made, the person who makes it and the one who wears it.
Sienna Patti, 2014.