Helen Elliott is among the most original artists working in the enamels field today. Her evocative, abstract compositions are the result of layer upon layer of opaque enamel which she builds up and stones back to create evanescent veils of color, shape and form. However, Elliott’s work is as much about content -- reflection and remembrance – as it is about material, process and structure. The artist has described her interests in the following terms, “From the beginning, I was taught to look beyond the surface. My parents passed down the appreciation of small, subtle details that could have gone unnoticed. The observance of details led me on a path towards understanding the essence of things – past pleasures, that which seemed meaningless, or my own unfledged wisdom – towards the unseen. These stored memories continue to feed me, and are the foundation of my work.”
Born in Jamaica, Helen Elliott grew up in a family in which music and art were a constant presence. Her father, who owned a hardware store, played the organ and had a particular fondness for Haydn and Bach. Her mother was also artistic and especially loved painting and embroidery. According to Elliott, being raised in a family in which artistic expression was so highly regarded had an abiding influence on her later life and interests. Also, growing up in the temperate climate of Jamaica, she enjoyed easy access – twelve months of the year – to the bounties of nature. This too, she claims, had a profound impact on her development as an artist.
From 1971 to 1975, Elliott studied early childhood education at the progressive Froebel Institute in London (now known as the University of Roehampton). She was awarded her Bachelor of Education degree in 1975. Upon completing her studies, she returned to Jamaica where she taught 7 and 8 year old children at a private Catholic school from 1975 to 1982. While teaching she continued to pursue her interest in creative activities including painting on silk and other textiles.
However, in 1991, Elliott became somewhat disenchanted with textile production and, after several months of travel in Europe, began a two-month apprenticeship with Amal Ghosh, a prominent Indian-born, British artist who had been commissioned to produce an enamel mural for the Eastman Dental Hospital in the Bloomsbury section of London. Through Ghosh, Elliott was introduced to Elizabeth Turrell, one of the leading figures in the contemporary enamels field. Turrell, in turn, became her lifelong friend and mentor, and it was through her that Elliott developed her abiding passion for enamels.
Deciding to pursue a career in the field, Elliott enrolled in classes at Ohio’s Kent State University where Mel Someroski had established a highly successful graduate program in enameling. She was awarded her M.F.A. at Kent State in 1997.
While there, she formulated her highly distinctive approach to enameling. Not fond of what she describes as the glossy properties of her medium, Elliott explored a variety of stoning techniques, claiming: “The alundum stone became my best friend!” She later observed: “I discovered that I could spend a whole day adding and removing layers of color through the stoning process. I sometimes fired pieces as many as 30 times before they were complete.” At Kent she also had access the University’s large, industrial kilns. She liked working at the enlarged scale made possible by these oversized kilns.
Elliott’s work in enamel is characterized by its subtle palette, its textural variety, and its overlaid veils of color and shape. Her creative process through which she adds layers of color, fires the enamel, and then removes color and form through stoning, embodies her desire “to look beyond the surface…towards understanding the essence of things.”
In titling her work Elliott often alludes to things seen or half-remembered – the roofs of hillside shacks in Jamaica, the sound of a ‘Quiet Noise’ or ‘Overlapping Voices’ or simply an allusion to abstract moments in time – ‘Remembrance,’ ‘Window Diaries,’ ‘Journals,’ and ‘Remnants and Remembrances.’