Hello Ducky: artist and fashion designer Helen Steele
She married in haste, still terrified of sex. Because although artist and fashion designer Helen Steele was wild, she was not promiscuous. She tells Barry Egan about drunken driving accidents, conquering dyspraxia and branching into wearable art with her husband's duck company. Photography by Kip Carroll. Styling by Liadan Hynes
Published 03/07/2011 | 05:00
Painting is just another way of keeping a diary, Pablo Picasso said. Helen Steele's diary is filled to the brim. She is in demand both as an artist and as a fashion designer. She is a latter-day Renaissance Woman.
Her work and her time are much sought after. With the side of her head shaved, Helen looks like an alternative Caprice. She has a punkish attitude that matches her edgy hairdo.
She is not reluctant in saying that her artwork has been collected by the likes of Diane von Furstenberg, Helena Christensen, and Donald Sutherland. "It is a bit cheesy to name who collects your work in the art world," she says. "It's like an unwritten rule. Well, feck the rules; that's a load of snobbish bollocks."
You could never accuse Helen Steele of being a load of snobbish bollocks. The blonde Venus perched opposite me in the Shelbourne Hotel in Dublin is an extraordinary character. And I don't think there will be anyone, once they read to the end of this article, who will dare disagree with this claim.
Represented by HF Contemporary Art London and Berlin, Bait Muzna in Oman and thejamjar in Dubai, Helen has shown at Art Basel Miami Beach; and, she beams, also at the first Art Paris Abu Dhabi, where the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi purchased her work for his own private collection and also for the state collection. "That was kind of funny seeing your work on billboards alongside Warhols and Wang Yan Cheng," she smiles.
She cites artists such as Hermann Nitsch as a heavy influence on her work. According to the Saatchi Gallery website, happy Hermann reformed the face of Sixties art, shunning the illusionary confines of traditional painting and sculpture, reinventing an art that exists in real, corporeal, and violent terms.
"I have worked professionally for 10 years as an action artist, heavily influenced by the Viennese activists like Hermann Nitsch. Without the violence, I would like to add," Helen says. " I like his purist, nearly religious relationship with paint." This influence, Helen adds, helped her to create violently bright, beautiful images -- captured through video performance -- of a multitude of incompatible paints being propelled into the air at speed, using various methods such as chainsaws, fireworks, wind machines and forklifts. The images were worked on for weeks to create the perfect prints.
"So," she enthuses, "the passion deep within for fashion finally got the better of me and, after collaborations with Harvey Nichols Dublin and UK and Vogue [Fashion's Night Out 2010], Brown Thomas, and Joanne Hynes and I worked on a project called Les Guerriers for autumn/winter 2011 combining art and fashion."
Helen explains that she designed a selection of prints and T-shirts and leggings and some dresses for the collaborative project. The collection, she adds, was purchased by stockists internationally during Paris Fashion Week.
"And now I'm working on launching my own label of ready-to-wear W.A.R.T. -- wearable art," she says, adding that the project is run in conjunction with Silver Hill Foods -- who supply the feathers -- the University of Ulster and their fashion department and research lab.
Inspired, she says, by the clothing of the north-Atlantic islands, the label will be given her own name. "We are developing ready-to-wear duck-down-filled parkas and puffas," she says.
"The duck-down is our own, and we aim to test duck fat as an outer-shell wax that's windproof, water- and damp-proof, but breathable enough to wear the outer shell during the summer. The inner shell is filled with snuggly pure Irish duck-down, and is detachable. The outer shells come in prints or plain colours too.
"It is inspired by the Eskimos," she continues, "who initially used seal skin in the first parkas and coated them in fish oils to waterproof the outer shell. I also want to tackle taking the Sloane out of the puffa and make them cool again in more abstract shapes, using leather and polyamide too."
This 2012 collection, called Nucleus, will be at the London showroom and sales room of luxury fashion sales agency Snow next month, and will debut at London and Paris Fashion Weeks in September and October.
