Helen Carnac

Helen Carnac Cluster by Helen Carnac Antiwar by Helen Carnac
Each Other by Helen Carnac
Bowls by Helen Carnac

Helen Carnac works as lecturer, writer, curator, conference organizer and teacher, but her primary interest is her work as a craftsperson. Although she originally trained as a silversmith, Carnac says ‘I don’t think I would call myself a silversmith, in fact I would define myself as a maker as my practice is very material-based.’


Why are you attracted to metal as a material?

Mark-making is very important to me and I enjoy the way you can mark metal. It’s a hard material but it’s very malleable and there’s a pleasing tension in the surface. It has a sort of ‘scratchiness’ when you mark it that I find very fulfilling and a particular materiality that something like ceramic doesn’t have for me. I also feel very grounded in metal – I’m interested in its economics, how we trade in it, and I think through it in many other ways. Interestingly I recently discovered that many generations ago my ancestors were engravers, so maybe this attraction to metal and scratching is something that’s hard-wired inside me.

Why is mark-making so important to you?

I do a lot of drawing and could have just stuck to drawing, but there’s something about the materiality of making a mark that particularly appeals to me. The marks are abstract and I also collect found marks. I’m really interested in the marks humans have left on objects - the traces left. My work is all about the mark and adding marks on to found marks – say on a piece of wood - in a sort of layering process.

Can you describe how you make your vessels?

I think through the form the bowls will take, these are then made for me in steel by a spinner. I then enamel them using industrial enamel, which is a wonderful material to scratch into. The combination of the gritty enamel and the hard steel beneath creates a very good surface to work with and I make marks in it using a type of sgraffito technique. Once marked the bowls are fired in a kiln. This is a quick process and the speed’s something I like as it makes the process very intense. It’s always a risk when you fire something - especially as I don’t have a temperature gauge and so I work intuitively – and this means that when you’re waiting to open the kiln door you’re full of anticipation as something will have happened inside which is beyond your control (although within your skill set).
After the vessels are fired I grind them by hand with an alundem stone to reveal the metal and oxides that appear along the marks. I grind until I get a soft, matt surface so you can see some of the metal – the pieces are really about the metal so I want to reveal what’s underneath the enamel. The relationship of the metal and the enamel is very important and I try to encourage rust to come through the surface in a sort of organic growth.

How does your jewellery fit into your practice?

I’ve always been fascinated by what we wear, why we wear things and what they communicates about us. Quite a lot of my jewellery is in badge form and I like the way they act as silent communicators. It’s very much about the body and the gesture of making marks and so ties in with my interest in mark-making.
I started developing my jewellery making when I was very busy and didn’t have much time to spend in the studio and so had to work very quickly and intuitively. I would find something lying around the studio and then just start making it into something. It’s like a thinking process in action; the process of making/assembling a piece allows my head to get into the way of thinking – it’s an intuitive approach.

What role does teaching play in your professional life?

I have just chosen to give up my permanent teaching commitments [Carnac until recently was Senior Silversmithing and Jewellery Lecturer at the Sir John Cass Department of Art, Media and Design, London Metropolitan University]. I was recently awarded a Cultural Leadership Development Award which has enabled me to look at my whole practice and to create some mental space to concentrate on my life as a maker – including writing and curating as a maker – and just moving on creatively. I would still like to continue teaching, but in a more flexible way.

Can you tell me a little about Taking Time: Craft and the Slow Revolution, the Craftspace exhibition you have just curated and which opens on 17 October 2009 at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery.

Andy Horn from Craftspace approached me about the project after I had organized the conference Carry the Can about sustainability and value in jewellery. I did some research and started thinking through ideas related to the philosophy of the slow movement, a movement linked to the Northern Italian slow food movement which thinks through ideas about provenance and locality. There seemed to be a link between craft and the movement and for the exhibition we have commissioned makers to create pieces which may reflect this link. Work in the exhibition variously explores time, how we exist in time and experience it as well as specific moments in time; other work asks you to slow down and re-consider the work and wonder at the process of making.

Have you enjoyed curating the show?

It’s been incredibly invigorating seeing what each maker has done and a real privilege to watch how people work and for us to talk through ideas. I haven’t made anything for the show myself as I wanted to stand back and be very involved mentally in everyone else’s work, which has been a hugely positive experience for me. I am sure it will have a big influence on my future making - I’m not quite sure how, but it’s something I’m very excited about.

Interview by Diana Woolf