Second Lives: how a civil servant reinvented herself as an artist

Posted by TEBI on March 12, 2024

Second Lives: how a civil servant reinvented herself as an artist



Robin writes:

It’s time for the latest in our podcast series Second Lives, in which my co-author JONATHAN HOLLOW has been interviewing people who have made sharp turns to new and more fulfilling careers. This month he talks to HELEN ARTHUR, who has moved from government editorial to a niche as a local artist on the Welsh Borders. 

Many people dream of painting for a living, but Helen has made it happen. She describes her success as modest financially, but as you will hear, she is highly focused on her own artistic goals, and on those terms she has achieved contentment alongside success. She is fascinatingly articulate about how she pursues those goals, and how she’s moved from a place of safety to artistic experimentation, always seeking new ways to capture the glories of the Welsh landscape that looms outside her house.



TEBI would like to thank the London-based financial planning firm Mulberry Bow for collaborating with us on this series. 
As well as Spotify, you’ll find The TEBI Podcast on all the major podcast platforms, including Apple PodcastsListen NotesPlayerFM and Podbean.



Jonathan Hollow: Helen, oddly enough, I want to start not with art but Brexit. You said the Brexit referendum result was a wake-up call in your life. What did you wake up to?

Helen Arthur: Yes! So, I was working with the Environment Agency at that time when the referendum results were announced, and I continued in that sector, which was a good alignment for my own interests. But the morale was so low, and it made me reflect on what I was doing, what was central to my life. There were tears among my colleagues when the results came through because I think they could see what was ahead. I’m a strong European, on the National Council of the European Movement. So it was a real wake-up call. I decided that I wanted the central focus of my life to be a positive one. I had a strong hobby interest in printmaking and wanted to give that a go, to teach and share the benefits of art making. So I put all the eggs in one basket and decided to give up the consultancy work that I was doing.

Jonathan Hollow: We’ll explore a little of that move throughout the rest of the interview, but I’m interested in the Brexit result being a trigger. Was it moving away from a negative thing or moving towards a positive thing?

Helen Arthur: It was to continue growth. Brexit felt regressive, and I needed an outlet for growth and positivity. My time being a productive comms person and editor in the environment sector had come to an end, in terms of energy. I wanted to place my energy in a more forward-looking direction.

Jonathan Hollow: You also mentioned that having children gave you the courage and confidence to make and show art. Can you elaborate on that?

Helen Arthur: Certainly — I think it’s a surprising statement! For many women, having children can be quite restricting, shifting their lives in a narrowing way, especially in the early years. However, for me, the act of having children made me feel invincible. It’s a powerful force that shifts energy but also made me truly appreciate the time I had. The children made me time-aware and efficient, giving me a strong sense of identity as a parent. This triggered an outpouring of expressive and creative manifestations. Raising young people helps you truly understand yourself. I also realised recently that it triggered a move from London to a rural lifestyle, and the two are interconnected. My creative response to landscape was a result of moving from city living. I don’t think I would have left London if I hadn’t had young children, but the art is a response to living in a more natural environment and a beautiful landscape too.

Jonathan Hollow: Did you feel that London was an undesirable environment to raise children in?

Helen Arthur: I had a very positive experience with community and young children in London. However, my partner and I were concerned about schooling, the sheer number of children in schools, and the lack of resources. That was the main prohibition for us. We found ourselves driving to Kent every weekend for walks and to get the kids into nature. So, when the time for primary school came for our oldest, we made the decision and took the plunge. Three months later, we were moving to South Wales. It was a bit of a lightning decision.

Jonathan Hollow: Can you share a bit about the working life you created and then left behind in London?

Helen Arthur: Certainly. I established a strong business in 2005–2006. I had previously worked with the BBC as an online content producer in their history department, which was very exciting. Later, I moved into working with a government department, and the business was successful in many ways. It afforded me time to raise my children when they were very young. I returned to work with the Ministry of Justice when my second child was one year old and continued working with them when we moved away from London. They allowed flexible working. I have no regrets about establishing that business.

