in situ: is delighted to welcome Helen Cook as our artist-in-residence during rehearsals for The Master Builder Project, our 2023 summer production. In this interview, Helen explains her artistic approach and how she has worked with in situ: during our rehearsals. 

Helen, tell us a little about yourself, your background and what you do. 

I am a white, mid 40s, queer, disabled artist living in Cambridge. I grew up and was educated in Canada on the settled land of the Semiahmoo and Musqueam people.

I moved to Cambridge to do a postdoc in computational biology, and during this time developed chronic daily migraine. I started painting frequently when I took medical leave, and art became a solace for me. Even with a headache, I find a lot of joy in mixing colour and creating form on the page. More than that, I’ve discovered that I think primarily visually (in contrast to the highly analytical work I was doing previously), and painting is now the main way I express myself.

My work with portraits comes primarily from a drive for connection with other people. I am interested in the line between abstraction and representational work – how few brush strokes can we attribute personality to and/or see ourselves in? Abstraction provides a broad mirror, and it also serves to make the moments that are resolved stand out as more personal in contrast.

For this work in particular, I was really interested in continuing my studies of portraits, but working with actual people instead of just from reference photos. Working with theatre gives the opportunity to consider the actor and the character together — actors take on a motivation that’s not their own, and the character’s personality is played by multiple actors over time, but each time with variation.

Why are you interested in the collaborative process? Why have you chosen to collaborate with in situ:?

I love the experimental nature of in situ: and the way you incorporate improvised aspects to your work. This leaves the door open to a wide range of expressions and reactions, and I feel that cross-media collaboration is a good fit.

Collaboration and exchanging ideas was central to my practice when I was doing science, and I feel like it’s necessary to continue that with my art. My experience is that work is always richer and better when ideas are reinterpreted and reflected back to be built upon again.

What do you actually do when you attend rehearsals – and after those rehearsals, how do you progress your work?

At a rehearsal, I’m intensely looking – at each actor, at how actors are relating to each other in a scene, and at how the ‘spectactors’ are watching from the audience. I’m looking for expression, emotion, ways to visually tell the story. For moments that are echoed in time or in space. I take a lot of reference photos, and then I pore over them to pull out the interesting moments. I re-crop them, sometimes rearranging elements in the photo quite a lot.

The actual painting process begins with a wet paper. I’m using a specific brand of paints that are designed to move a lot on the page. They don’t stay within one brush stroke at all, and I enjoy letting the paint run as it wants. The next layers of the painting are a reaction to the bleeds and soft edges that have developed in the first layer. The outcome is often unpredictable – this is also a process of improvisation.

What are your reactions to the performance in situ: is working on – built around Ibsen’s The Master Builder? 

I feel as if my paintings are my reaction to the play, but maybe I’m missing the point of the question.

In reaction to the sleepwalking sequences in particular, I’m starting to play with a ‘double exposure’ idea, seeing a face in two moments in time. I’m thinking of one as a sleepwalking state and the other as a moment of clarity, seeing through the fog.

How are you finding the collaboration with in situ:

One challenge has been working with found lighting (if I can call it that — I’m not bringing studio lighting, I mean). I’m drawn to dramatic lighting, but because of how the lights are placed in the venue of the Leper Chapel, the lights can end up a bit flat. 

The result is that I feel that the images are situated less in space, which actually suits the dreamlike, sleepwalking interstitial scenes in the play quite well. However, it also means that the lighting is consistent across most images, so it’s easier for me to superimpose images that were taken even on different days for the double exposure paintings. In that way the disadvantage of the lighting turns into an advantage.

Of course working with you all has been amazing. Everyone has been really lovely, and the quality of your work is fantastic. In rehearsals, I have to try to not get caught up in the emotion of the scenes, and pull myself back to actively observing what’s happening so that I can translate some of that moment to the page.

What now?

After The Master Builder Project performances, I think I will spend some time resting! I’ve been very focused on production with this series, and I’d like some time to take a step back and have some time to play without a clear direction. 

I’m going to continue working with portraits to some degree, I’m interested in exploring making art with, and of, a community, maybe moving from the community of in situ: to my community in Cambridge more broadly. This intersects with some community work I’m doing to help folks engage and feel ownership in their communities.

I’m also really interested in working more with themes around control of destiny. The play focuses on that theme at a personal level, but more broadly, society sits at a cusp of wildly divergent possible ecological futures. I can only believe that we have the agency to steer towards a more just outcome, even though it often feels like we’re being bowled over by forces so far out of our control. There’s a lot to explore in there.