All this talk of duck-down and the like is, let me explain, inspired by her husband, the legendary Irish duck farmer Stuart Steele,
who runs Silver Hill Foods, a company founded over 49 years ago by Stuart's parents, Ronnie and Lyla Steele. (Silver Hill Foods' duck, Helen tells me proudly, was selected by Heston Blumenthal to feature on his TV show In Search of Perfection.) Helen was only 23 when she started going out with the esteemed Monaghan duck guru; a mere six weeks later, they got engaged. Stuart proposed to Helen on March 9, 1996, in his sister's bathroom in Monaghan.
Three months later, they were married in Maynooth, on June 21, 1996, in the same church the bride was christened in. The reception was held in the family home, which was just across the road.
"If my daughter came to me and said she was getting married to a guy after three months, I'd put her on a plane, to be honest, but it was right for me. I was so drawn to him, like nothing on earth -- we were just really, really lucky. I had never met anyone like him before. We were lucky in the paths we chose. We had a chance to have our kids young," Helen says, referring to Chloe, 14, Halle, eight, and Ronnie, six. "I have never met anyone like Stuart."
And what is he like, your duck-rearing husband?
"He is brilliant in every way," she beams. "Clever, funny, kind. He was very, very driven. And I really liked that. And really sure of himself."
Helen met her future husband while on a date in Cafe En Seine, on Dublin's Dawson Street, with his friend. Stuart's girlfriend at that time had arranged the blind date. As sometimes happens in these situations, Helen connected with Stuart instead.
A couple of months later, Stuart and his girlfriend split up. Stuart started coming into Milano on Dawson Street where Helen was waitressing. She can remember saying to her friend Victoria, who was working with her in the restaurant: "I'm going to marry him." Victoria's reaction indicated a certain shock: "What, your man with the big schnoz?"
Helen's father was shocked too, as it turned out. "When Stuart phoned my dad to ask for my hand in marriage," she remembers, "my dad immediately turned to my mother and said: 'Stuart is after phoning. He wants to come down and talk to me. I bet she has written off another car.' That's what they thought it was about."
At that time, Helen was also the lead singer in a sub- Patti- Smith-in-the- Velvet-Underground kind of band called Wootcher Bronx, which is slang for psychotic ex-girlfriend. Helen's psychotic Patti Smith-style wailing at one particularly inauspicious gig in 1996 in Eamon Doran's in Temple Bar so inspired someone in the audience that he threw a pint glass of urine at her.
"The lyrics weren't supposed to make any sense; it was a fantastic statement," she laughs. "So, we got pissed on." The band soldiered on for three years, finally stopping when Helen had a miscarriage.
Helen and your man with the big schnoz now live happily on a duck farm in rural Monaghan -- home to Ireland's yummiest duck, Silver Hill Foods and their three amazing children. When she was but a big child herself, 17-year-old punky ingenue Helen drove a black Ford Fiesta that had Radiohead or Nirvana permanently blaring out of the abused tape-player inside. "The old car had been in 11 car crashes," she says. " All of them with me behind the wheel."
What's that Bowie song from Low -- Always Crashing In The Same Car?
"It's true," she splutters. "People would not get in the car with me. I don't blame them."
I enquire when the last of the 11 mash-ups was. I wasn't expecting the honest reply that I get.
"The last car crash scared the crap out of me," she answers. "I basically had drink on me and I drove, and there were loads of us in the car. I was about 21 at the time. It was the most stupid thing. I even knew getting into the car that I had too much drink on me. It was in Blackrock in Dublin, where we crashed. I realised there and then that I could have killed my sister and my friends. I shouldn't have been behind a wheel."
Freewheelin' Helen was brought up in an old house beside the grain mill in Maynooth -- her family were grain merchants, going back to 1850. "We used to see spooky sightings in our house. Freaky stuff that would scare the wits out of you," she recalls.
"There was one particular room that no one would sleep in, so it became the guest room. Very hospitable," Helen laughs, adding that from when she was 12 she "slept with a crucifix under my pillow for -- Jesus -- eleven years! I was terrified. The room was really cold."
