A yellow jumpsuit and a yogurt pot is where it all began for Helen Ward, a product designer who's been living in Bristol for over ten years now. Here she talks about how she had the idea for the paper entimology butterfly pieces she exhibits in galleries both nationally and internationally, what it's like working freelance as a home and gift ware designer for some of the worlds largest retailers and how she manages it all whilst juggling life at home with two kids.
When was the first time you really realised you were a creative person?
When I was really young I used to want to be a petrol pump lady because there's a Ladybird book about jobs and on one of the pages there was someone working in a petrol station and she had a yellow jumpsuit on, so I wanted to do that job. And then when my mum explained that you don't really get petrol pump ladies anymore I said I wanted to be someone who 'put the pictures on yogurt pots'. That was probably when I was about six.
What was it about the yellow jumpsuit that was enticing?
Well I would still like a yellow jumpsuit. I still haven't designed a yogurt pot yet. The potential's there, at some point it could still happen [laughs].
So how did you get from that to where you are now?
I've always been fortunate in that I've always known what I want to do and at school I always wanted to do arty things. So I did arty GCSE's and then arty A-levels and then went on to do a foundation course. So it's been quite fluid really. And I've always just sort of gone with what feels right and what makes me feel happy, yeah I'm really lucky in that respect I think.
So why did you choose Bristol, what took you to Bristol?
Well it was gunna be Bristol or Brighton and Bristol was further away from my mum and dad [laughs] which in hindsight now.. I wish I was a bit nearer now. And at the time the course in Bristol and Brighton were the best courses outside of London.
Why didn't you fancy London and what made you stay here after your degree?
I've nearly moved to London a few times but it's just too big for me. I've never been a big fan of the tube... I kind of like living in a smaller city and feeling really in touch with everything that's going on. London's nice to visit but it's never been somewhere that I've wanted to stay living.
Does living in Bristol influence your creativity in any way?
I think so totally. I started working in publishing as a graphic designer and doing product development. Actually it's really niche what I do now and in the area that I work in - as a freelancer - there's lots of jobs in Bristol and Bath specifically. If I wasn't here I would probably either be working in London or there'd be really slim pickings for where I would actually be. So in that respect, yeah it's definitely influenced what I do and I'm sure if I did live in Brighton now I would probably be commuting to London, so it's good that I'm not doing that.
I looked at all this paper and that's when I came up with the idea of doing butterflies, because of the patterns.
How did you end up in paper entomology then? What was the path to that?
So I did graphic design as a degree at uni and then while I was on my degree I started doing lots of paper engineering and then I went and did an apprenticeship with a guy doing pop up books which was really great but wasn't particularly going anywhere. But then that got me really interested in book binding and I trained as a book binder for a couple of years. I got a job in a bindery which is closed now in Bristol [Alfred Harris at the top of St Micheal's Hill]. Basically I got it because I went and begged them to please let me come and learn some stuff.
I think actually I worked there for a little bit and didn't get paid but I was really over-enthusiastic about the whole thing and there was this woman - who was the youngest member of the team there - and she had to take some time out because she was late 60's and she needed to have a triple heart-bypass. So they needed someone to fill her space and so I took that job. Then she came back and I learned loads off of her. So it was just me and loads of ridiculously old people working in this bindery but it was really amazing, super old-school. I was just really lucky because you wouldn't be able to learn any of that kind of thing nowadays, you'd be really pushed to find someone who could teach you all of that stuff. But I didn't keep on with doing it because there wasn't any money in it really and it wasn't really gunna work.
So that's when I left and got a job as a graphic designer. But I started doing the paper entomology because I started hoarding the paper from the bindery. That's where it's all from [the marbled Victorian paper they used to use as lining on the inside of books]. The bindery was gunna shut and nothing was very well looked after in there and I was getting really overly precious about it all. So I ended up collecting loads of it, I bought loads of it and sat on it for years and did other things. It was eventually an arts trail, which would have been, I guess, nine years ago. We did that and I thought I'd do some work [for it] but I didn't know what I was gunna do, I looked at all this paper and that's when I came up with the idea of doing butterflies - because of the patterns in the paper. That's how it all came about.
