A South Galway artist is currently the subject of a short documentary being broadcast across Canada. Nicola Corless spoke to Helen Tilston, who splits her time between Florida and Toronto, and has been labelled an accidental environmental painter.
Helen Tilston’s early years in Aughinish have been hugely influential in her work as an artist. Her childhood home close to Kinvara even gets a mention in the three-minute documentary about her that is currently being broadcast across her adopted country, Canada. Though she claims she was nervous during filming, it is hard to believe it watching the footage.
“The television company approached me and did the video and now they run it before certain shows. They call it an evergreen piece. I was so nervous, you know you are in the left brain, right brain type mode, trying to paint and trying to talk but they did a lovely job,” she stated.
Helen’s family moved from Galway to Meath as part of the redistribution of lands under the Land Commission Act.
“People didn’t speak about it very openly. I went to school in Doorus National School but I think my mother wanted us to have good schooling and we were so far from Galway city in Aughinish that further education would have been difficult. She was always very advanced thinking in that respect but there was one other family that moved up at the time I think. It was rare in Aughinish,” she explained.
Despite moving at the age of seven, Helen and her family never forgot their roots.
“I have wonderful memories of Cluainin. It was an idyllic childhood; so much so that when we moved to Dunboyne our hearts always remained in Galway. We always cheered for Galway in sport and we nearly got black eyes because our friends were from Dublin and Meath. Our parents always told us about Galway, so it lived on in the family,” she recalled.
Helen is one of seven children and though there were many positive elements to her life on the farm in Dunboyne, it lacked something that had been a huge part of her life.
“I missed the sea very, very much and I don’t think my father ever really transplanted. My mother settled and adapted but my father didn’t,” she said.
After secondary school, Helen went on to do a secretarial course in Dublin, a move that presented her with many opportunities later in life.
She went to Australia at the age of 20 for three years, before moving to Canada, where work was plentiful for a woman with her skills.
“I had planned to work in all the Commonwealth countries but then I got a job in the office of an airline, which meant I could travel and earn a good wage. It was fantastic. I used to head off for the weekend to all sorts of places. Myself and a few girls from the office would just get up and go to Montego Bay in Jamaica for two days at a time,” she remembered.
“I was always dabbling with design and taking night classes and continuing education. I did interior design so I got my papers, which meant I could work as a design assistant but I didn’t want to leave my well-paid job with so many perks,” Helen explained. By this stage she had been promoted and was working in Hawaii every year from February to April, something she was enjoying and didn’t want to sacrifice just yet. The art was always there, though, and by chance Helen discovered she could really handle a pair of needles.
“Art was always with me and I found I could design knitwear. I could do anything with a ball of yarn. I could knit anything. I could look at a pattern and make it. I could see a picture on a sweater and I could replicate it. I could do any design, any size. It was just one of those things that I could do,” Helen recollected.
Her late mother was not a knitter but her grandmother was more than apt, it was said. “She died when I was four but had lived with us in Aughinish. They say knitting skips a generation but I don’t know,” Helen mused.
This skill led her to open her own shop in Toronto, where she became the largest importer of Missoni and Valentino wool. Though she enjoyed her work, she remained artistically unsatisfied.
“I loved paintings and I loved art. I saw a painting I really liked by an artist called Willi Wildman. I didn’t know who Willi Wildman was. I thought it was a man. I wanted the painting so I used to put a payment on it each month and one day I was going in to pay an instalment when I met this woman who said she was Willi Wildman. I couldn’t believe it. She asked me if I wanted to take classes with her. I was delighted and I loved how she painted. I took classes with her and started painting and have never looked back,” Helen claimed.
The classes were held outdoors at a rural farmhouse where the group would paint chickens, cows, trees and birds. The location reflected elements of her youth and eventually she and her husband bought a weekend farm close to where she used to paint. Fifteen years ago, Helen began life drawing when the couple bought a townhouse in Florida.
“I started taking classes in the Gulf Coast Art Museum and the teacher was Violetta,” she remembered. The fifth generation Russian artist was to play a major role in shaping her career.
“She kept saying to me ‘you are very good’ and ‘you have to produce more paintings’. We started going away for weekends, she and I and another woman, Mary Rose. Soon I had 12 paintings and I said ‘what am I going to do with these?’ She said that they would all be sold in a month and they were. I think she had faith in me before I did myself,” Helen reflected.
The three women formed a group and each of them donates a portion from the sales of their work to a variety of charities. They are known as the Plein Air Cottage Artists, so-called because of their style of painting on location and their choice of subject.
“We started painting the old cottages in Florida. Then the local people started protesting when developers would get permission to knock them and build large condominiums in their place,” Helen outlined. The group became known for their visual recordings of the old buildings and the media soon became interested. They were the subject of a two-page article in a Florida newspaper, before featuring on a Fox television documentary.
“We became environmental painters without meaning it. Of course we didn’t want condos all the way along the coast, as is the case in other areas of the state. The ocean belongs to everyone and people driving down the Gulf should be able to see the sea,” she asserted.
The group’s paintings led to them receiving an achievement award from the Florida Trust for Historic Preservation, an honour usually reserved for architects and interior designers. Their work was also instrumental in the area’s local authority deciding that developers can only go five floors above parking level. Although this was among her career highlights, winning the Best of Show award in 2005 as part of Paint the Town St Petersburg was also good, but there was one better.
“Two years ago I was invited to exhibit at Florence Biennale. It was a big honour because it features 840 artists from 73 nations. It was like the Olympics. They are holding it again this December and I have a lifetime invitation. It was a full week of exhibits, lectures and meeting artists from different nations and being part of it all was wonderful,” she reflected.
For all her travel, Helen’s youth in Ireland and particularly her time in South Galway still heavily influences her art.
“I definitely think it was a childhood of happiness and the bright colours of the place stay with you from childhood, the memories, the music, the art, the literature, the singing. We were quite an artistic family when I think about it, with song and dance and music and simpler things,” she recollected.
Helen’s siblings are scattered around Dublin and Meath but her older sister, Philomena, passed away nine years ago in Boston.
“Phil is buried in Doorus. That is where she wanted to be buried, it was where she made her first communion and it is where she is buried,” Helen stated.
On her regular visits back to Ireland, Helen has a very specific ritual.
“I come back to Ireland probably every second year. Aughinish is the first place I go to. I fly into Shannon and pick up a car. Then I drive to Doorus and visit my sister’s grave, then I go into Galway for a night and onto Meath. When I am going back, I go to Galway and on to Shannon again. That is my routine,” she concluded.
The three-minute documentary on Helen can be seen on YouTube at www.youtube.com/watch?v=w1ftQOEWrLk.