Helena Calvet was born in Lisbon in 1958 in the midst of a family of artists.
She studied at António Arroio, a school which is no doubt one of the main centers for art teaching, where hundreds of renowned portuguese artists started their paths.
The experience as an apprentice at Gisela Santi's studio - a pioneer in the portuguese tapestry scenario - and, a few years later, a degree in Sculpture at the University of Évora, already antecipated the two forms of art she ended up exploring the most, although she doesn't like to be labeled solely as a sculpturer or a weaver.
Her curiosity, her bewilderment, the desire to learn and also to teach, lead her to a constant quest for new art expressions such as lithography, collage, scenography, with drawing crossing all of them.
Helena lives in Alentejo, where she teaches Visual Arts. She welcomed us at her studio: a blue cobalt iron door surrounded by ivy, which lead us to her magical world of colors, textures, fabrics, wool, seeds and dry flowers. On the wall a quote by Leonard Cohen “there’s a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in”, the same light that penetrates the industrial window that she rescued from street garbage, and now frames the Alentejo plane, with its shades and scents of spring.
Does nature play an important role in your life?
Very, very important. Of the utmost importance. Daily, almost permanently, it plays a key role and I think that we, humans, have lost the sense of belonging, of feeling that “we are nature”. For centuries we have been separating nature and man, placing the latter on top of the pyramid. And that’s not the way it should be: the more we live surrounded by nature, the more we realize it’s not, at all, like this.
And I would say that being in close contact with nature, we become aware that we, humans, are like a bird or a tree, that we are just one more element of nature.
I feel that need and I would like others to feel it, the need to find and create a balance of union and belonging – belonging rather that uniting, I would say -, so that things would flow in a more balanced way, more according to nature.
What themes do you pursue?
The themes I’ve been using have changed slightly as time goes by. There have been situations in which the theme is pre-arranged, for example, in collective exhibitions in which several artists agree on a subject (or several) and then each of us works, individually, according to the theme we all chose.
But there have been situations in which something caught my attention, for one reason or the other, for example – and getting back to nature – for all the reasons I’ve already mentioned, and also because it is a privilege to live in the countryside, the physicality of things itself: a leaf which goes through different stages, from a tiny, really tiny, sprout, it slowly grows bigger and bigger, then, when it is fully grown, all its shades of green and brown, until it becomes the skeleton of a leaf, when there is nothing left but its filaments. All this is very motivating, small mysteries that happen before you or around you, and that are also a source of inspiration.
There is also another question related to living here: the fact of having a vegetable garden. This means having vegetables that you can eat and all the work, the phases, involved in having a vegetable garden, preparing it, nursing it, collecting the vegetables when they are ready.
It’s a never-ending cycle that begins with the seeds, and which closes in itself. Lately, the seeds have been one of the things that have inspired me.
The coat of the seeds: what we actually see is not even the seed itself, it is the housing of the seed, the place where it is protected.
These coats, which are layers of time, are nothing but protective layers, layers of life, layers upon layers. They are a little bit like us, like people – generations are layers.
As I was saying, these layers are related to time, to transformation… it’s and endless world. Everything is inspiring, everything is a happening, everything seduces me.
Do you collect anything?
Yes, a lot of stuff. Not as a collector, who collects many similar objects, more in the sense of the word gatherer, in the sense of “this could turn into something”.
I usually pick up many dry things, there is a whole lot of things that I find here and there, that I keep to myself. Not only because they are fascinating, because of their shape and their composition, but also because there are many things that can be used to texturize clay, having a very interesting result in the end.
Therefore, I collect, gather, and afterwards I don’t even know what I really have kept anymore.
Is upcycling part of your work?
I don’t understand why it is called upcycling instead of recycling.
The difference between recycling and upcycling is that recycling has to go through a facility to break it down in order to reuse it in the manufacturing process. Upcycling is when you take the product and reuse it around your home to create something of use for you.
I use and abuse of upcycling in my work. Mainly because I am concerned about the environment, but that’s not the only reason…
It is actually because these materials fascinate me, probably, part of that fascination comes from the fact of imagining what they have gone through, the marks, signs they have because of that passage of time, hands, uses they have suffered…
These, for instance, are papers I’ve kept from my classes, my pupils, they use kitchen paper to clean brushes, tables and so on, and they were about to put them in the garbage. So I started asking them not to throw them away. And what do I do then? The kitchen paper they use becomes all wet and I am patient enough to take it, stretch it, and leave it to dry over the work surface. For example, if I glue one of these used papers to a surface, it can serve as a spectacular basis to draw upon, or to make a collage. (Showing me the work she’s currently doing) In this case, the paper wrinkles remind me of skin wrinkles, of roots, they remind me of the passage of time.
I’m trying to think of other examples of recycling… Look! These masks hanging on the wall, these tissues...
Which symbols are references to you?