Jonathan Hollow: Let’s talk about art and landscape. What are your earliest memories of making art?

Helen Arthur: I’ve been thinking a lot about this. I vividly remember working with clay at the age of three, using gloopy orange paint to make a hedgehog. This was definitely pre-school. I moved to Singapore at age four, but before that, in the UK, I lived rurally, and had a strong love for conkers, seed heads, and insects. I used to collect and arrange them in patterns. Many children naturally make art without consciously trying. I pursued art at GCSE and started A-level art. Unfortunately, as a more academic child, I decided to focus on getting into Cambridge, and art fell by the wayside at that point.

Jonathan Hollow: Your roots go back to Wales, and the Welsh landscape is an important feature of your art. What are your earliest memories of Wales and the Welsh landscape?

Helen Arthur: From ages 11 to 16, I spent a lot of time outdoors. I had a Welsh Cob pony, and I found escape in the landscape. It was a teenage relationship with the romanticism and lyricism of the landscape. It is a spiritual experience for me. Although I’m not religious, the awe I have for the landscape is challenging to put into words but finds expression in colour when I paint.

Jonathan Hollow: In 2014, that was when you left London quite quickly, and you moved to Wales, but it was later that you came across the house with the studio where you now work in the Brecon Beacons. And you said that the restoration of that studio was a huge trigger for the art you now do. Can you talk about why it was such a trigger?

Helen Arthur: Yes, well, we saw this beautiful house, but it had a rather, shall we say, clapped-out annex on the end, and it’s under the ridge that’s called Hatterall Ridge, which is Offa’s Dyke path effectively. So we sit right on the border of Wales and England, which seems somehow quite reflective of my own parenting. And it just seems perfect really. I stepped into the annex with its crumbly ceilings and beautiful old stone, rugged stone walls (it’s a very odd-shaped room, really quite unusual) … and I just knew immediately what I needed to do with it. It had strange little rooms upstairs. Apparently, it had been a seamstress’s at some point, and it had even been a separate dwelling to the farmhouse that it’s built on to. I just knew straight away it needed to become a studio. It’s got two storeys. Just making that financial commitment made me realise I was taking myself seriously. So it was almost as if I was giving myself permission to really grow my creative outlets, but also to share them. I really sense that this could be a place within my local community that people could come and enjoy; and I could share my skills and my passion. So I started with the studio, but I’m gradually taking over the whole house because I’ve since converted our second sitting room into a gallery room. So I’ve got lovely colours in here and it’s just full of art. And the family doesn’t bother with it now. I think they’ve given it over to me!

Jonathan Hollow: Another transition you’ve talked about is moving from what you described as the safety and security of “process” and teaching to your own painting. Why do you describe “process” as a place of safety?

Helen Arthur: So when I was learning to printmake, I was learning firstly learned lino-cut printmaking, and then I took on etching, which is also a very lovely process, but I was so involved in learning how to use the tools and what the inks could do and what sort of paper to buy, I think I stopped asking myself, “What is my art really about? And what part of me am I sharing and expressing through the imagery?” So I was making quite fun images, mainly. But I think they were a bit clichéd, and I don’t think they really had enough of me in them.

And so I realised actually it was partly to do with lockdown as well, because I couldn’t teach people anymore. And my teaching was all about process then as well.

I realised that I had to uncover something a bit deeper, when lockdown came. And I think a lot of us did that. We suddenly had to ask ourselves what’s important in life.

And you know, for us, we were so lucky to live here and I just realised how important landscape is to me. And so I started … I literally started to paint with printmaking inks actually! And I’d be out in the landscape after homeschooling; I’d take the kids out, and we’d get our daily exercise, but I’d always have something to draw with. And then I’d come back and use my inks and my rollers and make paintings and then realise, “Of course, I probably need some paints!”