So what's a moment then in you career when it's felt like it's really happening and it's all been really great?
There was a really good time when I was doing butterflies... so I started doing them for the arts trail and then I did it for probably a good couple of years before I had a baby, and then everything changed and the whole structure of the way I was gunna work changed. I had probably a good three years where all I did was butterflies as a job, little bits of design work, but otherwise just did butterflies the whole time. So that was really great, I showed all over the world - London, New York, Milan, Hong Kong, Singapore, I think some stuff went to Australia.
I quite often leave all the work right till the last minute but then I always feel like I do my best stuff under pressure. I'm just not very good at getting things done in advance. It's not the way I roll.
So you sent stuff off to galleries and they exhibited it?
Yeah, I had an agent and she would take them off to shows all around the world. It was exciting, I was at home with the baby and so it kind of felt like good stuff was happening. But probably the most fun thing that happened around that time was I got a commission from the Observer Ethical Awards. Every year the Observer do these Ethical Awards and I think there's twelve awards and they wanted me to do the trophies for that year. They wanted me to do the butterflies and each trophy had be individually made for each of the winners and the ceremony was in the V&A. So I got to go to this massive awards ceremony, there was all these celebrities everywhere... and they let me put my work up in the V&A for one day. It was really great! We all wore fancy dresses and drank champagne and bumbled around with celebrities.
So how do you balance a day job, a side job and having two kids?
Well I work freelance so I can just juggle everything around. Up until they both started school I've worked three days a week. So I sort of have a little bit of time off and do a bit... I can't stop working... at all. That just doesn't happen, just because I never want to. I'm a real night owl so I do a lot of really late nights, till like four in the morning.
Woah, so when do you sleep?
I just don't sleep enough. But also, I definitely work best under pressure, so I do a lot of planning of things and then I quite often leave all the work right till the last minute but then I always feel like I do my best stuff under pressure. Generally things always work out that way but kind of by design really. I'm just not very good at getting things done in advance. It's not the way I roll. And say like with the arts trail that we've just done [Helen and husband Tim just opened their house up to the Totterdown arts trail - a public neighbourhood trail where people exhibit in their own homes], I quite like a last minute bit of panic just to kind of push things along a little bit. I quite like working that way.
Has there ever been a point when you've felt things aren't going so well? What's the biggest challenge you've faced in your career?
Probably just having kids really. Times when I've found it really hard were when I had a studio - I used to have my own studio down at BV studios in Bedminster - I don't anymore I just work from home now which I find much easier because everything's just there and I can work when I've got a spare minute. So probably when I was at the studio and the girls were at nursery and I was in charge of sorting them out. I think Tim and I just hadn't quite sorted out the balance of working and having kids between the two of us. So I'd drop them off and have a load of free time, I'd shove it full of work and then be like 'oh I've got to go now and pick up the girls'. That was a real challenge and it wasn't until I started a proper contract job in Cheltenham - which had it's own set of challenges at the time - that Tim and I had to split that work/child balance between the two of us, and since then things are generally much easier.
Do you use any type of social media to promote yourself?
I do for me, it's been really good for me, for the arts trails. But it's on a very local scale and I sold a few things last weekend because of it. But for the butterflies, no, it's a totally different customer. Because I'm a product designer I'll look at it like a product rather than a bit of artwork. It's kind of a more high end thing, the kind of person who buys that kind of thing probably won't be looking on Instagram. Sometimes I've had interior designers who are interested in that kind of thing but it's quite a specific kind of person who buys them. I have galleries that I always use, like I'm always showing in Cambridge and Oxford and then generally will always have a gallery in London as well. I sell to lots of scientists and doctors and quite often male customers, people who have them up in their offices. Some doctor somewhere in London has one. I've had a few people get in touch with me saying they've seen my work and it's obviously up in his office somewhere.
