It’s never too late!
Six years ago, Helen Downie — the 50-year-old, London-based artist better known as “Unskilled Worker” (who hopes to retain a certain amount of anonymity) — had been clean of drugs for 10 months when she was diagnosed with breast cancer, and first felt the urge to paint. Today, she basks in her quick two-year rise from amateur painter to an Instagram sensation recently hired by Gucci to create portraits.
There’s one childhood memory that she thinks may have foreshadowed her decision to focus on fashion in her work. “I was expelled at 15 for wearing bright pink moccasins and a bright pink mohair cardigan to school,” she says, adding that her school was a convent. “The nuns told me to take it all off, but it looked so good. I couldn’t.” Right after she was expelled, the trouble began: “I started smoking spliff and didn’t put it down until I was 39.” She took a job cutting hair near UCA Epsom University for the Creative Arts and discussed the possibility of enrolling with the lecturers she groomed. But after having her first child at 20, followed by three more, the idea faded.
Her first work — completed two years ago, after her cancer treatment — was of a little girl in a chocolate shop in Orvieto, Italy, during an annual trip with her family. She posted it on Instagram, at the suggestion of her son’s friend, and attracted 1,000 followers. (Her handle of choice, Unskilled Worker, had been on her mind for years, since she is solely self-taught. She also likes that if you Google it, you see pictures of laborers with hard hats and hammers.) And so she painted. And she posted. She painted more. She posted more. She says she felt like the girl in “The Red Shoes,” a Hans Christian Andersen story about a young dancer who slips on her first pair of shoes and can’t stop dancing until she eventually dies of exhaustion. A year later, she had 4,000 followers. Today she has over 183,000.
The spike in followers is thanks in part to the fashion photographer Nick Knight, who six months ago invited her to do a residency for his fashion film website, SHOWstudio. Sometimes, she would have 10,000 new followers a day, including the likes of January Jones. Then she was invited to Fashion Week by Gucci, to see the Fall/Winter 2015 women’s collection and create four paintings inspired by it. “I was gobsmacked when I went. By the time the third model came out, I wanted to cry,” she says. The brand’s creative director Alessandro Michele insisted on meeting her. Now, one of her paintings hangs in his office.
“Alessandro’s work is magical; it makes me want to create, create as a response to his vision,” Downie says. For his part, Michele says about Downie, “What I really appreciated of Unskilled Worker’s style is a sort of fabled ingenuity she injects in her illustrations. They are so naïve, but eye-catching at the same time. I was captured instantly upon seeing her Instagram. I love her and what she does.” Downie’s haunting style draws visual inspiration from Alex Katz, Elizabeth Peyton and Francesco Clemente, mixed with a spirit to shock, gleaned from Egon Schiele, the Sex Pistols and “The Show,” a 1995 hip-hop documentary she watched recently.
As she paints, she hopes for mistakes. “My artwork is based around chaos and mistakes and patching things up, and that’s really how my life has been.” And for now, her original goal for Instagram has been met. “I had to get to where my work couldn’t be ignored,” she said of opening her account. In that case, consider this her tipping point./socialyte.com