A Colourful Life:Helen Peel
Helen Peel is a successful artist who is known for her sense of colour and dedication to her craft. Her life‛s canvas though, is painted with heartache, challenges and finding the strength to move forward as Edwina Cattanach discovers.
Helen Peel first discovered her passion for art whilst in secondary school, her pencil was her main tool and many sketches which she still has, were her works. From an early age she had an unstoppable need to pick up a pencil or a paintbrush and express how she saw the world – a world rich with colour and radiant light. During some of her difficult times, Helen said she would sketch at night as a way of quietening her mind.
As a young and married 20-year-old, Helen first began experimenting with what has become her lifelong passion, working with colour. Without knowing that her destiny of becoming a contemporary Australian artist was in her future, Helen started her work life as a hairdresser, initially to fund her desire to study a Fine Arts degree.
With a home renovation underway and long hours devoted to the hair salon that she now owned, Helen’s drawing and painting took a back seat as she worked to support her then-husband’s desire to attend university. Then tragedy struck with the loss of a child and was then diagnosed with bowel cancer.
Not long after, she received a ‘goodbye’ letter from her husband and with his departure came financial difficulties. Not one to give up, Helen worked five jobs to survive and fought like a warrior to overcome her health concerns; the loss of her son and her marriage and to be financially secure.
“I knew I had to sink or swim,” she said. “My only choice was to swim and find the strength that comes from within.”
Helen attributes her strength to her late father, Murray Mckenzie a well-known Geelong football player who was one of thirteen children and a war veteran who recognised through his own trauma the need to be strong and carry on.
Her determination paid off and after seven years of hard work, Helen was in a position to buy her own property. The house gave Helen yet another creative outlet and with her renovation and interior design skills she won an award for the ‘Best House in Australia and New Zealand’ and was inspired to study interior decorating.
Now in her late twenties, Helen headed off to Tate Modern Gallery in London to view works of her idol, Joseph Turner, an English Romantic landscape painter. This venture then took Helen to Florence where she would sketch the days away in between gallery visits. It was here that she discovered her strength in portraiture and village scenes from the people and places she saw throughout Europe, a common theme in her work today.
While in Florence, a skeptical Helen was encouraged to see a clairvoyant.
“She seemed attuned to my past and told me to learn as much as I could about Rembrandt. When she said ‘you Helen Peel are going to be a great artist’ I was surprised and delighted.”
Skeptic or not, these words have rung true, although Helen wasn’t finished with hairdressing as several years later, Helen was invited to join the Australian Hairdressing team at the World Hair Competition in Las Vegas. The team came 16th in the world and on their return, the Loreal team were involved in setting up hair and product salons at the Trump Towers in New York City.
“Gold, everything and I mean everything, was gold,” Helen recalls.
For Helen, colouring hair provided excitement and gave this budding yet unknown artist her creative outlet. Never to sit and be satisfied, Helen took this creative flare into fashion and went on to launch her own personal styling business, helping men and women find their best colour palette to suit their skin and lifestyle.
Whilst work commitments kept her from using her artistic talent as little more than a hobby, Helen was always drawn to colour, dabbling in different techniques and subjects, including sculpture, life drawing, pottery and oil painting.
On retiring to Noosa, Helen travelled extensively and found the time for her passion to paint.
Working exclusively with oils, Helen is an accomplished realist, bringing stories to life with light, shade and movement, in exquisitely delicate brushwork and luminous, vibrant colours.
On each canvas she lays the foundation of a pencil drawing, likening her technique to building a house; layering for perspective and depth that leads to works of detailed architecture, vivid florals and luxurious fabrics, all conjured with a variety of brushes, palette knife or rags.
“It’s an old renaissance technique, where you paint the background colour and start rubbing back,” Helen explains.
Helen’s love of portraiture reveals a talent for expressing a light in the eyes; a life in the lines, as each canvas conveys true character. But it is her use of the difficult rub-off technique that shows her intimate knowledge of light and detail.
Already in private collections throughout Australia and regarded as a contemporary artist, Helen had her first solo exhibition in 2010 with many of her works now hanging in private collections, both in Australia and overseas.
More than 50 years ago she sold her first piece of artwork to buyers who Helen still considers to be two of her very closest friends. The artwork still hangs in their lounge room; Helen is now happily married to David whom she met 24 years ago and feels blessed to have her soul mate and art, both bringing colour to her world.
Discover more of Helen’s work at www.helenpeelartist.com; visit Helen in her studio at 31 Shorehaven Drive Noosa Waters as part of Noosa Open Studios 9-11 and 17-18 October from 10am-4pm.
Want more? Listen to Conversations in Noosa podcast for the full interview with Helen on all good podcast channels.