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Helen Cass works in a studio that was formerly part of a village smithy on the borders of Herefordshire, Shropshire and Wales. Her Childhood and youth were spent in this area and she still lives close by, travelling through the beautiful landscape every day. It is through an exploration of some of her roots that a closer understanding of her work comes about. While at first glance her work may appear to be coolly abstract. Derived from straightforward formulas of proportion and tone, the truth is somewhat different, linking to the agrarian traditions and family history. Her working processes are those of the artist; nonetheless they are in a direct line from those that sustained very different patterns of work and the way of life in former generations of her family. Cass’s art education, in Herefordshire, Oxford, London and more latterly her post-graduate studies in Aberystwyth, took her far from the farmlands and gave her a broad spectrum of experiences against which to develop her work. Rather than influencing her work directly and diverting her to follow a different path this ongoing education has enabled her instead to concentrate increasingly on her heritage and refine her relationship with it, making it the core of her art. As a result there is an exceptional purity and rigour in her work that is thoroughly coherent with that heritage.

When I first saw the work of Helen Cass some years ago my initial reaction was to remark on how reminiscent it was of some of the work that I had seen in Poland. The formal inheritors of the creative and analytical philosophy of Strzeminski and others who worked in abstract and constructivist traditions have produced drawings and paintings that are superficially similar in many respects, but which have their origin and justification in a very different intellectual tradition. While my first reaction and initial interpretation proves to be far from the truth behind Cass’s work, it is instructive to reflect on how comparable destinations may be reached by very different routes. The similarities may go no further than the manner in which a surface is overlaid with the marks of the artist, and perhaps also the need to approach the consideration of the work in a manner akin to meditation, but in terms of the process – the act of making – the similarities are more deeply rooted. It is interesting to note that, despite the rapid developments of the past fifteen years, much of Poland is still an agrarian society, and that the influence of the forests and open fields is ingrained in the Polish psyche. In that regard the work of Helen Cass has similar deep roots.

Helen is the fifth generation to know the farm worked by her mother’s family. The pervading culture was an agrarian Methodist one, centred on the rituals of non-conformist religious practice and the cycles of the farming year. The Shaker ethic of ‘ Put your hands to work and your hearts to God’, taken to the near perfect extreme in the artefacts of the Shaker sect, runs deep within the such societies and is evidenced in the way things are done. Among the first aesthetic experiences that Helen can recall are, ‘Linen cupboards stacked high and deep with white starched, ironed and folded, table cloths and other household items’ and ‘Ploughed soil, furrows following the contours of the land, borders and hedges.’

The nature of memory and the means by which we learn to live with those memories are of central importance to all people. The urban society in which many people in the world are now compelled to live creates pressures that tend to drive a wedge between people and their pasts, leading to the sense of deracination that, in turn, not only disrupts that society but also determines its cultural output.

In acknowledging her roots, and working closely with them, while at the same time engaging fully in the world of contemporary art that has its own dialogues and practices, Helen Cass is developing a body of work that is not only impressive in its own right, but it is also a potent link with the tradition from which it comes. In coming to an understanding of the roots from which the work is derived is to add immediately a deeper level of appreciation of the work being viewed. What, at first glance, seems to be simple repetition of ink marks or folds built up to create a surface that turns out to be something far more complex. Her work offers a way into a consideration of how memory can operate in an individual life. It also offers something further – an understanding of the manner in which this art, and in turn all art, is made.

To sit for hours at a time making ink marks on a canvas, or to stand ironing fold after fold into linen is to enter into an activity that combines intellectual determination, physical endurance and deep mental concentration. The studio provides the context in which the work is done, a background in which music may be played or into which the sounds of the outside world may intrude. The light in the studio will alter, the day or night will pass, hours at a time, physical sensations will intrude, the telephone may ring, or other needs take precedence, but when the passage of work is completed or exhaustion intervenes, there will be a sense of relief and satisfaction at the small progress that has been made, and an awareness of what remains to be done. The process of making art becomes a ritual, no different in essence from those rituals of the past that required an equal degree of attention, whether in the home or in the fields. In all these there is a profound sense of their needing to be done, regardless of the other demands on the person fulfilling the task. Once the final work is done, be it a cupboard full of ironed household linen, a well ploughed field, or a work of art, there will be a moment of completion, of another circle being closed. This is the continuing process in which ritual mark out the passage of life.

There is a further consideration, and that is the reverie that comes from following the ritual. When deeply immersed in the need to continue the work to completion there may be a passage of hours of concentrated effort. Those hours may drag on the mind or, through a process very close to religious meditation, they may seem to pass quickly, turning day into night. Within this reverie there is deep introspection, a loosening of the bounds of thought and an approaching of one-ness, heartbeat with breath, breath with ink mark or stitch, the ticking of some inner clock. What is achieved through this process is a work that can be placed within a living or working space and taken into and becoming part of, another life.

To come towards a deeper understanding of the work of this artist is to approach a deeper understanding of what it is to be a human being alive at this time. The work is quiet and undemanding, not coolly detached but deeply sensual, requiring a willing sense of complicity from the viewer. The artist has also said, ‘Every breath I take is in the drawing.’ It seems perfectly coherent with the philosophy and aims of this artist to suggest that every breath the viewer takes should be part of that complicity.

Richard Noyce
August 2004
(Richard Noyce is a writer and artist based in Mid-Wales. He has written on contemporary arts since 1985, including two major books on Polish contemporary art.)