Published: 1 September 2016
Working from her regional studio near Geraldton, Helen Ansell of Mulla Mulla Designs is a self-taught artist specialising in paintings and textiles.
Helen has felt a strong connection to the Australian landscape since she was a young girl, when she spent time on her father’s station collecting native seeds and wandering among wildflowers.
She grew up in Ululla, a remote Aboriginal community near Wiluna, and has drawn inspiration from her travels around Western Australia. Her passion for native flora and fauna was further heightened after a three year stint living in Scotland, which gave her a refreshed way of seeing the natural world once back home in Australia.
Helen's bold paintings bring joy and drama in the form of detailed blossoms and leaves, wildlife and pattern and make beautiful statements in any home.
We asked Robin a few questions about her work:
Q. Tell me about your creative path that led you to become an artist.
A. I always enjoyed painting but never thought I would pursue it seriously growing up. I had a house full of my own artwork in my twenties and one day a friend suggested I put them into an exhibition which seemed like a fun thing to do at the time. I wasn’t sure at all what to expect but was thrilled when every painting sold on the opening night! Not long after that I moved to Scotland for three years where I decided to try and pursue a path of becoming a full time artist and had another successful two solo exhibitions before returning to Australia. Since being back I have had many artistic opportunities open up to me which have involved both working among many different aboriginal art communities across Western Australia and also pursuing my own artistic practice.
Q. What has your experience been like as an artist in Western Australia?
A. At first, moving back from Europe was a bit of a challenge– mainly due there being such greater populations close by overseas (for instance in three weeks during the Edinburgh Fringe Festival I was able to sell work to over 30 different countries). However I soon discovered a new appreciation of how amazing Australia is – especially our vast, rugged outback, where I grew up and call home. Living in regional Australia does present many different challenges due to its remoteness – but yes, I definitely agree that isolation is a creative driver. I am also very grateful for initiatives such as FORM’s Hedland Art Awards that are exclusive to regional artists such as myself, providing us with an amazing opportunity to showcase what a high standard regional art can be!
Q. Describe your creative process
A. I am particularly inspired by combinations of colour and pattern – I will often get an idea of how this could work in a painting and I will write these ideas down for future reference. I very rarely know how a painting will end up and am often surprised by the result. Instead I tend to only ever see the next step – a bit like working out a puzzle. Also I often work on five or six paintings at once so that when inspiration is lacking on one I can quickly move on to another and keep working. Sometimes a set of paintings will also end up inspiring each other.
Q. Describe your typical work day.
A. I am mum to two very active young boys (aged four and two) and I work from home so my life is very much a juggling act at present of the demands and joys of motherhood and running a creative business. Much of my communication with my Mulla Mulla Designs business partner Peta Riley is done through text/email/phone rather than in person as we are both very busy. My life consists of never ending to do lists, exciting project ideas, business planning, paintings on the go and trying to keep on top of the mess!
Q. How does our natural environment inspire you?
A. I started focusing on Australian flora and fauna in my work more seriously when I was exploring the idea of translating my work onto textiles. I really wanted to create fabrics that were strongly recognisable as Australian and thought that flowers would be a great way to be able to do that in a way that most people could relate to. I also wanted to approach the subject of our flowers in a unique, modern, bold and dramatic way. I wanted people to be able to not only identify with the works, but to proudly own these new patterns and designs as their own reflection of the beauty and diversity that is ‘Australia’.
Q. What does spring mean to you?
A. Wildflowers of course – carpets of them! I am lucky enough to live in the wildflower hot spot of WA with places like Mullewa and the Coalseam National Park only an hour’s drive away. Each year I get excited to see what the rain has brought forth this time.
Q. What do you love about our native WA flora?
A. When I returned from living overseas I was struck by how wild and dramatic the shapes and colours of our native flowers are – look at the Banksia for example (one of my favourite flowers to paint). You can see why it has inspired May Gibbs to create the Banksia men! Growing up in wildflower country I very much took it for granted as a child, but researching them now as an adult I was amazed to discover that Western Australia has more wildflowers than any other country in the world – tens of thousands of varieties – and counting! I also love seeing how amazing it is that a desert landscape can be transformed – without any help from mankind – to grow fields of flowers all on its own each year – and every year different from the last.
Q. Anything else you would like to add?
A. I often get asked about the use of dots in my work. I grew up in an Aboriginal community, Ululla 75 km outside Wiluna, and have spent many years working among Aboriginal artists so it makes sense that my work would be influenced by theirs and have been given permission from the Aboriginal elders in my community to include dots in my work. That being said, I only ever use dots in a purely decorative sense – and am very careful to never include aboriginal symbolism, dreamtime stories, law business or anything that needs to remain exclusively in Aboriginal art.
I am very excited to have the opportunity to showcase my work – and reside as artist in residence in Aspects of Kings Park this wildflower season. In particular I am keen to share my paintings of flowers specific to my home region of mid-west Western Australia such as the famous wreath flower.