She flunked art at school and spent 10 years in children’s services. Helen Cammock talks about unlocking her creativity – and taking off on a singing, dancing, sketching tour of Italy
Last October, in a balmy Roman autumn, the artist Helen Cammock was making prints at the Istituto Centrale della Grafica. The building sits at the back of, and forms the stage-set for, the Trevi fountain: from its windows you can look down to the crowds of tourists staring up at Oceanus and his tritons. Cammock was hand-making a book in the studios downstairs; elsewhere in the building is one of the world’s outstanding collections relating to fine art printing, including Piranesi’s own metal plates with their glorious, finely etched lines.
For Cammock, much of 2018 passed on a kind of Italian grand tour, in Florence, Rome, Palermo, Bologna, Venice and Reggio Emilia. It was a remarkable time of freedom and adventure. “I have never had space to just focus on making work, ever,” she says. “I’ve always had loads of jobs – and most artists do.” The reason for this unexpected period was that she won the Max Mara award, which recognises women artists based in the UK. The prize is a tailor-made six-month residency in Italy, followed by exhibitions at the Whitechapel Gallery in London and the Collezione Maramotti – the museum in Reggio Emilia established by Max Mara’s founder, Achille Maramotti. When we next meet, in her London studio this spring, she is about to be nominated for the Turner prize. The exhibition opens in September at Turner Contemporary in Margate, ahead of the winner’s announcement in December.
All this represents a remarkably swift ascension through the art world: at 48, she is a latecomer, entering art school at 35. Before that, she spent a decade in social work in Brighton. She was utterly committed, she tells me, and the work was rewarding – at least for the first eight years or so. But in the late 1990s, when services were being cut, she became disillusioned. “A couple of times I was putting young people in situations I wasn’t comfortable with,” she says. “I was asked to take a 13-year-old, who had been thrown out by her mother and had no other family, and leave her on her own outside a police station rather than take her inside – because if I left her outside, the police would have to pay for a place to sleep and if I took her in, social services would have to pay. I was in the car with her, and she was crying and saying, ‘Helen, don’t leave me.’”
She refused to leave the girl, and had to confront her boss’s boss’s boss. It was a turning point. “I thought, ‘This is it.’ But while I was thinking that I did evening classes in photography. And at the university in Brighton they used to do this thing called Saturday art school, which was a completely different level of teaching, of working with the camera. And I thought, ‘You know what, I’m going to do this. So I left statutory services. And I did a BA.’”
While she was studying, she was still running a multi-agency centre on an estate in Brighton; and even now, though she feels it may be time to stop, she sits on a panel that makes recommendations about the suitability of potential foster carers. After her degree, she was invited to run the Brighton Photo Fringe; it was there that a tutor from the Royal College of Art saw a film of hers, left his card at the desk, and suggested she come and study with him. For the work, Character Building, she filmed places where she recalled acts of racism directed at her family from her earliest childhood – her mother, who was white, being called a “nigger lover” outside Ealing Town Hall; a man coming up to her mother in a Somerset car park and asking, of Cammock and her sister, “Where did you get them?”