I like certain shapes and symbols but that doesn’t mean I necessarily use them. If something shows up and, for some reason, I feel a connection, I will start using it, because I like it, or because it became important to me.
I will give you an example: the symbol of the sixties “peace and love” has been used by millions of people throughout the world. Back in the sixties, when you saw someone with that symbol hanging on the neck, or on a pendant, or a bag, or something else, you immediately thought several things, namely that the person using it knew what it meant and wanted to share a message of peace and love.
But today that can be very tricky – I chose the sixties because it was a very important time in many different ways –, back then, by using the “peace and love” symbol or by listening to a certain type of music, you could tell the beliefs of a person or the group she/he hanged out with.
It is no longer like this, it is totally misleading because the merchandising and marketing, and all that crap, assimilated those symbols, those ideas, taking their original meaning away, putting them out of context, taking away their true essence. It is purely and simply a question of aesthetics. And it is okay if it’s only a question of aesthetics, but then you are going in a totally different direction, it’s another chapter, it becomes a matter of fashion: “it is fashionable, I like to use the latest fashion trend, therefore I use it”. There is nothing beyond this. It is poor, very poor, and also sad.
Why is handmade important?
Again, using the sixties as an example: those symbols were not commercialized, they existed because people manufactured them either to use them or to give to friends, friends who shared the same ideals. It was something very personal… Now it is no longer personal, it is something used by multinationals, big factories, advertising campaigns. When you enter that kind of spiral, it becomes difficult because everything on sale can be bought by anyone, provided you have the money, you don’t need to have the ideas. So, I have no clue on how to give back meaning to something that is for sale.
But to answer your question, handmade goods have been created with special care. That results in the quality of the finishing details, originality, creativity and uniqueness.
Besides, when I buy something handmade, I am cherishing this kind of practice, I’m reducing my footprint, and I’m investing in my country by supporting local artists and artisans.
Which artists do you most identify with?
One of my references is Juan Muñoz. Another one is Eduardo Chillida, I love his sculptures, engravings, collages and drawings. I aim to reach the simplicity of his work – with very little, or nearly nothing, being able to say everything, to say a lot.
The Japanese have the ability to do exactly that, isn’t it? You just have to look at their zen gardens – how is it possible to do so much with so little?
And that’s one of the main ideals I try to pursue, that guide me, that “light at the end of the tunnel” that I hope I will reach one day. I don’t know if I will ever reach it but, that’s where I am heading to or, at least, trying to.
Of course, there are names I can’t leave out… Miró, Picasso, Van Gogh, Paul Klee, Kandinsky. All these names are, inevitably, an influence to all of us, it is impossible not to see them as crucial. Their role, the importance they had, and still have. The invasion of their work in our daily life by means of the overall diffusion, making everyone aware of their work and importance. What would be the contemporary art without them? There is even people who know the images, but fail to recognize the name of the authors.
Someone told me the other day “when you’ll see a pair of socks with your work printed on, then you will know that you are famous” (laughs).
In Portugal, José Rodrigues is an example of a fantastic sculptor and drawer.
Another portuguese sculptor that I’ve had the privilege to meet, and who died not long ago, was Jorge Vieira, author of the sculpture “Homem Sol” situated in Parque das Nações, Lisbon. I really love his work, which comprises huge monumental sculptures, like the one I just mentioned, or small ones, that can be placed on a desk or shelf. He has also produced beautiful embossed ceramic plates that have a lot to do with the countryside, with earth, and that represent oxen.
Jorge Vieira lived in a “Monte” (farm) in Alentejo, just like me, and worked a lot with iron and terracotta, and I believe I have a special connection with his work due to that.
João Cutileiro is also a very important name in portuguese sculpture, he also died recently. He was the one who created the department of sculpture in stone in the University of Évora, where I studied.
Rosa Ramos, is another artist I like very much, both as a person and as a painter. Of course there are many others, it’s impossible to name them all.
What is the best piece of advice someone gave you?
A good piece of advice I was given and which – because of my nature – I didn’t follow, is to be or stay focused.
Apart from focus, there is something else I was told by the same person: no matter what you do, it can be a pair of shoes, painting, whatever, as long as you are good, genuine, honest doing what you do, that’s what really matters.
What is the artist’s role in society?
To raise questions. “Shake” things. It is important not only to raise questions, but also to put things in perspective, to alert and to open people’s eyes, awake consciousness, make a fuss. This is the key role of the artist in society.
What gives you hope?
Spring surprises and marvels me, with the rebirth of plants it almost feels as if I’m experiencing it for the first time. Youth, and people who study and consciously fight for humanity, for environment and science, give me hope and confidence in the future. The small gestures of kindness received from strangers. And my students, especially the ones who look at me with eager and curious eyes and ask questions… those who make me want to know more and seek for the answers I don’t know yet.
Find more of Helena's works here.
Interview and photographs by Maria Abranches