Artists Interviews

April 2013: Orla Kelly

Órla Kelly interviews Helene Hugel

Following her Editorship of in Jan-Feb, Órla Kelly interviewed Helene Hugel, Artistic Director of Helium, Children’s Arts and Health Company.

Orla Kelly:

How did you begin your practice with early years; was it a gradual and natural movement from working with older children, did you intentionally move to early years arts or was there always an early years component?

Helene Hugel:

I would define my early years practice as working with 0-3 year olds. I can directly link my movement to work with this age group to working as a clown doctor with the team at Clown Doctors Northern Ireland, where I worked part-time for 5 years (2004-2009). While working as a clown in hospitals, I worked with children aged 0-16 years, working with babies and toddlers for the first time. It was this work that inspired me to explore the possibilities of working for this age group further. Thanks to a Bursary grant through the Arts Council and the support from Tallaght Community Arts and The National Children’s Hospital in Tallaght, I was able to do this with a musician in 2008.

I would have worked with 3-5 year olds as part of my work with Puca Puppets (1997-2002) both performing and through workshops. The public version of The Bedmaker was also an early years show and I would have worked with pre-schoolers through my general arts and health practice in hospitals from 2004. However, I would have seen this work as part of my general practice of working with children, and never focussed as much on it as an area of discipline as I have been doing with the babies and toddlers since 2008.

I think this is for two reasons, 1.)My general fascination with this age group and enjoying the challenge it presents, and 2.) With my work as CEO/Artistic Director of Helium, I have had to share my time between my management role and my arts practice. This means that my arts practice has become very focussed in order to co-exist alongside the management role.

Orla Kelly:

You have been developing a practice in early years for many years now, what is the most challenging thing you experience regularly?

Helene Hugel:

Because I work in the health area, there is a big challenge to 1.)Protect the integrity of the arts experience that it doesn’t become overwhelmed by the need for health outcomes. 2.)Unusual spaces I work in (health centres or community centres which are not always fit for the best arts outcomes) - although this challenge becomes a great opportunity and therefore encourages creative solutions 3.)As with any arts and health project language and communication between the two sectors is always a challenge that has to be overcome with good communication strategies and some creative solutions

The big challenge now, after many years of trying to string together once-off projects, is creating an evidence base (while maintaining artistic integrity.)

Orla Kelly:

What is the most rewarding experience?

Helene Hugel:

The most rewarding experience is always the reaction of the children and the parents and the staff, who are often surprised at the child’s reaction, not realising that the arts would cause such a response. And ultimately it is the ’in the now moment’ when I am connecting with the very young child (often with my colleague a musician) in the special space we have created.

Orla Kelly:

You became a mother relatively recently. Has your experience as artist working with early years children influenced your creative relationship with your own child, and (if so) has this in turn influenced and further informed your development as an artist engaging with early years children?

Helene Hugel:

Interesting question as I have been thinking about it. I actually think what has fed my practice more so is the awareness I have gained in becoming a parent. The creative play between Lily and I is part of our everyday interaction and I have to say I am so grateful for feeling confident in doing it. It has made my life as a parent more fulfilling (lots of laughs!) and got me out of frustrating situations like when she is tired of being in the car, when we have only just left for our destination (lots and lots of singing some songs over and over again just as I did as a clown doctor, and having to enjoy the song the same way the 100th time signing it as I did the very first time). I understand now how busy and tired a parent can feel (and I have only one child to look after!) and how you can get so caught up in the monotony of looking after the physical needs of your child (cleaning/feeding etc.) and the needs of yourself(going for a walk) that it is very easy for a whole day to go by and to forget to plonk yourself on the ground and have a good play, separate from any kind of daily chore. On a very practical level from a parents point of view, having an arts event you can go to with your very young child is like having a little haven or oasis created for you, away from the house where you can be reminded to play purposefully with your child. I think the reminding is so important as mothers we can get so caught up in our daily busy lives acting out our multiple roles as parents/wives/professionals/etc. We need constant reminding. Writing this has just reminded me again!

Re your question re whether being creative with my daughter feeds into my arts practice - I think it will, but I am not clear yet how this will happen. I would like to create a workshop for 1-2 year olds, and Lily is 1 years old next month. One of my plans is to start keeping a diary about our interactions together, and see what might come of it.

Orla Kelly:

What has been your most inspiring moment as an early years artist, whether experienced as artist, invented as artist or viewed as audience member?

Helene Hugel:

There has been so I am finding it hard to choose, but I think it was working with my mentor Tim Webb from Oily Cart back in 2008, who has to this day informed my arts practice in this area. Interviewing Ruth Churchill Dower was also very inspirational.

