By Lee Pinkerton
It would be romantic to say that visual artist Helen A Pritchard always knew what she wanted to be: but it wouldn’t be true.
When she arrived in London from her native South Africa in her twenties, she had no idea what career she wanted to pursue.
“They don’t really have a contemporary art scene in South Africa” she recalls. “As a child I was always painting and drawing but I never thought of art as a job. Growing up in conservative South Africa as a female, you’re told you can be a nurse or a teacher or something like that.”
After leaving school she left South Africa to work in Bahrain "just to escape and make some money", and in 1997 found herself in the UK. Once in London, a variety of casual jobs and part-time art courses followed until she decided to embark on a BA (Hons) Fine Art degree at the University of East London (UEL) in 2006.
After graduating in 2009, and now clear about the career she wanted to pursue, she went on to do an MA, winning a Stanley Spencer Scholarship to the Royal College of Art and graduating in 2011. But even then, she couldn’t just relax in the studio and enjoy the life of a working artist.
“It was very difficult. I had to continue doing other jobs," she says. "I always had an extra job. But after my MA I had a sell-out show, and was able to pay off my debts. That was a break.”
It was still a hard slog to survive as an artist right up until last year when Helen won the inaugural Evening Standard Contemporary Art Prize worth £10,000. She poured all of the prize money back into her art.
“The money was able to go into other projects and its been extremely helpful," she says. "I was able to make sculptures for an exhibition I was doing afterwards. It was the first time I was able to work with bronze since my time at UEL, because bronze is very expensive. But then you’ve got to try and sell them.”
Luckily for Helen, she now has some regular clients.
“Different kinds of people buy my art," she says. "I have people who’ve become collectors. They’ve become friends. One of the people who bought a piece at my UEL degree show still collects my work to this day.”
In June, Helen took part in an exhibition at the JGM Gallery in Battersea and this month she has a solo show at the 1961 Gallery in Singapore.
Although its been a long, hard slog up the ladder of success for Helen, she says wouldn’t have had it any other way.
“People forget that you don’t just become a genius right away like Picasso. There is learning. There are levels. You can’t just become a Basquiat overnight.
"I’m quite glad that my peak has been later rather than earlier. If it had come earlier I would have failed because I wasn’t as sure of myself. It’s come at the right time.”