It’s a damp Monday morning, but Helen Beard’s paintings certainly brighten up the greyness. In a studio overlooking a port just outside Brighton, I’m surrounded by entwined bodies: bold tongues, pert nipples and the curved limbs of giant, masturbating women. “For some reason – and I really don’t know how it started – but I’ve always painted sex,” she says with a grin.
Against a media landscape where sex is commodified and reflected through a male lens, or discussed in a negative context of abuse, Helen chooses to explore the joys of female and queer sexuality, with vibrantly coloured bodies that pulse with life. “I wanted it to be a positive take on sex from a female perspective, rather than the crime usually reported around the subject.” Helen’s painting style reflects her background as a graphic design student, and her use of colour often draws comparisons with Matisse’s cut-out works. She lists Patrick Caulfield, Michael Craig-Martin and Gary Hume as influences. “Because I flatten everything and use quite graphic shapes, the colour is what describes the emotion. It’s my way of interpreting the excitement, rather than depicting it in a photographic way.”
The past two years have been a whirlwind for the Brighton-based artist, after Damian Hirst caught sight of her work in a Snapchat message. Helen’s husband had sent him a picture of his Halloween costume from her studio. “Damian was like: ‘I like the costume, but what are those paintings?!’” Hirst commissioned Helen to produce work for a three-woman show last summer: True Colours, alongside Sadie Laska and Boo Saville. Before the Snapchat message, Helen says she only just managed to keep her studio running. “Now it’s gone to the opposite extreme where I can’t keep up with demand. Before I had a tiny studio near Preston Park, but it’s all escalated in scale, so now I need an even bigger studio.”
“It’s overwhelming at times – it’s all or nothing!” Next month Helen has her biggest solo show to date at Unit London gallery in Mayfair. It’s Her Factory will display around 30 works across two floors, including paintings, tapestries and her first sculpture. “I had the idea 20 years ago – I imported hundreds of vibrators to make a yogi bed, or a bed of nails. I’ve had them in my loft for 18 years.” There’s a humorous streak to Helen’s art: the sculpture is titled Have Made My Bed, And I Will Lie In It. The old joke about a woman sitting on a washing machine to feel the vibrations springs to mind. “The vibrators are all wired up, so there’ll be a little hum. Hopefully it won’t dance across the floor!
Helen always loved drawing, but there was no art on the walls of her Birmingham childhood home. “My mum was a secretary and my dad was a laundry manager in a hospital. Because I was from a working-class family, people didn’t think you could pursue a career in art. But I didn’t know what else to do.” She studied Graphic Design at Bournemouth and was one of the last students to benefit from a grant. “I don’t know how working-class kids manage to do a degree now. It’s such a shame – it’s excluding people from my kind of background. It ends up being richer kids that manage to go to art college these days.” After graduating, Helen got a job in set design and eventually moved into wardrobe styling, but she always managed to create art in her spare time.
Nowadays she’s so busy with commissions she has a waiting list. Towards the end of our interview Helen looks up from her phone, beaming. Her upcoming exhibition has already sold out. “I’ve got so many ideas – that’s one thing I don’t worry about. I’ve spoken to some artists who say: ‘I don’t have any other ideas for my next show.’ But no – I’ll be fine with that.”