People Like Us – Helen Kilby Nelson

There are many ways to tell a story

Thanks to Curating Coventry’s #ArtChatCov I have met many of Coventry’s artists. Including Helen Kilby Nelson – artist and writer

Here is a little insight into how Helen became an artist and how it has enriched her life…

in helen’s words…

How do I write about the impact art has had on my life when the journey has traversed decades, mediums and genres? I don’t want to give you my life herstory.  I don’t want it to be too focused on my mental health because … because that feels, in soul-bearing honesty, very scary.

However, it is my mental health that has been the catalyst for this artistic enquiry. I am therefore finding a way, through the writing of these reflective thoughts, to share with you how being creative and developing an art career has been my anchor.  How it has given me a stronger sense of self and introduced me to people and knowledge that have enriched my life.

Does that sound a little “too much”?  I make no apology for that.  There is no such thing as too much, not when it is the reason I can still keep moving forward.  Keep dragging my non-gravity-defying behind out of bed, even on bad days, sometimes.

“Which bit of me do you want?” (2017)

Creative pursuits have featured at all stages of my life, from when I first held a recorder in Primary school at the age of 5, to exhibiting conceptual moving image works nearly 5 decades later. 

Creative pursuits take me to a place that is far away from the chaos that can often overwhelm me.  The process of absorbing myself, whether in creating music, text or visual art stops the overthinking part of my brain. 

This side of me had always been a solitary, private activity until I set-up a Facebook Art Group in 2014 for people who, like me, had mental ill-health and enjoyed creative expression.  Members were able to share what they had created without fear of judgement or ridicule.  We encouraged one another and felt a little better for having someone to share our creative output with.  There were no expectations, no pressure and we took it in turns to set a theme each month which members could if they wanted, respond to. 

Apart from being creative we also had in common, anxiety about being with other people.  Most of us were dealing with agoraphobia and social anxiety.  We had developed a mistrust of anyone who wasn’t going through the same thing as us.  This virtual space was one of safety and our conversation was through our creations. 

We had all met through an online mental health support group that was a constant feed of people emotionally hurting.  The Art Group became another escape where our health wasn’t the main topic for a change.

“Mapping Otherness” (2018)

This transition from isolated, insulated, and introverted to seeking out the company of others were the baby steps that led me to reach outside of the virtual, for the first time in a long time.

Six years later, I facilitate bringing people together both online and offline.  It was also the point at which I realised that I was truly happy when I allowed creativity to be a priority in my life and not something to only be accessed when I had a spare few minutes. 

Returning to education at the age of 46 to study BA (Hons) Fine Art & Contemporary Cultures was … I’m not even sure I can find the words to adequately describe what that felt like, especially as part of it was influenced by a hypomanic episode. 

2015, I am suddenly sharing a large space with a bunch of people of all ages that I’d never met before.  I was being given the freedom to play with materials with no requirement for them to become a resolved piece of work.  I struggled a lot with that!  When you have an illness that feels as if it controls you, it can often manifest in perfectionist and controlling behaviours – well it did in my case. 

All my previous creative pursuits had an endpoint, even though it was the process that I enjoyed, there had to be an ending.  The hours of knitting resulting in gifts for family, the repetition of melodies to create a complete track, the placement of paint on paper becoming a portrait or landscape. 

I enjoyed having a goal to reach.  You get my drift.  At first, I fought against this freedom I was being given, I couldn’t resolve it with my need to have some control.  Of course, an Art Degree isn’t just about making art, it is so much more than that.

“32 Brains” (2019)

I found people in real life could be nice too!  That was a revelation.  I grew in confidence, supported by tutors and fellow students and learned how art could be my voice.  I could say what I wanted how I wanted, visually.  I could connect with other people through my work.  It was a bit of a shock to be honest that anyone wanted to hear what I had to say and engage in conversation.  I reconnected with the person I had once been: strong, independent, political and not afraid to stand up to and for others.   I think that has been the most empowering (sorry for the buzz word), finding my voice and having the confidence to use it.  I still work mostly in isolation but I am now equipped to weave in and out of interaction in the real world and the virtual world better than I used to. 

I am no longer trying to fit into the thick-walled rectangle that society places around us all, to conform to a “normal” that felt like I was wearing a size 2 shoe on a size 6 foot.  I have more agency, being with people within a creative environment feels less stressful than other environments. There’s no wrong way of making art.  Mistakes and failures are positive, not negative. Life and societal issues may not always seem pretty when viewed through the lens of contemporary art but the visual language is far more capable of trying to understand it and invite dialogue.

I never dreamed about being a visual artist, I just enjoyed doing art and I still do, from the doodles I draw when my brain is struggling, to the intense and analytical absorption of a new idea explored through a creative process. Using my art as a voice to identify and highlight issues within our society and encourage others to feel safe talking about them via the work.

Through my art, I explore identity, inequalities and power structures.  With art, I can bring people together to use creative processes to gain confidence, skills, knowledge and community, all of which can aid wellbeing.  I’m now like the ex-smoker who preaches about the effects of smoking, but instead, I’m telling anyone who’ll listen how amazing art is.  It brings people together in so many different ways.  I’m looking forward to more blended approaches to art, one that is more accessible to artists and audiences, that isn’t reliant on outdated and elitist approaches that create a barrier to so many.


People Like Us

People Like Us 

Coventry’s own creative health festival that ran from Monday 6th – Sunday 12th July 2020. The festival might be over but we are running a series of guest blogs and podcasts…

Designed and made for the people by the people. Celebrating the power of arts and creativity.

People Likes Us can come together to create opportunities, to dream, to co-create, to do things, to make things, to think about things, to rebel against things, to change things. But most of all to explore our creativity and connect with new people.

What can we create together that will have a positive impact on our health and wellbeing?

Get in touch if you would like to write a guest blog

Peace and Love Melissa x