London Artist Unskilled Worker on Her Painting Process & Gucci Collaboration

Unskilled Worker
'Family' by Unskilled Worker

If you aren't yet familiar with the wide-eyed, slightly haunting figures in Unskilled Worker's (Real name: Helen Downie) colorful portraits, do yourself a favor and get acquainted. One person who's already a huge fan is Gucci Creative Director, Alessandro Michele, who's taken such a liking to Dearie's work that he's created a special capsule collection with her art displayed across tees, sweatshirts, dresses, jackets, skirts, and bags. 

Speaking with Dearie, we couldn't help but notice how removed she's been able to remain from the chaotic, often unhealthy culture of Instagram stardom (she's amassed nearly 250k followers). Dearie's a true artist, absorbed so entirely by her craft that while she paints, the outside world seems to melt away. We caught up with Unskilled Worker to discuss her story, and what it's been like to see a casual hobby evolve into a collaboration with one of the world's biggest luxury brands. 

OUT: You started painting at 48. Were you working in a creative field before that? 

Unskilled Worker: In between hanging out with my children, I played around with precious stones, clay and leather, making things that could be made at a kitchen table and then selling through Liberty and a couple of boutique shops in London. Nothing has felt as good or as challenging as painting, though. 

What was that moment like when you first started painting?

My first painting got ripped up in frustration; I understood immediately the amount of work it was going to take to make anything I’d be happy with. I painted and painted until it was working. It was a bit like falling in love. Painting wasn’t planned; I was in Italy looking for something to do while my partner was working. In many ways it's become harder the longer I've painted, it never feels easy or relaxing. It's a tense situation. My reality is that I try to work as long and as hard as I can.

Hellen Downie Put A Reign On It 2016 Acquerello 455x605 002

'The Gucci Gang' by Unskilled Worker

What did it feel like to blow up on Instagram so quickly?

My story feels very separate from my paintings. The other bit feels like it's happening to someone else and I'm on the outside watching in. 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. Blowing up on Instagram is a strange experience. Everything is the same in the physical world, but it becomes very noisy in this other world. It was and still is wonderful that people connect in some way to what I do. 

What's your process? 

I work with chalk, ink and charcoal in a very messy, chaotic and noisy environment, and my work can take a week or so to finish. I’m not a commercial artist; my paintings are created instinctively. The works are normally an emotional response to an image or something I’ve read. I don't use sketchbooks; the story develops on the paper where rubbers are as important as pencils. I listen to music, sometimes the same song on a loop for the whole painting. I get totally immersed and the painting becomes all I can think about until it’s finished. [Painting the lines] brings me to a feeling of resolution. It's not something I've experienced much outside of painting.

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'Sophie & George' by Unskilled Worker

What's your favorite piece so far? 

I hope to make work that's transportive, I want to feel the way I did as a child looking at my first books  Right now my favourite piece is The Arrival, a painting that depicts two young and hopeful Caribbean immigrants to Britain in the 1940s. 

Which pieces from Gucci's capsule excite you the most? 

To be honest, they are all exciting to me, but if I had to pick one right now it would be Family [pictured at top], which was painted as a response to homophobic comments left on Instagram. I wished to express, that for me, family is a feeling. One of the men has the name Jeanie tattooed on his arm. She was someone who had a positive impact on my life; she was a kind non-judgemental person. It seems appropriate that her name should appear in this painting. I will love wearing this shirt. 

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'Ready for the Palais' by Unskilled Worker

Where do you draw inspiration from specifically? 

Oscar Wilde, Otto Dix and Henry Darger; I look towards anything that is created with passion. So this can be religious art, vintage Russian postcards, old Chinese advertising posters, Tudor paintings, Kate Bush record covers, my childhood books and photographers like Malik Sadibe. And there are other times when I’m inspired by a face in a crowd. I like the expression on people’s faces when they don’t think anyone is looking.

What advice do you have for aspiring artists? 

I stumbled into this; I didn't have a plan, and age to me is irrelevant as most of our lives are lived outside of youth. I think you really have to do it for yourself, and if people connect with it, anything can happen.

Check out more of Unskilled Worker's art on her website, and purchase items from the 40-piece Gucci capsule collection, here, beginning October 11.

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