Our Cup of Tea | Living North

Our Cup of Tea

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Helaina Sharpley art
Mirfield artist Helaina Sharpley specialises in wirework landscapes, but her passion is for good old Yorkshire tea. We talk to the pioneering artist about selling works to David Hockney, creating commissions for Hilton hotels and craft workshops in Tokyo

What springs to mind when you think of Yorkshire? Rolling hills and breath-taking countryside, friendly people, or a proper cup of Yorkshire tea – ahh, you can’t beat it. From the minute you take your first sip of that sweet brew all of your troubles melt away. No wonder we call it God’s Own Country. Well, one pioneering Mirfield artist has turned her passion for char into a successful business, creating extraordinary wire teacups, saucers and utensils. Chin chin.

Based at the West Yorkshire Print Workshop in Mirfield, Helaina Sharpley is an artist with an incredible skill for creating landscapes and buildings out of wire. From Tower Bridge to the individual leaves on a tree, she has an attention to detail and an innate quirkiness which singles the 32-year-old out from most other artists her age. But she also has a particular dexterity for creating sculptures inspired by the art of drinking tea.

A graduate of Batley College of Art, Helaina studied Design Craft at Hereford College of Art and it was here that her passions first collided. ‘It was a concept-led course, so we all started with a theme,’ she tells us. ‘It could be anything, so long as you have a deep interest in it or were particularly passionate about it. I like tea, like an addict – Hello, my name is Helaina and I like tea.

‘I started looking into everything to do with tea-drinking and my tutor would ask stupid questions like, “What if tea was served on brown trays like they do at school?” I was horrified. I wanted it to be about the ritual and whole pastime of tea-drinking. In my mind I was a lady and it was all about Victorian and Edwardian elegance.’

Picture Isobel Crawley visiting the Dowager Countess of Grantham for high tea in Downton Abbey and you’re not too far off Helaina’s style – loose leaf tea served in an ornate teacup and saucer with a delicate sugar cube. But like the plot of our favourite period drama, there’s always a twist... Helaina’s stunning 2D and 3D recreations of tea paraphernalia are made entirely out of wire.

‘I collected photographs of Victorian and Edward England – Scarborough seafront, steam trains and grand hotels – and started doing very detailed drawings in brown ink,’ Helaina explains. ‘We were supposed to go from researching into sampling and making, but I didn’t want to go into the workshop and use any of the scary machines so my tutor gave me some wire and told me to make something. I made a very messy continuous line drawing out of wire and then realised that there were different thicknesses and you could layer them. It’s not hard, but it’s time-consuming and I was very happy to sit and twiddle.’

The rest, as they say, is history. In no time Helaina was crafting freestanding 3D teacups and saucers as well as more intricate wall-mounted landscapes – and they proved to be phenomenally popular. Incredibly, she sold nine of the 14 pieces at her degree show and returned to Yorkshire with enough money to lease a studio in Huddersfield.

‘We did Business Studies alongside our making,’ Helaina says. ‘In our final year we had to run ourselves like a business, do our own costings and overheads and price everything – it really made you look and think. Although you’d made something really beautiful and spent four weeks working on it, if it didn’t look like it was worth that much to the general public and they weren’t going to buy it then there was no point continuing with that line of work. We also learnt how to approach galleries, so I started working with The Craft Centre in Leeds and it just went from there.’

Helaina’s eye-catching creations are now sold in 20 different galleries across the country and she’s regularly called upon to do commissions of people’s houses or wedding venues, costing up to £4,000. In 2014 she created 26 floral-inspired pieces for the grand opening of the Double Tree Hilton Hotel in Liverpool. And, amazingly, David Hockney ranks among her collectors.

‘I was selling in Gallery Forty-Nine in Bridlington,’ she explains, ‘and the Gallery Manager phoned me very excited one day. She said, “You’ll never guess who has bought your work – David Hockney”. They had an exhibition upstairs and they invited him to all of their private views because he was living in Bridlington at the time, and the owner of the gallery was his doctor, and he just happened to come to that private view and see my work.’ What did he buy? The teacups of course.

Helaina attributes part of her success to the nostalgia of her Victorian-inspired creations. ‘To begin with I was attracted to the beauty and detail of everything – the well-built buildings and the iron work with the twiddly bits – but the more I looked into it, it became a romantic vision of a better life,’ she says. ‘I know you’d have to be very rich to enjoy it, but the etiquette of how they’d take tea with calling cards and conversation cards and how they weren’t allowed to gossip at afternoon tea – I think we could learn a lot from those elements.’

The quintessentially British element of Helaina’s work led to her finding favour in the unlikeliest of places: the Japanese department store IENA. After coming across her work at the Top Drawer trade fair in London, IENA flew Helaina to Tokyo recently to provide wire-working tutorials in two of their stores. During the eight-day trip she taught enthusiastic customers how to make her 3D teacups.

‘It was quite a whirlwind of a trip,’ she recounts. ‘I was the only artist in the shop and my work was amongst clothes by Nike and Stella McCartney. It’s very different out there – although they have lots of galleries in Tokyo, the art-buying scene isn’t the same. Galleries are just there to show work, but they’ve discovered that if you showcase work in a shop where people have money and creativity, but aren’t necessarily the kind of people to go into galleries, then that’s the way to get people to buy. They set up a table and I ran three workshops a day. People were very polite and excited. They kept saying ‘kawaii’ which means cute – they kept saying it again and again.’

With a busy schedule of trade and art shows lined up for the new year, who knows where Helaina might find herself next? Perhaps she’ll be sipping tea with sultans before long.

Helaina Sharpley will be exhibiting as part of Branching Out at The Craft Centre and Design Gallery, Leeds from 18 March to 24 June. For more information or to purchase one of her extraordinary creations click here

Published in: January 2017

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