Artist Helen Jones was the winner of the 2018 Shape Open exhibition 'Collective Influence', as chosen by Shape Patron Yinka Shonibare MBE. Shape's Lulu Nunn caught up with her to discuss her artistic practice and ambitions, the significance of the Open (and of winning it), and breaking down access barriers in the art world...

Lulu Nunn – We’re very pleased that you won our 2018 Shape Open! What did it mean to you to be chosen as the winner, especially by such an important artist – Yinka Shonibare MBE?

Helen Jones  It meant the world to be chosen from such a fine and talented group of fellow exhibitors. The exhibition is a wonderful platform for disabled artists and a chance to swim in a different art pond.

LN – What sort of significance or importance do you think that the Open holds as a disability-led exhibition?

HJ – The Open is a hugely important platform for disabled people to express themselves on all aspects of disability. Because the government's stance on disabled people’s rights is adversarial, the subject of disability has become politicised; Shape offers disabled people a voice to express and comment on their life as it is. I am also interested in the National Disability Arts Collection and Archive, a Shape project, because this is a reminder of where the disability movement has come from, and a reminder for vigilance.

What attracted me to the Shape Open, via a recommendation by a friend, was the interesting exhibition themes and the high ideals and its aspirations. Following Shape opened my eyes to new ideas and ways of thinking – that was interesting.

LN  Can you tell us how you saw your piece ‘Identi-Kit’, which won the Open, exploring the exhibition’s theme of ‘Collective Influence’?

HJ – “Identi-Kit” is a long term project of mine that I have worked on for number of years; I am slow to produce art due to my illness. But the idea was to look at people’s identities and harness ten words they used to describe themselves to make a sculpture. I then mapped these people’s posts on social media on the subjects of politics, poverty, environment and arts, mimicking the way algorithms are used to track individual’s profiles by their posts to target them for advertising. In the wake of the recent Cambridge Analytica scandal I’ve wanted to project the idea that we also use social media for good influences, such as to promote causes and the arts. Thus sharing on social media helps us to have “collective influence” – the theme of the 2018 Open. This is especially important to the #MillionsMissing campaign for ME health equality, so I understand the importance of this to sections of the disabled community.

A white wall with three rows of eight fabric dolls pinned to it. The dolls are plush human figures with costumes and clothes on them.

LN  You say that, in your work, ‘the ephemera and textiles of the domestic are my medium’ – can you tell us what it is about these materials that work so aptly to convey the themes and ideas within your work?

HJ – My art practice uses cloth and this allows me to explore the language of materiality and the moment when material becomes a spark or participant in my comment through its inherent nature, impact, value or circumstance of history or culture. I often use discarded textiles – especially from bygone eras where women would spend hours making items of embroidery and lace for the production of home décor and domestic prestige – that no longer have value in the same sense. Great time and skill has been executed on these fabrics, and I use them as nod of respect to these women, taking on their work and allowing it to shine again in a contemporary setting; allowing them to perform on a different stage. Thus commenting on people’s relationships with identity, feminism and consumption. I never buy fabric or haberdashery new as there is always so much of it sitting around in people’s homes – I am often given it, or get it second hand.

LN  What are your views on the accessibility of the art world? Would you like to give a message to individuals and organisations in the arts to urge them to actively be more accessible and inclusive of disabled people?

HJ – Much of accessibility in the art world centres around the idea of physical accessibility to venues and content, which is very important, but in my small experience the major barrier to participation in the world of art is the financial cost of access to quality discussion, exhibiting space, lectures and libraries at universities, fellow artists, internships, critical discussion, art events and participation that is not grant-based. People can create, but their participation is inhibited by legislation that scares them into living life on a limited track.

LN  And lastly, tell us… What are you working on now, and what are your artistic plans for the near future? We’d love to see more of you!

HJ – I am in what I call my “brewing process”, as the art I make can take months or years, so at the moment I am looking at art books, taking photographs and collecting random found objects on a bus lane. I am mapping the iconography of the found objects and the flora of this special section of road that can only be accessed by cyclists, scooters and buses. I hope to produce something new using small textile billboards and maybe collaborating with some other artists who work in Art for Wellbeing. But by this time next year it may be something very different.

LN  Thank you very much Helen, and congratulations again!

Click here to see Helen's Shape artist biography. To stay up-to-date with future news of the Shape Open, including calls for submissions, sign up to our monthly e-newsletter at the bottom of this page.

Banner Image: Helen Jones with Yinka Shonibare MBE and Shape Chair Tony Heaton OBE. Photo by Rachel Cherry
Body image: Helen Jones - Identi-Kit, the winning piece of the 2018 Shape Open