Orla Kelly:

How do you invent/ create work for early years children? Is it a collaborative process? Is it a reflective process and one that you build on constantly?

(To answer this Helene looks back on a previous editorial interview looking at development of ideas and collaboration and we share it here again now.)

• Rationale
o What draws you to work with children / young people?
I find the space that is created between artist and child/children very creative, spontaneous, immediate, true, and innovative. The inventiveness and problem solving that occurs in this space cannot be replicated in an artist’s studio or between artists.

• Development of ideas
o Can you describe your process in studio from initiation to completion?
o Can you describe your process on a project from initiation to completion?
I’m afraid I can’t comment on these two questions separately.
o Can you compare the two processes - do they converge / diverge?
These processes always diverge. I never create a performance piece without researching and developing the work with my audience, children, and more so now, children and parents. I usually first spend some time researching, and preparing props and or puppets in the studio. I then have an engagement/play phase with the audience to explore themes, ways of working, etc. Then, I return to the studio to develop a work-in-progress which involves puppet and prop making. The work-in-progress is then tested on the audience and feedback recorded.

• The nature of collaboration
o How do you define collaboration? I am still figuring this out, but I see it here in the way I work, as a dialogue, an exchange, or collectively creating. It is about understanding the 100 languages of children.
o How do you apply this definition on a project? This involves listening very closely to the child, their language, and importantly allowing space for them to respond in their own way and time. This may involve creating gaps or silence, or waiting quietly which may seem strange for an adult. It means tuning in to the child’s world.
o Can you comment on the dialogue between you and the children/young people working with you? I may have just done that above. This dialogue involves improvisation, being in the moment, and trusting and going with children’s ideas, even though at the time, we may not be sure about where it may end up. I was just listening to my mentor speak at the forum, and he refers to this as political, in that in working collaboratively with children, we give them a voice, validate their language and interests and issues. We become advocates in a way I guess. He suggests this is very endorsing and empowering for children. For instance in the show the Bedmaker, it involves many gaps and spaces for the children to speak, to comment, to input, and I as a performer respond, either physically or verbally, accepting their addition to the story. Of course, I need to learn to contain this in a framework, and bring the audience back to listening otherwise the artistic integrity is consumed by chaos.

Orla Kelly:

What do you find most challenging about documenting Helium’s work with children? What have you done to overcome any challenges?

Helene Hugel:

Because we often work with children in difficult situations, we have to be careful how we document visually and also how we gain consent. There are two challenges:

1.)Visual material where we have had full consent from the parent to take and use it, and then the child passes away. Our policy at the moment is to discontinue use of the images, however, really we should be approaching the parent about it as they may wish us to continue to use them. We are at the moment taking the easier route.

2.)Gaining consent for photos in certain early years settings - we use a very ’informed consent approach’ which means we come back to parents who have given us full consent to get further consent on specific photos. This presents logistical challenges, in terms of time needed, and posting forms and getting them back.

Orla Kelly:

If you were given three wishes to make early years arts in Ireland more than it is at present what would they be?

Helene Hugel:

1.)Training for artists - we are planning a long-term project here in the Midlands, but are faced with the fact that there are perhaps no artists with the required high quality skills in this geographical area, which means artists may have to commute, which is not ideal at all. I know Orla from Kidsown has had this problem, and we have been talking about training needs. We would need this to happen in the next year and a bit.

2.)Perhaps a similar group to Arts and Health Coordinators Ireland where coordinators of arts and early years programmes/projects from around the country get together to advocate, support each other, and collaborate through resource sharing - this might be a step towards a national resource organisation for arts and early years.

3.)Interested researchers made visible, and funding for evidence base in this area.

Orla Kelly:

What exciting early years arts adventure do you have lined up in the coming months?

Helene Hugel:

We have taken a step back from programming for a year of reflection, consolidating stakeholders, planning, and fundraising for a 2-3 year project in the Midlands, hopefully to start early-mid 2014.

Here are some links to our archive of work:In chronological order

Infant Imaginings

Infant Imaginings on Vimeo

Infant Imaginings Blog

Creative Connections

Also My Guest Editorship on in the area of arts and early years in 2010: (Interview with Ruth Churchill Dower and photo essay with Corina Chiran)

It’s amazing how arts and early years has come on so much in two years. As part of my editorship, I tried to do a mapping of artists working in this area, with a call-out through various art bulletins etc. I got less than 6 artists responding...and now look at the activity. It really is great! Thank you for the interview.

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