But it also was to do with time – because time became very elastic in lockdown, didn’t it? So I suddenly had these passages of time that I could fill, and it wasn’t so concerning if hours went and things had not necessarily turned into anything “obvious”. So I think in a way it was a blessing because I could really explore, and really follow my curiosity.

Jonathan Hollow: Can you say a little bit more about this sense you have of bringing more of your own self into the painting and the art making? I’m just curious about the dynamic between that and when you’re actually wanting to capture a landscape, which is to some extent an objective thing that’s “out there”.

Helen Arthur: Oh, that’s such a good question! I think understanding, understanding the to-and-fro between external stimulus and the personal interpretation is quite fundamental to being a really expressive artist.

I think primarily that all art is “of your hand”, so it’s, therefore, very personal. I do not think at any point that representative art is not also abstract, because the very act of making a mark on a piece of paper, on a piece of wood, on a canvas, that in itself is an abstraction. But within that abstraction, there is always your hand. Your vision is also an interpretation.

We’re distracted by objectivity, and that takes us away from our personal voice in art. Once you’ve recognised that, I think you can really open yourself up to interpretation.

And it’s interpretation, and your self, and your emotional response to the external that makes really strong and intriguing art for other people to engage with. I do find that people think that when you’ve taken an extra risk or a piece of work is particularly zany or unusual … that’s the piece that people will be drawn to and really enjoy talking to you about.

Jonathan Hollow: If I were to watch you beginning a new artwork, working in the studio or outdoors, what would I actually see?

Helen Arthur: So, topographically I would say, you wouldn’t want to be buying my paintings if you want topographical representations of the Brecon Beacons. But they are very much the essence of where I live and my constant taking in of the view.

If I’m working on a canvas, I tend to work right off the edges and onto the floor. I do often work on the floor, or in a field. So materials go everywhere, and then I start building up layers. So I work in the early layers, I work with acrylic paint, and I also reduce it a lot. I am known to put my paintings in showers because that brings in this extra element of surprise! The semi-dried areas of paint will remain on the canvas, but some will wash away. So you get these beautiful sort of watery passages and then more opaque areas of paint, and they’re unpredictable.

And that gives you something to respond to, which is much more exciting than if you’re trying to control the materials. And then as I come more closure, I find that I go back to line again, and I often use pastels or oil sticks, and I bring in a bit more detail, and at that point, I usually find the landscape within all the layers of paint. So up until quite late in the painting, I don’t necessarily know the area of landscape I’ll be painting. It’ll be from memory and from sketching outside. But they do emerge as the painting progresses.

Jonathan Hollow: You’ve said that artists are often incredibly good at making money if they want to be. And you’ve also described yourself as earning not quite a living wage. Tell me about the commercial choices you’ve made and what financial success looks like for you.

Helen Arthur: I think I have quite a good business mind, and I’m quite inspired by some artists I can refer to that run extremely successful businesses (mainly through teaching).

So when I did commit to opening the studio up to the public, I did know that teaching would be probably the strongest income source, but I didn’t want the need for income to influence the type of art that I was making. I think that is another reason that people become slightly narrow-minded in what they’re making, and they lose their curiosity for making new art.

So I did make some decisions around setting up different income streams to protect creative time and creative exploration.

The teaching is one. I also that did realise that inviting people to look around the studio and into the gallery room is another way to engage and build an audience, and build connections.

And then I identified funding and working in the community and more “social” projects as another source of income. And I think by diversifying and having those running in tandem, you can then balance your books, while not forcing yourself to reproduce very specific types of art for people.

I set annual goals and then sort of seasonal goals, but I have to say, I think in any other business, I would be much more “on it”, checking in as to whether I find that I have met those financial targets.

My first post-lockdown year, I surpassed my annual income target by quite a significant amount actually, but I did reinvest most of the money back into the business and now have an extremely well-equipped studio. So I’m very lucky to have that.

Jonathan Hollow: When you were very young, you said to your mother that you wanted to be a “local artist”. What does that mean in practice?

