Meet Helen Couchman
Central Saint Martins, MA Critical Fine Art Practice (1998)
Helen is a British artist whose work has been exhibited both in the UK and internationally.
In 2006, after only being in the city for three days, Helen decided to make Beijing her home. It was from here, one year later, she published her first book WORKERS 工人, a collection of 143 portraits of men and women working on the Beijing Olympic site. Her second book, Mrs West’s Hats (a series of 60 photographic self-portraits in which Helen wears a succession of her Grandmother’s hats) followed in 2009. Helen has just launched her most recent work, Omani Women, portraits that depict the diversity of Omani women and their beauty, self-presentation, fashion and modesty.
Meet Helen and find out more about her work, time at Central Saint Martins and living abroad.
What made you want to come and study your MA at Central Saint Martins (CSM)?
I applied to the MA programme as I thought it would be a good idea to get my portfolio together and experience the interview process. As I was coming straight from my BA course I didn’t believe I would be accepted but was delighted when I was. I chose to study it part time so that it would lead me forward into a career where I was aware that I would need to work part time on my art and part time to make ends meet. I considered the part time MA a half-way house in this respect. Part time also meant I could continue working with different media simultaneously. The full time students had to choose which single media they were working in and that would not have suited my practice.
What was the greatest thing CSM taught you?
The MA at CSM was a good next step for me after a strong practice led BA course elsewhere. There was greater exposure to famous artists and more emphasis on art as a career. I had been very focused on my practice alone and was already a confident maker so this style of course, I suppose, was the next step. As the two year course progressed I found if I was energetic I could continue with a strengthening practice while holding down part time work to pay my bills.
Where do you find inspiration for your work as an artist?
There are themes that reoccur in my practice. I am very interested in fast changing landscapes which reveal the changing politics and economics of a community. I am also interested in how we identify ourselves through how we choose to dress. I often work on what I have come to call self-made residencies where I spend time living somewhere and respond directly to that place.
You’ve had residences all over the globe including China, the US and Armenia. What opportunities do residencies open up for artists like yourself?
Travel and time spent working somewhere I feel broadens my understanding and that process of learning in a location flags up lots of ideas. I also think that sometimes the first impressions of a relative new comer can be interesting and are often the starting point that I work back from when living and working somewhere new to me.
What made you want to settle in China’s capital?
I had wanted to go to China for many years. I had started to notice the odd article in the papers or the occasional China story photo in a magazine. There seemed to be very little about China in the media but what little I found made me feel that it was a place that was changing very rapidly. When I finally made it to Beijing I went by train from Moscow as I wanted to see the distance for myself as it was to be my first visit to Asia. On my third day in Beijing I knew I wanted to stay and live in the city. I remember exactly where I was standing when I realised. I stayed in Beijing for nearly seven years in the end.
What were the challenges when you first arrived?
Arriving in Beijing was a little daunting without a word of mandarin, finding my way through a vast city and at first train-lagged (much worse that jet-lag) and unsure of how I would be received as a woman visiting alone. It was very challenging but sometimes the most difficult things we do are the ones that give us the most.
What is the best thing about living and working in Beijing?
It was great to live in a city that was buzzing with changes pre the 2008 Beijing Olympics. As it turned out the Games changed the city in some ways so I’m glad I was there to see it before and after. There was a demand for my work and my exhibitions and books received a lot of press. I felt I was learning something new almost every day. The city is traditional and I lived in a hutong lane while around me some of the newest looking parts of the city went up month by month. I felt I was learning an aesthetic new to me.
Tell us about your latest book, Omani Women
In 2012 I began my latest project, exploring portraiture by collaborating with women across the Sultanate of Oman. Before beginning my expeditions around Oman I researched for images of Omani women in archives and museums around London and Oxford and found no material. The handful of images of women I found being anthropological images emphasising the women’s skills or the occasional eroticised Persian beauty, neither addressing the individual, stylish and confident women I had markedly noticed in the country.
The series of portraits I made in collaboration with women I met all over the country depict the diversity of Omani women, their self-presentation, fashion, modesty and beauty. The portraits show a very diverse group of women from Bedu women to city girls in Muscat and their confident individual styles.
What are you most proud of?
I don’t have a favourite piece of work. As I have the chance to look back on my practice more I feel that many of the works I have made interweave.
I am proud of my overall approach to working as an artist. Its not been easy and there have been many hurdles that I have had to negotiate to continue working and to follow my ideas and grow.
What’s next for you?
I am currently finalising a trip at the beginning of 2016 to live and work in Taipei for a few months. The possibility of a residency has been in discussion for a couple of years and I am excited that it is finally coming together and thanks to various organisations liaising on my behalf I am being sent to the Taiwan for the first time.
For further information see, www.helencouchman.com