In the last of our Meet the Maker features for 2022, looking at contemporary Shetland craft makers showcased in our current ShetlandMade exhibition, we talk to Helen Robertson about her work.

What is your background?

Many years ago I heard myself saying that if designing and making were my job, I would never retire. I had read enough self help books by then to know that the key to a happy life was to follow your heart and spend times doing things you loved. Combining my two skills of knitting and jewellery making and a tiara commission led to me knitting with wire and enabled me to create original desirable jewellery and classes that made that dream a reality.

How do you work, what is your process?

In my practice I find myself more and more thinking about jewellery design and knitting design in tandem. I love illustrating stories from Shetland’s environment and history, creating knitting designs and jewellery collections inspired by the same Shetland inspiration. You can see elements of that in this exhibition but I expect future exhibitions to feature more explicitly linked products.

What is your favourite part of the process?

I very much enjoy the designing process and making one off bespoke pieces. I am working on ways to move my practice in this direction while still making my popular pieces available and see myself in the future as more of a designer and less of a maker.

Do you have a favourite piece to make?

I love making pieces for my Driftwood Collection as each piece is hand textured and embellished I feel a real connection with them and I’m always delighted with how they turn out. I love that they can be displayed as beach combing finds as well as worn as jewellery.

I love my new Ramnahol Collection which I created following a Vacma Award. Inspired by The Burn of Lunklet it led me in unexpected directions and you can see that here I think in my pieces. I focussed on the gorgeous shape of the mica rock that splits the burn, as Shetland is a Geopark the sale of stones in not allowed so in order to realise my vision I had to make stones using concrete and mica flakes. A chance comment online deepened my knowledge of the area as someone commented that the pool is call Ramnahol meaning Pool of the Ravens. I investigated sound in jewellery as I had imagined standing under a waterfall of light as part of a meditative practice to get me through lockdown. The results of my design journey can be seen in the unusual pieces you see here. I played with creating a silver shaker egg and with applying silver leaf to the bubble float but in the end decided to create silver balls and use the clear bubble float as it links to activities associated with the burn and shows honesty in material use.

What constitutes a successful piece for you?

A successful piece for me is one that other folk connect with. I am delighted that many of my Aerial Archaeology pieces have sold to archaeologists! I aim to give folk a moment when they encounter or wear one of my pieces, a moment of connection, reflection and joy.

If you could own another artist's work, who would you choose? Why?

I’m delighted to own several Shetland Artist’s work:

  • Julie Willmore’s paintings take me outside when the weather is too rough to get there.
  • Paul Bloomer’s “Flight -A Picture for Molly” print will greet you as you enter our house.
  • I love my print of a Tammy Norie in the snow in summer by Howard Towll and I love his colourful bird repeats.
  • I have my eye on a painting by Kristi Cumming as I love her use of colour.
  • Bryan Mouat is a young Shetland artist whose work I particularly admire and I have three of his prints, 2 in my shedio (shed/studio) and 1 in our house.
  • I am in awe of the skill and sensitivity of many Shetland female photographers including Joy Allan, Ria Moncrieff, Jane Matthews and Chloe Tallack and would love to see a joint exhibition of their work.
  • I love Niela’s textile designs and I’ve accumulated a few pieces over the years.
  • I love Victoria Gibson’s “Peerie Shop Gansy’ design and live in mine most of the time.

Looking further afield I can spend quite a long time looking at Rothko and love the Rothko room at Tate Modern. I love Bisa Butler’s work and would love to see it in real life. My last visit to the Tate left me with the feeling that the future was 3D, flat pictures felt redundant.

Art aside, what do you like to do in your spare time?

I love teaching and sharing my techniques and designs and I am delighted to have secured funding to allow me to travel around Shetland’s outer islands to deliver my Fizzy Fair Isle technique. I really enjoyed delivering my Gloril Wire lampshade class in the isles over the last winter and I’m very much looking forward to travelling around and sharing my new Fair Isle technique this winter.

What is next for you?

I am working on developing my portfolio of online knitting classes as I love meeting folk from all over the world through Zoom and I love sharing my techniques and designs this way too.

You can see Helen's work as part of the current set of ShetlandMade exhibitions at Bonhoga Gallery during opening hours Wednesday - Sunday, 10:30am - 4:30pm until the exhibition ends on Sunday 4 September.

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