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?”
She was still working at the Photo Fringe when studying, and ran herself ragged; one of her tutors took her aside and told her to step back, and just try to write something every day. “That was hugely important, because I started to believe I could write. It underpins everything, it’s the core of everything. Text is everywhere – not story like a linear narrative but me wanting to say something. Everything is about me wanting to say something.
“It’s about confidence. In my 20s, when I was desperately trying to find something creative, I had this huge hole. I started to write a novel. Then I got burgled and they took my laptop and it was all gone. I didn’t want to write again for a while. So I bought some canvas and some acrylic paints. And it was about making marks, about using colour and form. I didn’t take it seriously and I wouldn’t paint now. But now I trust the marks I make and I don’t have to apologise for them.”
Her late-blooming confidence in mark-making was apparent in Rome, where she was making etchings in concise, flowing lines for her book. On other legs of her tour she was taking Italian lessons with migrants in Palermo; working with a choreographer in Florence; filming a performance on Beatrice Cenci’s spinet in Bologna (Cenci was beheaded for murdering her rapist father in 1599); running workshops for migrant women in Reggio Emilia; and taking classical singing lessons in Venice so she could learn music by the great baroque composer Barbara Strozzi. It is a lyric from a Strozzi aria that gives its name to the Whitechapel exhibition, Che Si Può Fare – “what can be done”.
All of this was part of an investigation into the idea of lament, specifically women’s lament. “I think what I was looking for was an understanding of lament being about loss and longing – but also resilience and resistance,” she says – lament as a survival strategy, lament as strength. “Lament recurs, I now realise, through all the work I make. It is about historical loss, my parents’ sense of loss and the things that were painful and sad for them: racism, and the barriers they faced. I’m sad about it but I also want to change it.” All of this will come together into a work for the Whitechapel that embraces film, performance and text – Cammock’s trademark polyphonic mix.
In a way, Cammock’s meandering path towards making work is all the more surprising given that her father was an art teacher. But Helen – unlike her more obviously arty elder sister, Sandy – “was a sort of joke, the person who couldn’t draw. Drawing was always to do with life drawing or producing something recognisable and I was terrible at it. And I had no patience. I ran around like a busy bee, playing football and climbing trees.” Sandy quite often used to do her art homework for her. “My dad was a ceramicist as well as an art teacher and in the ceramics class at school I was in the remedial group … I was a total disaster area.”
And yet she was creative. When she was 12, her father took early retirement and the family moved from London to Somerset – a rupturing that Cammock describes as “hell on earth”. In desperation she picked up a guitar and started writing songs. Her mother took her to play at a folk club one night, which, she hadn’t realised, was on the West Country touring circuit. She was spotted by a promoter – and began a teenage life of performing, being driven around clubs in south-west England, chaperoned by her mum. But then came university, “and I trained as a social worker and played in bands for a bit, but social work took over and I didn’t sing for 10 years”.
Her father died too young to see his younger daughter becoming a successful artist; but her mother, who died just over a year ago, was immensely proud. Sandy’s theory is that Cammock’s mindset has stayed consistent. “[My sister] said, ‘The thing about you is that you’ve always had things you’ve wanted to say and you’ve wanted to change things. When you were younger you did it through songwriting, then through being a social worker and now as an artist.”
I wonder which has proved the most effective strategy. “Well I suppose if I had wanted to make real change I would have become a politician.” Good idea, I suggest. “Don’t joke,” says Cammock. “It has been said.” Maybe that will be Cammock’s next act. We should be so lucky.
Che Si Può Fare, is at the Whitechapel Art Gallery, London, 26 June to 1 September.
This article was updated on 21 June 2019 to correct the name of the Istituto Centrale della Grafica.