Meet Helen Doherty, a charming artist and ceramicist living in Calitzdorp. Whimsical, Poetical, Lyrical, Painterly are just a few of the words that can describe Helen’s artistic style and so it comes as no surprise that she originally had ideas of being a poet.
Helen’s journey began with a Masters in English Literature and lecturing however she soon realised academia wasn’t creative enough for her. Her love for poetry now weaves its way into her ceramics which have a wonderful sculptural feel combined with narrative and a brush of fine art.
On a recent visit to this small Klein Karoo town, I was introduced to Helen and warmly welcomed into her workspace and studio. I am always fascinated by creative workspaces and love being able to see where all the planning, preparation and making arises from. Helen’s studio is in an old building alongside her home and was at one point a school and a church too. As Helen says, “It feels like hallowed grounds”. And perhaps this is just one of the magical, key ingredients essential to her exquisite work.
Helen’s studio feels like an absolute treasure trove to me. Moodboards and snippets of inspiration from favourite quotes and texts to images and photos adorn the walls alongside preliminary sketches, paintbrushes and tools of the trade. Her own ceramics are dotted around on shelves and her latest body of work, her Triple Gourd Vases, were all on display for me to enjoy. These decorative vases are currently being exhibited at Kalk Bay Modern in a group Sculpture & Ceramics show running until 24 November so do make a note to visit if you can.
Helen’s Triple Gourds were inspired by the traditional Double Gourd shape which is an auspicious symbol of fertility and good fortune. She began with this design and then delved into the smaller triple gourds. Each one is absolutely unique with its own intricately painted story. Helen does a lot of extensive watercolour initially to work out the placement and design and the drawing is an integral part of the process.
Helen’s Triple Gourd vases – each one an absolute work of art.
I asked Helen, how she and her husband Chris, came to be in Calitzdorp and call it home. The story has a serendipitous feel to it which always appeals to me.
She tells me that at the time they were looking for somewhere to stay and that it needed to be both cheap and beautiful! They were driving from Durban, after visiting Chris’ parents, and got to Oudtshoorn and had to decide which way to go. They did a coin toss, Helen won and she picked the direction towards Calitzdorp.
On discovering Calitzdorp, they instantly loved it and effortlessly found an incredible home to rent that was ridiculously affordable and beautiful – ticking both boxes! It’s the space and openness of Calitzdorp that appeals to Helen and the unique feeling of a green oasis surrounded by arid landscape and spectacular mountains. At one point they decided to buy some farmland and had visions of being self sufficient farmers. In hindsight they were still too young to settle down, however this instigated a trip to Ireland with the intention of making money and being able to pay off the purchase.
Although being born in Swaziland, Helen has Irish, Dutch and British ancestry and so thanks to her Irish passport, Chris was granted one too. As Irish citizens are entitled to subsidised education, they both dived into further artistic studies and degrees during their time in Ireland.
Helen tells me, “It’s funny how I got into ceramics because it was never my first choice!”. With her Fine Art degree she had wanted to go into drawing. Chris got into drawing and she didn’t and she tells me how cross she was at the time and that she sulked for about a month. Of course once she began to understand ceramics, she realised how incredible the medium actually is. As she says, once you accept something, amazing things come out of it!
Helen was thirty when she started taking her art more seriously, which reminds us that age does not have to be an issue and that a course correct is often where the alchemy begins. Helen ended up doing her Honours in Ceramics and then a Masters in Ceramics at Cardiff University in Wales.
They returned to Calitzdorp four years ago and now own a stunning historical house with expansive views across the valley. The timing feels right and they are happy to call this home. The peace, space and quiet of Calitzdorp is medicine for them and clearly nourishing food for their artistic explorations.
I look forward to seeing what they both create next!
During lockdown earlier this year, Helen painted a series of gorgeous postcard size oil pastel landscapes. She produced about three a day during the initial three months.
CAN’T LIVE WITHOUT
My morning walk and being creative- drawing, working with clay or writing – every day.
BEST THING ABOUT LIVING IN CALITZDORP
The stars at night, because they are brilliant, bring a sense of wonder and give me perspective
FAVOURITE SEASON IN CALITZDORP
Spring is my favourite season here because of the blossoming of wild veldt flowers and the fruit orchards. Also, the weather is gorgeous, mild with blue skies.
YOUR SECRET SKILL/TRAIT THAT HAS HELPED YOU GET WHERE YOU ARE TODAY?
My resilience and flexibility have helped me to reach my current position. But self belief is what underpins everything.
A SOUTH AFRICAN ARTIST THAT YOU ADMIRE
Hylton Nel continues to be an inspiration because of his integrity, compassion and generosity, besides his enormous talent as an artist.
Other sources of inspiration are artists Anne Kraus, Claire Curneen and Philip Eglin, poets such as Rumi as well as historical periods including the Tang Dynasty in Chinese Ceramics, 16th century Italian Maiolica, Delftware from England & Ireland, Iznik ceramics and Staffordshire flatbacks.
WHAT BRINGS YOU JOY?
I feel joy when l am doing what l should be doing in terms of my soul’s path. This can be many things – fleeting and more long term. Such as having morning coffee with Chris, my husband, going for a swim in the river, listening to new music by Van Morrison or being fully engaged in making art.
Carpe Diem (Seize the day) – taught to me by my father, this has been my abiding, guiding light.
WHAT LIES AHEAD?
I have an exhibition planned for next year in March with Wilma Cruise and Ann Marais. I would love to do a ceramic residency in Europe and to be able to create in response to my environment.
Photography: Lana Kenney