Doing something different

Reading Time: 7 minutes

Pictured above: Hailes Seed

Taking on board the advice to “do something different” has created a successful niche for Bristol-based artist Helen Nock, who describes her art as “a relationship between finding and imagination”. Angela Youngman explores.


Atmospheric abstracts characterise the work of Helen Nock, who has developed an unusual niche in outdoor mosaics – a niche that came about as a result of helpful advice on starting out as a full-time artist. 

A self-taught ceramicist, Nock had taken a degree in fine arts before spending several years teaching at a college for children with special education needs. Deciding to branch out on her own artistic practice, she was advised by a sculptor friend to “do something different” to make her work stand out. At the time, she was doing work experience with local blacksmith Nathan Bennett and the idea of combining forged garden furniture with mosaics soon arose.  

“I loved working in the forge and it was a seamless move to incorporate that experience into my work,” explains Nock. “It taught me a lot about the creation of objects like armatures and tables. It was very heavy work, doing tasks like forging metalwork and cutting up metal. I was good at it but I was absolutely shattered at the end of the day.   

“I was looking at tables, and the idea developed from there, creating something between mosaic and assemblage, using mosaic techniques in a different way,” she continues. “Inspiration came from finding old building tiles rising out of the ground in an abandoned quarry. With my background in ceramics, I used terracotta tiles mixed with cut out stoneware tiles, which I baked in a kiln. The response was brilliant. People liked it.”

Nock created her first collection in her studio and it was exhibited at a gallery in Poole, Dorset. Soon afterwards, Helen was asked to exhibit within an online designer gallery and she began developing an online presence. This was supplemented by selling in local stores and at street fairs. After seven years, Helen was breaking even. Then a London gallery invited her to exhibit. They told her to increase her prices. It was advice that she quickly followed and, from then on her business grew rapidly, selling collections of work through galleries as well as bespoke pieces commissioned by individual clients. 

“It takes about a week to create a simple design for a table measuring around 75 cm. A large, bespoke item can take up to six weeks,” she adds. 

The mosaics are placed on a slate base, which is then incorporated into a metal table or other object. Focusing on outdoor mosaics within furniture that is regularly in use has meant Nock has had to be careful with the type of adhesives used. Nock places the mosaic pieces on top of the adhesive, then allows the adhesive to rise up between the pieces in order to anchor them in place. She has experimented with using waste aggregates, such as fine clinker from the forge or stone dust, within the adhesive mix. Such materials have been used for centuries as part of traditional pointing techniques. Once complete, the artwork is repeatedly sanded and waxed to create a beautiful sheen on the slate surface, which repels rainwater.  

“My themes tend to be rugged and organic, a reflective process involving the natural world.”

The metal bases and armatures used in her work are hand-forged out of non-corrosive metals by Nathan Bennett using Nock’s designs. The metal is usually galvanized by being dipped in molten zinc to make it rustproof, or allowed to weather and then painted to protect the surface. 

“I like to approach every design differently,” continues Nock. “It depends on the materials, and whether it is ideas for my own studio work or for a client’s bespoke work where it’s influenced by what they want. I start with a baseline idea and I’m prepared to make changes as I go along, as ideas can pop up all the time. If I’m doing a bespoke piece for a client, I may be including family links, their gardens or their homes. For my own work, I get ideas from everywhere. Maybe on a beach, exploring the landscape, picking up pebbles, sea glass and absorbing the vibe, the atmosphere in my designs. My themes tend to be rugged and organic, a reflective process involving the natural world.” 

Nock mostly works with recycled materials, although she does buy in glass if a client requires specific colours. Even then, she automatically reuses all the glass remnants on other projects.

“My own work tends to use stuff I find in the ground, along the roadside, in building sites, broken pieces from potteries, on the beach or in the countryside. I like these pieces because they’re weathered, lovely in their own right,” she says.

“Broken, found tiles resonate with me. For the slate tiles I use as bases, I go to Cornwall where I buy old tiles from people replacing roofs. I like slate that has been naturally worn, especially Delabole or ‘rag slate’ – big uneven pieces.” 

Nock now gets as much work as she wants. “I don’t do much marketing,” she says. “I sell through a gallery in Cornwall, via my website and I do Instagram, which has been wonderful. I get a lot of interest from Instagram. All I have to do is take photos and put them on. This generates interest and I get commissions from it. I have now got more than enough work. I’ve been very fortunate to have my work sought after and appreciated. It’s a good place to be in.”She’s now looking at ways to further develop her skills and work. “I am now arriving at a point where I would like to do more studio work rather than making collections,” Nock adds. “I’m exploring some other themes and ideas, such as making small items of jewellery and ways of using eco-blocks. Eco-blocks are old plastic bottles rammed inside with dry plastics to a set density, which creates reusable building blocks. I’m planning to do some sculptures with them, and cover them with mosaics, which will allow me to explore new techniques.”  

Instagram: @nockhelen