Back to earth: the sculptures of Helen Dean

Posted on February 8, 2016 | 2 comments

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Artist Helen Dean with her ‘demon duck of doom’ created from a palm frond. Helen, like many women artists, is finally having an opportunity to express her creative side later in life.

Words and images by Louise North

When I first meet Helen Dean she is hard at work sculpting a small elephant from limestone. It’s exacting and dusty work, but for this 74-year-old it is a creativity that has been dormant and only recently come to life.

“I’m bursting with ideas,” she says as she shows me piece after artful piece of found natural objects that she has made into fabulous sculptures, her limestone work being more recent.

One particularly fascinating piece is a bird-like sculpture in the lounge room made with what looks like a palm frond.

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“Oh, that’s the demon duck of doom,” Helen enthuses in her quiet but energetic way, her bright blue-green eyes peering at me in anticipation of my reaction. “I picked that frond up on a walk along Mortlake Road (near where she lives in Warrnambool).”

The demon duck of doom (officially known as Bullockornis) was a giant 3 metre tall flightless bird that lived millions of years ago in the rainforests of our Northern Territory, she tells me later.

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A banksia is transformed into an emu, inspired by Helen’s love of animals and nature.

Helen added a piece of local bluestone for the base and found two metal springs to use as legs and three simple items are turned into a wonderful piece of art.

Like a lot of women of her era (and beyond), art was never seen as a ‘suitable’ career option. But after finishing her education, her parents, the well-known and well-loved Keith and Joyce Swinton, took Helen, then 21, and her younger sister Georgia on a year-long travel odyssey through Britain and Europe.

That incredible cultural experience ignited her love of travel and she later became a flight attendant and revelled in seeing the world beyond her home town of Warrnambool.

After seven years of travel to all parts of the world, she could never settle for a 9-5 job, so she and husband Eddie packed up and, yes, moved to Zimbabwe, then known as Rhodesia.

“I just thought ‘we’ll see what it is like I that part of the world’,” she said, which simply exemplifies her sense of adventure.

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Helen in her outdoor ‘studio’: limestone carving is a more recent addition to Helen’s sculpture work.

It was there her love of wild animals and especially elephants was born, and is seen in most of her creative work today – and even her everyday life.

Helen has fed a family of magpies, and their next generation, from her back door for years, and her convalescing German short hair pointer, Poppy, is resting on blankets at her feet in the lounge room as we chat and she later shows me photos of the other short hair pointers that have been in her life.

Animals are everything.

“It’s natural for me to think about animals, I love them so much,” she said.

Seventy was a turning point in her life, and after caring for her ill mother, Helen wanted to do things that she had always wanted to do.

“I was tired of being a responsible adult. I realised life was going far too quickly and I’d done of lot of ‘expected things’, but I thought I’d done my bit.”

“I’d always wanted to do something in the arts but when I was younger mum said ‘no dear, you must get a job’.”

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Wildlife features prominently in Helen’s work, reflecting her life long love of animals.

A love of art, however, had always bubbled away in the background.

Helen was a founding member of the Warrnambool Art Society from 1962, and she has taken the odd drawing and painting lesson at SWTAFE.

But there were other things Helen did before arts became her main focus.

Like the seven-acre farm near Tower Hill that she bought with no background in farming, but that’s just the sort of thing you do when you turn 50!

Helen built a small and thriving business growing notoriously fickle raspberries, herbs, cut flowers and also planting about 100 fruit trees.

She became known to locals and her buyers (mostly local supermarkets) as ‘Helen Raspberry’.

It was the gardening skills that her father taught little Helen that was the basis of  ‘Helen Raspberry’s’ success.

But after 14 years on the farm and doing so much of the manual work, the nugetty Helen developed a heart condition and the couple decided to sell up and move back into ‘town’.

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An idea coming to life: Helen working on preliminary drawings for ‘Mad duck with fish head’, based on idea that came to her while looking at objects around her garden.

Today her creative time in her ‘plein air’ studio (an old bbq area) is her “greatest switch off … and switch on”.

Helen is a precise artist, drawing her ideas and working out the three dimensional proportions before sketching it on the limestone.

It would be remiss of me not to mention the humour in much of Helen’s work.

With a little glint in her eye, Helen tells me she is working on a new limestone piece titled “Mad duck with fish head”.

“How did the idea come to you?” I ask.

Well, Helen was looking at things around her studio and saw a wooden duck near the back door and a cover on the car’s tow ball – which was a fish head – and thought should ‘meet’ in one piece.

The final result is yet to been seen, but the idea is as fabulous and spontaneous as the artist.

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  1. Hello Helen,
    I love your artwork it’s very appealing and innovative!
    Do you have group visits to your gallery? or are you ever a guest speaker?
    I ask because I help in developing programs for the elderly who reside in their homes and was wondering if we could come and see you if it’s accessible? or if you could come to see us in Hamilton and discuss what you do to the members ?
    Kind Regards

  2. Hi Helen, you were so good to my children when we used to come for our raspberries. You always had some ” not quite right ones” for them to gobble down. We still miss you and still remember those apricots.
    Bettina Wallace

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