Helle Jorgensen is a diverse artist who, despite her love for classification, refuses to be pinned down or categorised, and instead calls herself an “investigator of materials”. Born in Denmark, she moved to Sydney when she was thirteen and now lives in the Tweed Valley on the NSW north coast with her husband Chris Newling and Harriet their adopted Hereford cow.
Her studio and home spills out onto a garden that pulsates with the colour and pattern of succulents, strappy grasses and fruit trees. Entering the studio I step over lengths of neatly bundled purple Cordyline that are waiting to be processed into string. Inside, we sit at a large table that is brimming with tiny ceramic and plant based works that Jorgensen’s making for an upcoming show in Canberra. On the day I visit she’s busy crocheting a pair of ‘safety goggles’ from string she has processed from banana fibre. I pick up a small ceramic work from the table that could be a neolithic tool, its tiny handle crocheted with a waxed cotton as fine as dental floss. The neighbour’s fat sausage dog, Tucky, wanders in in search of a feed. There is little distinction between inside and outside; Jorgensen has little interest in boundaries.
“There’s a really strong connection to what’s going on out there,” she gestures. “I don’t really see myself as separate to it. My practice is not separate from my life. When I think, I think through my hands and materials and how they behave. We live inside/outside all the time, even when it’s freezing cold, and most of what I do in life is based on what I’m making at the time. It’s all a bit of a blur. There aren’t any boundaries really.”
As a child, she was a prolific maker, but her intense curiosity for the natural world led to a career in biology. After graduating in 1979 she worked in marine biology and her first job involved propagating and taking care of a large collection of blue-green algae. “They’re strange little creatures; we had a huge collection. We also went diving to collect sponges and other sea creatures.” She later worked in immunology and cancer research and spent many years looking down microscopes. The hierarchy and stress didn’t suit her and after ten years in science and medicine she studied horticulture and began drawing classes at Julian Ashton Art School. She started working full time as an artist in the late ’90s, however her work continues to be informed by her fascination with science and the natural world.
In the early 2000s she began to gather and group huge collections of driftwood, sea sponges and plastic washed up at her local Sydney beach, and was curious about why particular pieces of detritus and plastic were prominent and recurring.
“I began grouping things and putting them into typologies – it was part of that whole museum, scientific research background. When you have things that have similar properties grouped together you begin to see patterns occurring which is related to function and history, and you also start to see variations and think about evolution and why things vary.”
Clay is a relatively new material for Jorgensen and it features in her latest solo show A Typology of Useless Objects. The exhibition is a collection of more than 30 installation-based works and assemblages exquisitely made from ceramics, fibre and textiles.
One installation includes a series of more than 60 individual works carefully laid out on six manganese stoneware trays like specimens in a museum. Each tableaux contains a selection of tiny handbuilt ceramic pots, bowls, tool-like objects, and hand-modelled bead-like forms strung on handmade cord. There’s a strong sense of archaeology and anthropology; these imagined objects could be from prehistory used by adults or children for ritual, work and play.
Materials and traditional craft techniques used by the world’s aboriginal peoples have been an important inspiration for Jorgensen. As a child in Denmark, she remembers being fascinated by Viking artefacts in museums and going to an ‘Iron-Age Market’ where people were using traditional iron-age tools to make jewellery and objects. So too, the stories of South American magic realist Gabriel Garcia-Marquez – the master of intertwining the real with the magical, the mythical with the mundane – have had a profound effect on her way of making and seeing.
“I like the idea where for a moment we might see something slightly differently and from a new perspective. It opens us up to new ways of thinking. Through my work I try to show that things aren’t always as they seem. I don’t think it’s good to be stuck in particular ways of seeing. I question everything, and I would like other people to do that too.”
Her work The Wearable Life Insurance (a diverse policy) is a significant assemblage made from woven banana fibre, red hot poker, sedges, wallaby scat, pasture grass, seed pods, and terracotta and stoneware clays. Constructed from a collection of plant and ceramic experiments from over 20 years of making it could be part of a ceremonial costume or a post-apocalyptic tool belt. If disaster strikes Jorgensen’s Diverse Policy has you covered.
At the exhibition’s opening-night an animated audience drew in around the unfamiliar artefacts. They laughed and told stories. Some were adamant and insistent on the functional nature of each object. They could see fish traps, nets, back scratchers, toilet brushes, nut crackers, grappling hooks, bottle openers, coasters for fairies, and objects for sexual pleasure. Jorgensen was amused.
Humour is an important part of her practice, and is used to tell stories and break down distinctions between art and craft, useful and useless. These objects are primarily about play, imagination and the ridiculous.
“I like to stick a spanner in the works. Because things are never what they seem. I don’t like it when I get too serious … rules, you know. I use humour to break up that kind of thing. People can be too serious across the board, and I don’t like categories in terms of Media, Art and Science, Art and Craft, all those little categories that we get put into.”
But for all their silliness there’s an underlying seriousness to Jorgensen’s work, and despite their uselessness, her objects function on a number of levels. As a passionate environmentalist and feminist, her interest in materials is also about fundamental connection to and respect for them, how things are made, and our obsession with stuff.
“It’s empowering to know how to make string or to make fire. We’re so disconnected from materials, where things come from and how things work. We can buy anything. But when you live on the land and you’re dependent on the food that you grow and the water you collect, you really know what’s important. It’s a huge reason why I make the stuff that I do.”
Helle Jorgensen is an artist and educator who encourages curiosity and experimentation. She has had solo shows in Sydney, Adelaide, Mullumbimby (NSW), and the Tweed River Art Gallery in Murwillumbah (NSW). She has been in many group shows nationally and internationally, including New York, Los Angeles, Washington and London. Her work has been published in many books and international journals.
Facebook, Pinterest and Instagram @hellegoosey www.hellejorgensen.com.
This article was written by Claire Atkins and was first published in The Journal of Australian Ceramics, Vol 56 No 3, November 2017 @australianceramics www.australianceramics.com
All images by Michelle Eabry @michelleeabry.photography