Her hard-hitting and politicised work has caught the eye of Prince Charles, but now artist Helen Wilson has been tasked with capturing one of Cardiff’s most vibrant communities.
The Bristol-born painter is the artist in residence at the Butetown History and Arts Centre, and has been pouring over photograph archives from the area to get a feeling for the community throughout the ages. She hopes to reflect the unique essence of the multicultural docklands district, which the media often fail to capture.
She said she was compelled to become an artist after seeing horrific reports of suffering abroad: “I started painting fairly late in my life, my 30s, after seeing an image of the Rwandan genocide on the television in 1994. At the time I was a single mum living in Easton in inner city Bristol.
“This compelled me to learn more about the circumstances, initially to educate my children, but later to raise awareness of the tragedy that went untold. This led me to recognise that my communication tool was my paintbrush.”
The theme of conflict and oppression continued throughout her work, and she collaborated with journalist John Pilger in recording wars around the world. Though she’s now focusing on life closer to home, her convictions still put her on the side of the downtrodden: “My work addresses social and cultural issues that affect my everyday life and that of my children and the communities that I live and work within. I take broad inspiration from among those who have and had the audacity and courage to stand up for their rights and beliefs against any form of oppression.
As a first year art student at the University of Bristol, a visiting Prince Charles took notice of a painting which her tutors had given a low mark: “I had painted a picture of a local black man called Marlon Thomas who was 18 years old when he suffered a racist attack in 1994. A gang of fairground workers had viciously attacked him on Durdham Downs in Bristol.
“Four of the youths, including the fair owner's son, were found guilty of causing grievous bodily harm but they were released within a year. Now in his 30s, Marlon is in what doctors describe as a waking coma. He is severely disabled and can only communicate by blinking his eye once for yes and twice for no. He needs round the clock care.
“Prince Charles wanted to meet me and some of Marlon’s family. When I met him he talked about Marlon’s painting and his love of painting landscapes. It was a very surreal moment!”
Helen has come to Butetown as an outsider but she has been working hard to get a feel for the culture of its residents: “I am still getting to know the people of Butetown but I have a deep respect for this community as I live in a very similar community in Bristol. Butetown has had its share of racial problems just as most port cities have but I admire the way in which the community have overcome such problems and have managed to pull together in a way that shows the strength of their social structure.
“At first I was very overwhelmed with the amount of research I had to do but I realise that the majority of Butetown’s residents don’t want another anthropologic study from an outsider as there have been so many. Being a resident artist for 15 months at Butetown History and Arts Centre has given me the opportunity to meet the community in the right way, meaning I haven’t parachuted in, taken what I wanted and then disappeared. The community have gone out of their way to tell me their story, and not a version of a story that has been fed to the media."
Her paintings will be exhibited in October at the History and Arts Centre, and she hopes she will be able to do the area justice: “I have met some of the warmest, most generous and talented people that I could ever want to meet. I will honour the people of Butetown by creating some very powerful oil paintings that I hope will represent the people of Butetown in a dignified and honest way.”