Exclusive: An Interview With Unskilled Worker, Gucci's Latest Favourite Artist
Helen Downie discusses her inspirations and social media as an art platform.
ESQUIRE: How did the name ‘Unskilled Worker’ come about?
UNSKILLED WORKER: I’ve had the name in my head for a long time but didn’t know where to put it or what it was for. I’ve not had any formal training and so when I started to paint it seemed like the most appropriate name … and it still is. I relate to the word, some days I feel more skilled than others.
ESQ: Tell us more about the collaboration, how did it come about?
UW: At the time I was illustrating a Gucci show as part of a residency for Nick Knight’s SHOWSTUDIO. One of the paintings was purchased by Gucci and was presented to Alessandro as a gift. In 2015 I was contacted by his office and invited to illustrate his first women's collection. It was an incredibly moving experience. I met Alessandro at the show; it was the beginning of a wonderful creative conversation. This led to other invitations to New York and Milan and then came the offer to exhibit with Gucci at the Minsheng Art Museum in Shanghai. Since then I’ve been fortunate to have a seat at all of his shows.
Helen Downie | Photo courtesy of Gucci
ESQ: What are the inspirations behind the illustrations in the collection?
UW: The Gucci paintings are an instinctive response to Alessandro's work. Some of the characters are inspired by people I’ve known. One of the paintings’ Family’ was made as a response to homophobic comments left on Instagram, I felt so angry so better to paint my response than to speak it. For me family is a feeling, we find our families. My paintings are about human relationships, I like to intertwine the characters; they express love and friendships in all its forms.
ESQ: How is it like working with Alessandro Michele?
UW: I love the way Alessandro's work is so intensely personal, like a map of his life with little hidden messages that can't be seen at first glance. I think we both like hidden elements in our work. It's been so exciting to discover his world and then mix it in with mine. For me it's a joy to paint! The Gucci paintings are made spontaneously, like a creative conversation in which I try to pick up on Alessandro's references, while adding my own thoughts to the characters and their experiences.
Sometimes it can be one detail, a hidden name embroidered onto a pocket or the shape of a hat and this can trigger a memory and so a story begins to form.
Left to right: Sophie & George silk scarf by Unskilled Worker; The Stein Sisters silk scarf by Unskilled Worker; The Gucci Gang, London's Dreaming, Put a Ring on It silk carré by Unskilled Worker. | Photo courtesy of Gucci
ESQ: What do you think about social media being an art platform?
UW: Social media has changed the landscape of how work can be seen. It has made art more inclusive for many people and has enabled artists and collectors to connect outside of the gallery system. For me it has been an amazing platform to share my work to a wider audience. It has also given me the opportunity to meet so many interesting and inspiring people that perhaps wouldn’t have been possible before the advent of social media. The world has become very small!
ESQ: Do you think digital is the next art medium?
UW: It's a new and modern medium and will be used in its own way, just the way that oil paint was once new and look at what that inspired! It's so exciting!
ESQ: How do you feel about your work being featured in the fashion world now?
UW: I’m delighted. To see my work come to life on the most beautiful fabrics is incredible to me. I feel so fortunate to be able to see my work in this way; it's a walking exhibition!
ESQ: How do you think about the relationship about art, fashion and social media?
UW: I think Fashion informs us about history and culture and can challenge boundaries in the much the same way as art; I think they’ve always found each other irresistible and Instagram is a great way for people to see this.
ESQ: Instagram accounts we should follow?
UW: @_Nitch is the most inspirational account, who is this person? They post such helpful quotes. @lallo25 really gives me an understanding of Alessandro's process, it's very personal. @thebluebed slightly poisonous and beautiful. @buttonfruit this artist’s delicate ink work is sublime.
The capsule collection is available at gucci.com