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Helen Cann

Helen Cann is an illustrator and artist based in Brighton. Her speciality is in mapmaking, but she also draws and paints. Her work can be seen regularly at exhibitions around the world and has often featured in films and on television, including His Dark Materials and Howard’s End. To accompany our Golden Tickets, Helen created two limited edition illustrations taking inspiration from the tradition of the embellished compass rose, one for the solstices and one for the equinoxes.

Season:Winter 23
Date Created:2022-08-26
Medium:Ink on paper
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Photography by Aloha Bonser-Shaw.

How would you describe your work?

My illustration work mainly revolves around hand drawn map making. My maps, created in pen and ink or watercolour, are covered in illustrations and text telling the story of the land from a broad perspective.

What is it about maps that you find so fascinating?

Maps document the land at a single point in time. They invite you to see the world through the eyes of the mapmaker and glimpse what he or she believed important in the moment, editing out any features considered insignificant. Personally, I like maps that show the world in a broad multifaceted way, showing the flora and fauna, the history and culture, alongside the topography and pathways. The popular perception of a map - one on a screen that reduces the land to a series of roadways and retail venues - loses so much in terms of truly understanding and connecting to the environment.

Why the compass rose?

Add a simple arrow and an ‘N’ to an image and the viewer will, most likely, understand the image to be a map. Compass Roses, once known as Wind Roses, are the elaborate culmination of that arrow. Their graphic history is fascinating with each decade adapting to their own art style, be that the addition of Renaissance curlicues or Art Deco geometrics. Apart from their beauty, a compass rose always asks the question - ‘where are you and which direction will you take now?’ For me that symbolises total adventure and freedom...

How did you approach these pieces?

To start, I took a look at historic compass roses for inspiration - the type you find on antique marine charts and always a pleasure for their satisfying symmetry and ornate decoration. However, I knew I wanted to create something with a contemporary twist, so also researched ultra-modern florist designs that warp the traditional and embrace asymmetry with a sense of wilderness.

Tell us a little about the challenge of bringing opposing seasons together - summer and winter, autumn and spring…

I used the central decorative rings to bring a sense of colour harmony, knitting the colours of opposing seasons together. I also wanted to show the relationship between solstice and equinox compass roses by mirroring the interior circle device of snowflakes and the phases of the moon respectively.

Can you describe your favourite scent?

Bonfires. They conjure celebrations, the turn of the seasons and always feel slightly magical to me.

Where else do you find your inspiration?

Inspiration can be found everywhere! You just need an open mind...

What are you working on next?

On a couple of large maps documenting two villages in the Sussex Weald that have been commissioned by Mid Sussex Council as part of ‘About the Place’, a project celebrating walks around Worth Parish. Both villages look unassuming until you delve a little deeper and discover stories of prizefighting, smuggling, folk singing and the world marble championships (!).

What is the best advice you could pass on?

If you lose yourself, do it in the best way.

Helen is the eleventh artist to work with us on the Ffern Artists series. You can read about the others here.