28 May 2016

Hélène Blanchet interview: Folk art in big nature

Wee Cabin in The Woods by H. Blanchet, 2009, 11” x 11”.

Fibre artist Hélène Blanchet creates exuberant hand-made quilts from her home deep in the highlands of Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia. 

Surrounded by big nature, her folk art pieces tell stories inspired by her life and travels. Her husband’s work provided the family with many opportunities to see the world, all while home-schooling their three children. These travels nurtured Hélène’s love of traditional textiles. She draws inspiration from these traditions, the natural world, her family and the beauty of her home province.

Hélène took up fibre art full time in 2007 and has since shown her work in numerous juried shows; locally, nationally and internationally and in several galleries.

Tell us about your work.

I often describe my work as textile folk art. My hand-made pictures are based on very basic piecing, heavily embellished with tiny appliqued bits, quilting, embroidery, buttons, beads, miniature toys and many other items that I come across. My colours are bright and cheerful, the designs are simple and the perspective is sometimes a little off. Often, the picture continues, in paint, on a wooden frame. The pictures in my quilts tell a story that is revealed slowly upon viewing. 

Ladies in Yellow Dresses go to the Beach by H. Blanchet, 2011, w25” x h29”.

Describe your journey towards becoming an artist who works with textiles. 

My love affair with textiles began when I was first introduced to embroidery in grade seven. As a teenager, I poured over books on traditional textiles and was particularly drawn to Medieval English story boxes done in thread and stumpwork, describing conquests or everyday life in the Middle Ages. The box featured in this video was particularly inspiring to me and really got me interested in story-telling with a needle.

Eventually, I began appliqueing bits of fabric onto a base layer to create little pictures. When my children were young I made little bed quilts from old clothing, by hand, without a pattern. When I saw my first quilt show in 2006, I was hooked and began making “proper” quilts, still without a pattern. Wanting some feedback on my work, I entered my first National Juried Show in 2007. To my surprise, one of my Amish-style quilts was accepted and won an honourable mention. 

With this encouraging news, I decided I wanted to become an artist. The following year I began deliberately making art quilts, developing new techniques and entering shows. Eventually I joined various quilt guilds and fibre arts groups and immersed myself in fibre arts of all kinds. But still, I just wanted to make my little pictures. The tranquility of the deep woods together with the camaraderie of other women helped build my self-confidence, but it was only last year that I (finally) found the confidence to call myself an artist.

Tell us about your process for creating. Where do you find your inspiration and how do you get from that to a final product?

My pictures are based on everyday life occurrences or moments that I find particularly funny or inspiring. Often, a title springs to mind first and won’t leave me until I’ve turned it into a picture. I make a rough sketch, build my background and applique the larger elements of the piece. I then heavily quilt it to create a sturdy base for my embellishments. During the slow process of hand-quilting, I think about the details of the piece and take many notes. As I applique tiny bits of detail, the story emerges and becomes more involved. I create more intricate details in thread, buttons, beads, miniature toys, etc. and the story becomes more refined, more complex.

Dirty Hoers (detail) by Hélène Blanchet, 2016.

Do you have a studio, or do you work wherever you can find a spot?  

I don’t currently have a studio. We live in a very small cabin, so finding a space to work is a problem. Last winter I rented a nearby cottage to use as a workspace. We have been converting a second cabin on our property into a studio space that will soon be ready. 

We live simply, off the grid and without plumbing, so I’m occasionally slowed by a shortage of water or electricity. Fortunately, my nearest neighbour is also a textile artist and generously allows me to use her space when necessary. 

The Dancing Goat by Hélène Blanchet, 2016, 11” x 11”.

What are you currently working on and why?

When we moved to downtown Calgary four years ago, I began documenting our stay in a series of pieces I’ve called Calgary Days. I have since made nine of an anticipated 15 to 20 pieces. I’ve also begun to make small pictures of Cape Breton to sell through local art galleries.

The Corner, by H. Blanchet, 2016, w16” x h36”.

What are your goals for the coming year?

One of my main focuses for this year, in addition to the Calgary series, is the administrative part of being a professional artist: developing an online presence and finding venues for my first solo show. My work was recently juried into the Cape Breton Centre for Craft and Design and I am now busy writing proposals for shows, my own and several group exhibits. My solo show, Calgary Days, will launch in the fall of 2017. I am then hoping to have it tour this region for a year, continuing for a second year around Alberta. I also want to stay relevant by creating pieces for regional and national exhibits. 

Do you engage in other artistic or creative endeavors?

I’m an avid gardener. I see my garden as a giant living canvas, which I’m designing with “no straight lines“, à la Hundertwasser. I’m having a grand time sorting out how to do this on a small budget. Resourcefulness, hard work and luck seem to be the key, as they are in my textile work.

On Oyster Pond (detail) by Hélène Blanchet 2012.

What (non-fibre) artists, either historic or contemporary, have inspired you and why?

I love the work of Paul Klee: his compositions, lines and how he painted music. Matisse and Gaugin gave me the confidence to use colour as I want to, without understanding why. Alfred Pellan inspired my use of beads and thread to create textures in buildings and skies. Norval Morrisseau taught me that no matter what life throws your way, you can’t let it break your spirit.

Paul’s Magnificent Treehouse by Hélène Blanchet, 2009, w29” x h39”

What fibre artists are you currently interested in, and why?

I’ve admired Pamela Allen’s work for a long time now. I love her free compositions, sense of humour and stories. Anna Hergert has become somewhat of a mentor to me, I admire the way her creative mind works, her generosity of spirit and her contemporary approach to using very traditional techniques from various ethnic groups. I follow Maria Shell’s blog and love her energy and the strong graphic quality of her work. Mathilde René creates simple embroideries from her daily watercolour sketches. They always bring a smile to my face, reminding me of simple everyday pleasures.

Where can readers see your work this year?

Currently, my work is available in three Nova Scotia galleries:
The Sunset Folk Art Gallery, Chéticamp 
The Inverness County Centre for the Arts, Inverness 
The Cape Breton Centre for Craft and Design, Sydney. 

To learn more about Hélène and her artwork, please visit her gallery page  on the Fibre Art Network.


  1. Amazing creations! And such a lovely interview! Next trip to Sydney will find me checking out her work in person! Thank you for sharing!