So, social media wise, it doesn't make that much difference to me I don't think. Also, it's just like a really different thing - it's Victorian paper and sort of like a really old concept.
Why not be making stuff and making it work and make some money out of it. And then when I'm an old lady I'll go back to knitting tea cozies and it'll be amazing.
So how did you get all the exhibition stuff started then, how did that all come about?
Weirdly from the arts trail, the first time I ever got picked up was from there and then I got picked up by a gallery in Bedminster called Grant Bradley. There was such a nice woman who'd seen my work in there - and she's an artist - called Catherine Thomas. She'd seen my work at the Grant Bradley and she loved it and wanted to commission a piece as a wedding gift for her husband . She's a really successful artist and she'd said to me "when I first started out someone really helped me along and gave me a really good break and I'd really like to do that for you if I can", which was so great. She then basically took my work along to a gallery in town called the cube gallery, which is on Perry Road near the hospital. Because you can't just walk into a gallery and say 'I'm an artist and I'm doing this thing' - it's not the done thing. She took my work in and spoke to the woman on my behalf, and basically it all kind of went from there.
Then the woman from The Cube Gallery was basically my agent for five or six years probably. She was really really great and she took my work all the way round the world and did arts fairs and things like that. Then from that other galleries have got in touch with me and asked to show my work which is amazing.
Have you had any mentors along the way?
Definitely Catherine Thomas, she was just super duper great. I don't know if I would say I've had anyone since then. She kind of taught me the ropes and it's a really funny old world the art world. Certainly when I was at BV studios... like I'm definitely a commercial artist, I do it because I enjoy it but I do it to make money and have a nice time. I'm not suffering for my art sleeping on a studio floor.
We were maybe snubbed a bit, I think maybe because we were commercial artists people thought we weren't authentic. I don't know, it's not something that's ever really bothered me, I just kind of do it because I like doing it.
So as you've gotten older do you think your attitude and thoughts around creativity and your career has changed?
Yeah I'm probably much more commercially minded now, I mean it all kind of goes hand in hand, the art stuff with my job. My job is to make things that people want to buy so it's hard not to apply that to other stuff. I think I just sort of really like making things but there's just not really that much time to be sitting around doing a bit of knitting or whatever because I've got the kids and mortgage and all the other things that come with growing up and being older. So it's sort of why not be making stuff and making it work and make some money out of it. And then when I'm an old lady I'll go back to knitting tea cozies and it'll be amazing.
I think its important to be true to yourself and I think it's important not to lose sight of doing what you love, and if you believe in what you're doing and you think it's good don't be afraid of that.
So if you were to impart any words of wisdom on someone just coming up, what would you say? Is there any pieces of advice you could give them about working in the industry?
Yeah, I think its important to be true to yourself and I think it's important not to lose sight of doing what you love, and if you believe in what you're doing and you think it's good don't be afraid of that. Push yourself as far as you can with the things that you love doing. Because what could be better than that?
When do you feel most creatively satisfied?
Probably at about 3am when I've just done something really good and I've just finished and I can go to sleep [laughs].
What's a typical day like for you then if there is a typical day?
Busy! Being late all the time! I dunno, I don't know if I do have a typical day really. It just involves rushing around after kids and shoving in as much work as possible. Not getting enough sleep but only because I wanted to stay up and do things at the end of the day.
So on a work day, you pack the kids off..
Yeah on a work day I actually leave the house really early and then Tim sorts the girls out. It's actually really nice, it's a bit of a break for me. I go off on the train to Bath - at the minute I'm working two days a week in Bath - yeah I go off to work and it's a bit of a break from the old routine, and then I come home and Tim's already sorted them out and it's nearly bedtime.. so that's quite nice.
So last question, we're at your wake and you're floating above us as a ghost. What's the one thing you'd like to overhear someone say about you?
That I tried really hard. Worked really hard. I don't know why I think that's good. No I do think that's good though, I work really hard and I'd hope that I was a good example of what you can do if you keep pushing for the things that you want.