Holman was commissioned this year to create street banners for the Burnaby Heights Merchants Association. He shares his artistic process in creating the banners in this post.
When I was asked by the Burnaby Heights Merchants Association earlier this year to create street banners for them, the artistic direction was clear from the start: bring Helen, the iconic “swinging girl” of the Heights, to life in wool.
As an artist, I create illustrations through a combination of needle felting, scale-model set making, and photography. Needle felting is a process of sculpting wool by repeatedly stabbing it with a specialized barbed needle. Wool fibres are entangled with each stab, making the wool firmer and firmer. What begins as loose, amorphous wool slowly transforms into recognizable shapes. After many, many hours of painstaking needlework, a figure begins to emerge.
The task of bringing Helen to life in wool was fascinating. Though she is a beloved, well-known neon landmark, she held mysteries. It is anyone’s guess what Helen really looks like, since she is only rendered in profile, and roughly at that. Her hair is something of an undefined mass. It is impossible to know exactly what age she is. None of this, of course, is a criticism of the original artwork. After all, she was created as a kinetic neon beacon to capture the eyes of drivers zooming past, not hold up to the close scrutiny of passersby on foot. Two more mysteries: her dress is painted blue by day but lights up pink by night, while her hair in daylight is brunette, but by nightfall, glows blonde.
From this pile of imprecise—and sometimes contradictory—information, I had to create a version of Helen that was recognizable and familiar, yet animated with new life.
The process started with creating a simple wire armature. The wire not only gave the figure an immediate sense of scale, but allowed limbs to be bent and the figure to be posed. Wool is then needled around the armature.
Wool was continually added and needled until the figure began to take shape.
After the body and head was formed, the facial features were added. Loose wool comes in various pre-dyed colours, and blue was applied for the eyes, and a sandy colour was used for the eyebrows and hair. Here is Helen with just a touch of hair added, looking like a punk rocker!
The mouth was formed with a piece of black thread.
I decided to give Helen a blue dress with white trim, based on her daytime appearance. I created her dress by needling “pre-felt” (soft, pliable sheets of thin wool) right onto her body. At such a small scale, pre-felt does not drape on it own, so all the pleats and folds in Helen’s dress had to be created through various needling techniques.
In this photo, Helen’s dress is complete, and I am needling on black wool to create one of her Mary Janes.
Here is Helen shortly after she was completed, with her retro hairdo and outfit. It took me about 20 hours of needle felting to complete her.
The only prop that was necessary was the swing. However, creating it proved trickier than I had originally imagined. I first attempted to make the swing using wood for the seat and thick braided string for the ropes.
After mounting Helen on the swing, I suspended the two strings from a T-shaped pole.
My idea was to tie a piece of thread to the bottom of the swing’s seat, and then pull the swing back into position. This idea proved hopeless. The thread, the braided strings, and the T-shaped pole all vibrated to varying degrees when tugged at, making it impossible for me to capture an image of Helen in focus.
My next idea was to mount the wood seat of the swing on a pole, and then pull the braided strings up before shooting.
Again, this idea was flawed. Pulling the braided strings too gently left the strings unconvincingly slack, but pulling them too tightly again lead to bounce and vibration, resulting in more out-of-focus shots.
Finally, I decided that the only way I could re-create the swing was to ensure that it was no swing at all. The ropes of the swing could not be pliable; they had to be dummied up with stiff metal rods coiled with thin hemp string to create the illusion of ropes. The dummied up ropes of the swing would have to shoot straight up in the air, as seen in this photo:
It was no longer necessary to tug at any part of the swing to tighten the slack in the ropes, so it was finally possible to capture Helen—and the swing itself—in focus.
In order to avoid too much bending while doing the photography, the figure was mounted high up on top of a metal pole, which was embedded into several layers of Styrofoam, which were tied on top of two milk crates, which were placed on a folding table!
I chose a shooting location in Burnaby just east of Boundary at the edge of Montrose Park, overlooking the Trans Canada Trail and the North Shore. There were plenty of trees around, as well as natural sky.
I shot late in the afternoon on a beautiful May day, with the sun still fairly high in the sky. I took many, many shots of Helen that afternoon, putting her in various poses and placing her in front of various natural backdrops. Here’s an outtake, with the pole holding up Helen still visible. For the final images, this pole was removed digitally.
The final banners capture Helen in a playful moment, with a wry smile on her face. She is young and vital, but connected with the past. She is savvy and urbane, but in touch with her natural surroundings. The “swinging girl” is the unmistakable symbol of The Heights. I truly hope that this version of Helen will be as embraced and beloved as the original, reminding people to “swing on by” to this incredible community.
I had the great pleasure of the attending the unveiling event for the banners this week. It was very gratifying to receive such an enthusiastic response from the event attendees. Here I am with local MLA Richard Lee with the full-sized banner (which I was lucky enough to get to keep!):
Here’s my felt artwork, rendered in edible ink!
Finally, after I came home and showed my kids the full-sized banner, they were so excited that my daughter, who’s in kindergarten, decided she wanted to draw her own version of The Swinging Girl.
Fingers crossed that the public reception is just as enthusiastic!
And the banners are up!
If you look at the bottom of this picture, you can see the original neon Swinging Girl sign in the back!