Helen Downie’s success story is perfect. The enigmatic, private artist, known by her Instagram moniker Unskilled Worker, could never have imagined what a life-changer sharing her extraordinary paintings via this platform would be. Her first Instagram follower was her son, but within a very short time she had gained a worldwide following and, via the creation of her distinctive, sad-eyed characters, this has become what she does every day. Since 2015, alongside her personal work, Downie has been collaborating with Gucci’s Alessandro Michele, creating her magical interpretations of his collections. Downie’s rise has been rapid, but she guards her privacy fiercely; even as I arrange this interview she is as elusive as Garbo.
Of course, her reluctance to please makes her all the more fabulous, in my opinion. She defies tradition; being untrained, she found painting in her middle age but paints with the wonder and fervour of a child.
Wylde: You draw and paint clothes in such detail but still the person wearing them seems to come through as strongly. Is that intentional or instinctive?
Unskilled Worker: I can see that the clothes appear to be a big part of the painting but, for me, the person is always the main focus.
I very quickly become emotionally attached to the people I paint and feel a commitment to bringing them alive. I fall in love with them, really, and I like the idea that they are sitting for a portrait, dressed in their very best clothes.
You seem to approach both male and female subjects in the same way; there’s a romantic fluidity to them. Would you agree?
It’s how they appear. Sometimes I wish they were a bit more edgy but I don’t consciously force anything. I’m painting my idea of human dignity; that part which is similar in all of us; it defies gender, race or age. It’s difficult for me to put it into words; maybe that’s why I paint.
Whatever the age of the person you are drawing, they all seem to be children, or possibly trapped between childhood and adulthood. Is this intentional?
Yes, that is my intention. I myself have never felt like a grown-up, even though I’ve done grown-up things; I’m always surprised at how old I have become. I have lived my life back to front. I don’t like rules that dictate what we should be, or what we should have, at any given age.
I think your work stands out as more than fashion illustration through the bittersweet, melancholy atmosphere you evoke. There’s a yearning in the eyes… or am I over-romanticising?
I like the idea that you are not over-romanticising. Most people in repose will look sad; we put on faces when we think we are being observed. Instagram is full of those faces. My work is really more to do with the feelings inside, the ones we attempt to cover up with clothes and image.
Do you remember the first artwork you had a response to?
I do. I was four years old and it was a fresco on the walls of Hampton Court Palace by an Italian painter called Antonio Verrio. It was so beautiful and I wanted to climb inside it.
You’re very private but at the same time you share so much of your creative process on Instagram. Are you demystifying the process or do you just enjoy sharing with/encouraging others?
I do like the idea of inspiring others and I feel it’s good to share. I do wonder if I’m demystifying by posting a process video but my paintings are made of lots of layers and take five days to make, so it really is the tiniest snippet.
How do you balance the solitary self-sufficiency of your work as a painter with family and social life?
I don’t. My family have been incredibly understanding and supportive. I knew when I started painting that it would take a huge commitment. It doesn’t seem to be something that I can switch on and off. If I’m not painting, it just feels like I’m waiting to paint.
I read that you are working towards a solo show in London later this year; can you talk about that?
I am looking towards September 2017 but I can’t give you any details at this point but I will as soon as everything is finalised. I’m very excited, as I would love people to see my work in real life, as it looks very different.
Your work reminds me of an amalgamation of so many painters and photographers. Sarah Moon, Otto Dix, Elizabeth Peyton, Justin de Villeneuve, Marlene Dumas; a mixture of high and low art. Can you tell us about your influences?
I love all of those people, Stella Vine too. And I am constantly drawn back to the stillness and regal poses of Tudor paintings. With all of their pomp, the human-ness still shines through.
Nick Knight and Gucci’s Alessandro Michele have both been responsible for catapulting your work out into the world. Has the sudden whirlwind of recognition ever been difficult?
It’s certainly been difficult at times. If I start to acknowledge what has happened, it can be a bit frightening and so I bring it back to me, a blank sheet of paper, my chalk and ink. It’s the same as it always was.
Social media has been fantastic for you. Do you have any reservations about it, and how much, other than Instagram, do you engage with it? Other sites seem to be potentially harmful to privacy, for example. What are your thoughts?
I think that everybody is having a different experience with social media. Instagram has been an amazing platform for me to share my work. I’ve met such interesting and inspiring people and it’s been important for me to meet them in the real world, otherwise, at times it would have felt unreal! I feel that it’s possible to retain privacy and it’s good to have a clear idea of its usage, as I never wanted an account built around me. I get followers who are interested in my work; selfies wouldn’t go down well!
Is your work fairly equally balanced between the personal and the commissioned? We love the obviously autobiographical and the experimental ones just as much as your Gucci-commissioned illustrations. Do you find it easy to structure your time?
I only paint what I love, even if they are private commissions or the Gucci works. I don’t paint under instruction and always have complete creative freedom. I’m not a commercial artist and my work has to be a reaction to what I see and feel. Annoyingly, it’s not something I can manifest.
I love your Instagram films with music; painting and music seem to go hand in hand for you. What are your favourite sounds to paint to? And what was the first record you remember playing obsessively?
When the music is right and the painting is going well, I want to live forever. My favourite changes from one day to the next, although I always come back to Burial. And Kooks, by David Bowie, was my first obsession.
How often do you look in the mirror?
Not often, as I’m always shocked at how small my eyes are!
Final image, self-portrait by Unskilled Worker/Helen Downie. All images © http://unskilledworker.co.uk
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