By Jane Sloane
Mention the name Helen Norton and many collectors of Australian art will have their own story to tell about her paintings. Her work is reminiscent of Sydney Nolan – the ochre reds, the cobalt blues and a cast of characters who resemble Ned Kelly through duckshooters posing as God; angels and butterfly men, Mona Lisa languishing in the outback and the moose style neighbours in front of a white picket fence. Her images of dogs – usually white – are one of her trademarks – they add a magical quality to her paintings with a mixture of whimsy and hope.
Born in Melbourne, Helen Norton has lived in Broome since 1985. Before being lured to this pearling town she traveled the outback for almost ten years working as a cook, game shooter, jillaroo, stationhand and truck driver. She didn’t start painting until 1984 and, since that time her work has featured in almost 50 exhibitions across Australia and now London.
Speaking about the impetus for her work, Helen Norton says: -
“Life quite simply, is my impetus – it is the longing to understand the human condition – my influences have been the observations of the daily process of growing, dying, birthing, crying, learning and all those little details.
If I have ever been influenced by another artist along the way then there would be a list a mile long ranging from singers, writers, poets, painters, carpenters, mothers, truck drivers. Because that’s where the story is. My subject matter is limitless”
Inside her studio – the Cockatoo Gallery at Broome – Helen agrees that there are certain themes that predominate in her work – redemption, ritual and release being just three of these.
“For me, themes are always journeys. The old adage of the ‘destination not being as important as the journey` has real truth and I would hope to evoke a sense of common ground to all the viewers of the work, a sense of shared journey, a shared right of passage and struggle”.
“I would like to encourage people’s re-connection to a sense of personal empowerment to change the world to a better place by seeing some new “heroes” amongst ourselves. To see that each one of us can ‘act` upon our instinctual sense of moral values and bring along with our brave act many others. That we don’t have to live a suppressed existence of feeling useless against the powers that be on the day. To see that they too are mere ‘seat holders` and we can choose who sits in the seat. That is the reason for working”.
The result of all this deep reflection is a chartered journey of the type of paintings that Helen has produced over the years. From her earlier work depicting such senses as Aboriginal women and their role in raising children on remote stations to the Dark Knights of the Soul exhibition for London and, more recently, the Angel and the Butterfly Man series that was presented at exhibitions in Perth, Melbourne and Adelaide.
“The journey of imagery for me has been a course of finding my confidence in my own symbols and expression. Once I learned about ascetics and technique, I returned to my own archetypes. The process has really been about appreciating that my archetypes can dress in any costume – the realization of the London series – they can visit any country and talk any language. They are universal citizens. As we are all now becoming!”
In discussing the process of developing her Dark Knights of the Soul exhibition for a London audience, Helen says:
“I realized that the only way I could do this series of paintings was to speak honestly and to express my feelings on what I experienced in London by using archetypes and to depict the spirituality of the Australian outback. So what I decided to do was to place British archetypes in an Australian setting”.
The result is a series of paintings that reveal scenes of London cabbies confronting knights rearing up before them: The Queen guard in the Australian outback, complete with cockatoo nipping at one guards, a lone London guardman, in full attire transposed onto a desert backdrop, Pegasus and the tin man and the Queen presiding over knights at the long table.
When asked to describe their significance, Helen says, “I chose the name Dark Knight of the Soul because we all wear armour – what we’ve built around ourselves personally and the way cities are built. The paintings are designed to sow the loss of the organic and the dreaming”.
“For me it’s about looking at the fundamentals of the situation – it doesn’t matter which country I go to, I will do the same thing”. Helen Norton is someone who seems to seek out the pulse as a nation and to present it back to its own people in brilliant visual style.
“I don’t regard myself as an artist – I’m a reporter of the human condition – I see similes and paradigms in everything”.
“While I live in Australia I use the archetypes of Australia – such as my painting of the outback Mona Lisa. I think the problem is we’ve empowered our past so much that we’ve denied our present. We need to create modern myths that are relevant to our time. Myths change things – they go on and on. We’ve lost our heroes – something we can romance and dream about now”.
Helen is now seeking to extend the message and influence of her work both by adding poetry to accompanying many of her works and now exploring the possibilities of using film to present her characters and imagery.
“When you are working with social awakening the most effective route is the one you should take. Film is a very effective medium. There is such a lot of rubbish being subliminally shoved down the tube into our young ones that I feel it could just move aside for some real Heroes”.
“I have been trying to solve a little of this frustration by the use of poetry and commentary on recent exhibitions. I realize as I pack more information into the images, they sometimes need little clues such as verbal additions. And ultimately these adventures need to come alive”.