Reinvention & thecreative journey
Helen Cammock is a Turner Prize winning artist and teacher at the Royal College of Art. She works across film, photography, print, text and performance.
Helen Cammock sits at ease in her study, surrounded by treasured artworks and piles of books. She is reflecting on the last two years - a whirlwind of awards, travel and international recognition, culminating in her shared Turner Prize win. She sums up her evolution rather simply: “I have gained confidence - this is the key - I have felt able to say I am an artist without any reticence. It is who I am.
It is difficult to imagine someone with Cammock’s clear minded determination being reticent about anything, let alone her creative identity. However, her journey has been so unique, her artistic experience so varied, that reinventing herself appears to have been part of the process.
Cammock’s first childhood foray into the arts was as a poet. This came as something of a surprise, not only to herself, as “someone who didn’t take information in from reading very well” but also to her mother, who had only taken her to the poetry section of the library out of desperation. Yet she was immediately hooked: “I picked out the Liverpool Poets and started to read texts that talked about everyday lives and everyday people in a way that was sometimes funny, that was sometimes abstract, but that ultimately introduced me to the space poetry leaves *between* the words”. When she began to fill this ‘space’ with her own stories and images, Cammock became aware of the creative power of language for the first time. A fearlessness comes to light as she describes her thought process: “I just suddenly thought, well, why can't I write poetry? No one's ever shown me. No one's ever taught me, but why can't I? Other people do it. Why not me?”
This courage and newfound connection with words would offer solace during a traumatic relocation from London to Somerset, aged 12: “We were incredibly isolated as a family. We had this house in the middle of a field because my dad had this notion of living this good life, without really thinking through the impact on us as his black children in a white rural community. We experienced a kind of visceral racism that we were, in some ways, protected from in London. Also, our friends lived further away, so that’s where I taught myself to play guitar and started to write songs - in a kind of semi isolation”. At 16, her mother would take her to perform at a local folk night where she was spotted by a promoter and asked to play support at clubs in the South West. She again recalls the fearlessness of youth: “I just thought that’s what I was going to do for my life. I was like, wow, this is it. I’m going to be a singer.” Then she pauses: “But you know, I went to university. I became a social worker. That kind of took over.”
I was like, wow, this is it. I’m going to be a singer.
In explaining her decision to give up singing, she circles back to identity and the complexity of race and representation: “I realised there was no space for any more than Tracy Chapman as a black folk singer at that moment in time. There wasn’t a space for me looking how I looked and being who I was - a black lesbian folk/blues singer. I knew what I could do live - even playing theatres as an 18 year old - but I needed to get a record label to see me live. The explosion of the festival circuit and digital platforms have changed a lot - the gatekeepers have less control and self platforming is a norm”.
Cammock speaks now with the calm confidence of one who has found her space. But when she recalls her near ten year career as a social worker, she paints a picture of one which was rewarding but that ultimately left her frustrated and tired. “There was a big hole”, she recalls, “I wasn’t writing songs anymore. I wasn’t singing”. Simply put, she had stopped creating.
Cammock’s voice brightens markedly as she describes the moment of breakthrough, when her partner at the time suggested she take an evening class: “I picked a photography class and I loved it. And that was the beginning. I did a year of an evening class and was just like, right, I love this - I’m going to go back. I’m going to go to art school”.
One of the most compelling aspects of Cammock’s story is her circuitous route to the top of her trade. It offers hope to anyone who dreams of doing something different - no matter their stage in life. However, her time as a social worker, the ‘hole’ she felt, raises questions about the nature of creativity itself. Are we still artists if we stop creating? Even if we devote ourselves to artistic pursuits, when do we feel comfortable calling ourselves ‘artists’? Cammock says that the confidence to do this came during a period of universal acclaim for her work. Yet she was willing to upturn her life at 35 to pursue a Photography degree and do so again at 38 to enrol at the Royal College of Art, all in order to reinvent herself. So what drives her?
“I make work because I want to have a conversation,” she states, “I know I’m not physically present but nevertheless I see it as a dialogue”. She likes the idea of “different registers of voice, and of multiple voices having this one conversation that comes through my voice - I call this my audible fingerprint’. The idea is that we all have an audible fingerprint and that the words we speak are always transformed by who we are - our subject position. So meaning is derived through both the context, the original author and the person who speaks it or works with it. It shifts again once the audience becomes part of the exchange. This flux in meaning is the dialogue I’m really interested in exploring”.
She works in multiple mediums, combining poetry, song, installation, performance, print, film and photography because she wants to connect with her audience in the language and form that best translates for each piece. In particular, she values the contrast between the written word and performance as methods of expression: “When you read text from a print on a wall you’re using your own voice to say the words in your head; you hear the words through your own internal aperture, whereas with performance you listen to an external voice. I suppose through someone else’s sound and tone - it is somehow a more direct point of connection, more visceral, more emotional”.
For Cammock, knowing one’s history is key to finding that voice. Indeed, a desire to reflect on and emotionally connect with the past characterises much of her work. “How can we make sense of ourselves if we don’t know what’s come before us - what has informed culture, folklore, wars, legislation, education, norms and accepted values - what has contributed to oppression, poverty, racism, prejudice, misogyny,” she asks. “We need to learn these things. It doesn’t matter whether we’re three or 63. We all need to be learning together what history does to all of us.”
She also reflects on winning the Max Mara Art Prize for Women in 2018, earning a six month residency in Italy and a show at the Whitechapel Gallery in London: “If we were in a world where we didn’t need it, then we wouldn’t need a prize for women, but we’re not in [that] world. [Women] are shown less in institutions, represented less by galleries, represented less in collections, their work is sold for less. They have less access to career opportunities than men, nevermind when you start intersecting that with race, disability, gender identity or trans communities”. Once more, identity is at the centre of her thinking: “There are women who say, I don’t want the prize. I don’t want to be seen as a woman artist. I want to be seen as just an artist. For me this is slightly misplaced because it is a myth that a man is seen as just an artist. He is thought of only as an artist because a male artist doesn’t need to consider their gender. I’m not insulted to have my work put up against other women artists - I don’t believe it to be lesser - so I simply recognise it as a mechanism to redress the imbalance that we are already challenged by. It’s an honour not a charitable act. And it means an early career woman artist gets to have a show at Whitechapel and that happens very rarely in institutions in London - it’s usually male artists who get those kinds of early career breaks. So I see the value of it and I see the place of it. Very definitely.”
There are women who say, I don’t want the prize. I don’t want to be seen as a woman artist. I want to be seen as just an artist.
Cammock is deeply appreciative of the path she is on. Acknowledging the breaks she has earned and the people who have supported her, she describes the journey to date as “a range of collisions - being in a space at the right time, making the work I make in a particular moment, taking opportunities when they were offered and people having some faith in me for whatever reason, or seeing something in me that they valued and they wanted to nurture.” Typically, she makes no mention of having the courage to follow her passion and totally reinvent herself at a time in life when most people are finally settling into a steady rhythm, or her unwavering commitment to becoming an ‘artist’ in the fullest sense of the word. Indeed, she sums up her attitude when offering advice to any aspiring artist: “Understand that [like] life, making work or art is a continual process of learning; from others and from and for yourself”.
Cammock is living proof that on a creative path, the journey is just as important as the destination.