Helen Duckworth has been thinking about the meaning of life since she was six years old. “I was an odd duck,” she laughs, recalling her fascination with painting and drawing instead of more playful childhood pastimes. Unable to afford art school, the budding artist hitched a ride from London to Manhattan with a family as an au pair and in her free time snuck off to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. “I discovered El Greco at the Met and fell in love with his elongated, spiritual figures,” she says.
Her employers eventually returned to London, but Duckworth stayed on in New York, taking art classes at night, painting, and writing poetry. In a twist of fate, her husband-to-be sat in on Duckworth’s poetry reading at St. Mark’s Place in the East Village. The two married, had kids, and on a vacation to Charleston, decided to trade the bright lights of the big city for the dripping Spanish moss of the Lowcountry.
But unlike so many Charleston artists, Duckworth’s paintings do not reflect the landscape outside her windows. “I paint what I feel, something holy, the spirit, the mystery of it all,” she says of her large-scale oil paintings. “It’s an exploration of my deep inner world.” The female form is dominant in Duckworth’s expressionistic figure paintings. Big, curvy women wrap their arms around a child, a sister, a lover, or themselves. “I don’t like jagged edges,” she says. “The circular motion reflects the voluptuousness of nature.” In “The Dreamer,” a woman sits alone in a cocoon-like position. The bold lines of her arms and legs are sculptural and sweeping, bringing to mind Picasso’s “Woman with Yellow Hair.” Duckworth says her women are a “vehicle of the spirit,” evoking both a sense of inner calm and, with her vivid colors, an emotional intensity. Using rich, intense shades of deep red, orange, and turquoise blue, she says, “They really could be any color, because the main thing I’m trying to capture is a feeling.”
There seems to be no separation between Duckworth’s work and her life, and it feels as though her paintings are an extension of herself. A man and woman, mother and child, and a woman alone — the nearly universal stages of a woman’s life — are the context of many of her images. “It’s in the gesture, the position of an arm or a hand resting against another, that I want to capture. It’s that expression of tenderness and love — the way a mother leans her head against her child.” Stepping carefully between stacks of canvases on the floors of her house, Duckworth says, “The ideas never stop coming.”
Dreams & Reflections is a collection of Duckworth’s body of work, including some older pieces that she has been unwilling to part with for years. Tying the pieces together is the theme of a journey and a search for introspection. “I am incensed when I paint,” she says. “Listening to Mozart and Vivaldi with a glass of wine in my hand and tears running down my face, I am over-the-top.” Duckworth brings viewers on her ongoing search for the meaning of life.