Unskilled Worker didn't set out to become internationally famous, but her powerful paintings catapulted her to Instagram fame, then to fashion stardom. Fashion as identity is the driving force behind these magical images: The subjects are calm and expressionless, almost childlike but their adornments speak volumes about their lives. Composed formally but dressed idiosyncratically, they play on the power of style and the bravery of individuality.
"Many of the subjects are based around girls I worked with when I was 16," the artist tells Creators. "They grew up in council estates around London and they were tough yet vulnerable; most had been hurt. There is always a strong narrative about the characters and they are often not what they seem."
In The Arrival the paintings subjects are young and hopeful, with sparkling eyes, bright coats, and a lounging guardian leopard companion. But this is more than a fashion plate: it's a painting of two Caribbean immigrants to Britain in the 1940s. "They were so brave and full of hope and wore their Sunday best on leaving the ship," the artist explains. Sprinkled throughout the painting are references to their story, including a small medallion that names the pair: Horatia and Joseph.
"I'm attracted to stories of human dignity and survival," the artist says. "Sometimes this gets melded into a Gucci painting." Yes, that Gucci. Unskilled Worker's story reads like a fairytale itself: In her late forties, tired of "wasting so much of my time floating around aimlessly," she finally found the courage to try painting. With no training, she simply painted until it was working. "It was a bit like falling in love; it still is," she says.
She also began posting her work on Instagram. Before long, her self-discovery turned public, and viral. The fashion world in particular fell hard for her, and she was invited first to do a residency with Nick Knight — then, in 2015, to paint four pieces for Gucci's fall line. This cemented her status as an art-world darling, and she has since been featured in Vogue, Vanity Fair, and Harper's Bazaar, among others. Her identity was eventually unmasked, too, and her real name of Helen Downie.
"My story feels very separate from my paintings," Downie says. "My reality is that I try to work as long and as hard as I can. I focus on my paintings everyday. The other bit feels like it's happening to someone else and I'm on the outside watching in."
The work is still a challenge. She says, "It's quite a tense situation for me!" Downie characterizes herself as naturally obsessive. At times, she listens to a single song on a loop while working on a painting. When she has a specific subject in mind and the painting isn't going her way, she scrubs it under running water and sees what "sticks" before building it up again. Other times, when she's painting from a less specific idea, she adds detail after detail until it finds a feeling of resolution. The two approaches create starkly different results.
Downie's work is imbued with a powerful magic that feels difficult to capture, let alone to control and express. Hers is the story of how we learn to glimmer and shine, even in strange circumstances.
For self-taught artists, Downie cautions to keep your own perspective: "I stumbled into this; I didn't have a plan, and age to me is irrelevant as most of our lives are lived outside of youth. Being young looks great from the outside but mine wasn't so easy. Do it for yourself, and if people like it, then it's a bonus."
Unskilled Worker, aka Helen Downie, currently has 238,000 Instagram followers and is working on new paintings that will likely be exhibited in South Korea, Hong Kong, and Shanghai in 2018.