Helen would see the severe lack of warmth as some sign of demonic possession within the four walls of her unbeloved bedroom. "Weird stuff would happen, like the presses would open by themselves in the night in the summer without any wind and then close by themselves.
"My mum only told me a few months ago that my grandmother died in the bed that I used to sleep in," Helen continues. "But I never felt scared in that bed, but I always felt scared in the house. If I was by myself I would be absolutely terrified, and this was until my late teens. In general, there was an atmosphere in the house that you couldn't explain."
Helen, who was born in the Coombe hospital in Dublin in 1974, is the second eldest: she has an older brother, Ted, who was born in 1971 and then younger siblings, Sarah and Paul. "I never saw ghosts in the house," she says, "but my sister did and my older brother did. I used to beg my sister to sleep in the room with me. Beg!"
Asked what her mother thought about all this, Helen says, revealingly perhaps: "I was pretty prone to embellishment, and still am. So my mum thought I was making it up quite a bit."
Maybe the ghosts were helping your creativity by giving you something to embellish about?
"Now you are really freaking me out. But I think that is part of being an artist, isn't it? A slight bit of embellishment, whether verbal or how you are creating a painting, is good," she says. "Creativity is just another part of the imagination, and it's channelling creative energy." All of which the young Helen had, perhaps, too much of. She was banned from drinking Coca-Cola: she was fizzy enough. As a child, Helen was -- deep breath -- hyperactive, bold, wild, troublesome. "Why not?" she laughs. "I was always in trouble."
What's the worst trouble you were ever in?
"I can't really say." She shoots me a guilty look.
"OK . . . poo in the post to people," she says eventually, before clarifying: "Dog poo. To someone who was basically beating my sister, Sarah, up in school when she was seven or eight. I actually know her quite well, and I confessed a couple of years later -- she didn't seem to mind. In fact, it wasn't her who opened the letter. So it was pretty grim. I have never actually told Sarah this story."
What else have you done that would have been bad, Helen?
She looks a me a bit sheepishly. "OK. Shaved the school dog. Another time, actually, I was going out with a guy . . ."
I stop Helen to confirm, before she goes any further, that this next story doesn't involve shaving. Or dogs. Or poo.
"No," she reassures me. "I wanted to play an April Fool on him. So I phoned his message minder in his flat and said that I had smelt gas in the apartment and then I phoned the police and said there was a gas leak. Basically, I heard on the news later on that day, as I was coming home from college, that they had cornered a certain part of Dublin because of an apparent gas leak; there was no gas leak."
Helen was 18. She says that she thinks she genuinely had too much energy -- when she was a child, her mum used to put her outside and tell her to do eight laps of the garden just to calm her down. "I'm dyspraxic," she says of the developmental disorder characterised by impaired motor skills, "and I was diagnosed only eight years ago so, as you can imagine, school was a roller coaster for me." As it was for the nuns at Helen's boarding school in Rathnew, Co Wicklow, where her parents dispatched her when she was 12 to get her out of the house.
Helen says she was always creative. Painting, drawing and doodling all through school. "It was the only thing I was good at apart from English and French. So I could snog French boys." But, it transpires, nothing more than that. Helen says the nuns and her parents had her petrified about sex. "I was wild but not sexually promiscuous. I was absolutely terrified of . . . just Catholicism. And terrified of getting pregnant young. So I was terrified of sex. In fact, when I got married, on our honeymoon I told my husband to turn the lights off."
Unusual from someone who spends most of her time brightening up the world.
Dress, Stella McCartney, Helen's own
Dress; collar, both Eilis Boyle, Bow
Dress, Eilis Boyle, Bow.
Mask, Edel Ramberg; boots YSL, both Harvey Nichols
Necklace, MoMuse, Bow.
Trousers, Helen's own
Bow, Powerscourt Townhouse Centre, D2, tel: (01) 707-1763, or see www.bowboutique.ie
Photography by Kip Carroll
Styling by Liadan Hynes
Assisted by Jennifer O'Dwyer
Hair and make-up by Paula Callan-O'Keeffe
Sunday Indo Life Magazine