Helen Arthur: I have no idea why at age 11, that was something I said! I obviously enjoyed going to open studios and looking at people’s work, and I do remember that any gifts I was given by any relatives was always coloured pencils or paints or paper. So I obviously identified really strongly with creative people.

But I think from experience now of having quite a strong online presence and selling through Instagram, which has happened to a lot of artists because of lockdown (people were nesting and investing because they were forced to be in their four walls such a lot), and then more developing the teaching and face-to-face marketing and open studios, that’s really a much stronger relationship – and I quite enjoy the “notoriety”. I’m the sort of “the artist in the village”! I feel a bit like I’m in the film Chocolat, but I’m the artist rather than the chocolatier. People really are quite proud that the gallery’s here.

It is a very remote village, and there’s not a lot here apart from a pub and a very good local shop, but it’s really quite lovely for the village, and I get asked to be involved in lots of things.

I’ve just given some work to Jamie’s Farm, which is a charity, helping underprivileged children have rural experiences and training out in the Herefordshire countryside. I’ve just contributed an artwork for their open day. And I do go and teach there a bit, and it feels vital, and a bit more meaningful.

I also find that I have a niche market of honeymooners. They’re all in the area or they married in the area, and they do want to take home something special. So I often do commissions for them. And that feels quite magical. You’re just this little part in a very special occasion.

I think what people also love is the sense that you’re making it attainable for them too. That you’ve gone for your passion, you’ve followed your passion, and you’re making something of it. And they could too.

Jonathan Hollow: At the beginning of the interview, you were talking about moving from a very negative thing to something that you find very positive and very constructive. And you’ve used the word “magic” several times, to describe what you do. I’m interested in what you would now say that you’re trying to achieve. What is your goal?

Helen Arthur: It’s a wonderful question, but it does feel really hard to give you a pithy response. One part of it is that I wake up every day feeling excited about what the day holds and what’s growing. I think it’s that sense of “anything is possible” – there’s new things to explore and learn. So, it feels very vital that you’re constantly keeping agile – not just brain-wise, but I think even health-wise. It’s well- known that creativity affects our health, in a positive way, it lowers blood pressure and things like that. All sorts of physiological responses happen in the body when you’re in the flow state.

So I think it’s partly that. I also feel that I’m a really good example to my children, that you can trust in your own abilities and you can trust in creativity to reward you. Of course, I’d love to get into Tate Britain one day, but I don’t think that’s going to happen! That’s okay! (But there’s a little bit of ego always, I think, when you make things.)

Jonathan Hollow: And do you find that you sometimes have to tell yourself to stop doing it because you’ve got a a limitless appetite for the creativity and the act of creation?

Helen Arthur: Yes, and there are days when it feels like I’ve just got to actually turn the light off and go to sleep. I’m always reading about improving my writing around art, for example. And then there are days where you actually do have to just stop. Because I think you can fall into the trap of forcing yourself to make something when actually you should just be responding, and allowing a new energy in … whether that’s because the season’s changed, or the landscape’s changing … So you do have to reflect, and you do have to just go and watch some crap telly or do something completely different because it can get a little bit intense, I think. And you don’t function so well when you’re a bit frenetic. So thankfully I have the children and my partner and various creatures, dogs and gerbils, and commitments, and I have to step away from it all because I think you’re right: we can let our appetites get away from us.

Jonathan Hollow: Well, thank you, Helen, for opening up your life and your world of art to us. It’s been a really fascinating interview.

Helen Arthur: I’m extremely grateful for the opportunity. And so it’s very interesting to consider these questions because I think we don’t often stop to really investigate some of these questions. So I’ve really enjoyed it and very much appreciate it. Thank you.​



Jonathan worked for the UK Government’s Money and Pensions Service and is a writer and commentator on consumer education and protection. He is the co-author, with Robin Powell, of the award-winning book How to Fund the Life You Want, which is published by Bloomsbury.



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