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Police called to censor Cumbria university student’s art show

Seen in the flesh, Helen Gorrill’s women are imposing and beautiful. They stand seven feet tall from head to toe, their faces in the shadows, their bodies on display.

The washes of ink that make up their flesh are translucent and luminous as a stained glass window. They look down disdainfully on their creator, as she sits on the floor of her studio and paints.

The mother of two Helen is not what you’d expect from a controversial artist. Sitting in a corridor at the University of Cumbria, the 39-year-old is uncomfortable talking about herself. “I’m scared to open up,” she says. “I’m scared you’re going to write something bad about me.”

As a painter her expression is raw and controversial, enough for the university to censor her FDA Drawing degree show. It’s not the women that are the problem – it’s the men.

She says: “The actual degree project is about the seven deadly sins. I’m the only person out of 25 that has done something that needs censoring. I thought there would be far more controversial work within the remit.”

Her series of paintings was inspired by a religious pamphlet she got through the door at her home in Newbiggin, near Brampton. Using Biblical examples, it listed the ideal qualities of the dominant husband and submissive wife.

“It said things like ‘Would she make a good wife?’ and ‘Would he make a good husband?’” she says. “So I deconstructed the wording to put the females into the male position, to get the viewer to ask questions.”

While the women in her paintings are powerful, their husbands are broken and humiliated. She depicts them naked and bound, bent over in poses of sexual submission that leave little to the imagination.

After discussing the work with the University, she decided to call in the police herself for guidance.

“The police came in and said the females were fine, but we should just be careful with the male figures.”

She was disappointed at first, she says, but she understands the art school has to protect its legal rights. If her paintings attracted complaints, it could have been prosecuted for obscenity.

She says: “I’ve kind of had to be governed this time, with it being my final show. And with it being a group show I didn’t want to spoil the other people’s chances of having their work viewed by the public.”

The debate about censorship reflected her views on the gender divide. Even in a culture of Page 3 and Girls Aloud, people still recoil at seeing men in a sexualised light.

“My females are all wearing high-heeled shoes, and their faces have all been blanked out,” she says. “The professional dominatrix I interviewed for my research said a masked face provides the ultimate power and entices submissiveness.”

And the research side of the project didn’t end there. Helen visited Amsterdam with her husband in February, making quick life sketches of figures around the city’s famous red light district.

The former personal assistant has been creative all her life, but only started studying art three years ago. For a mother of 13-year-old twins, it can be a big leap back to her home life.

She adds: “I think I’ve had to watch what I’ve taken home, because I’ve worked on it pretty obsessively from dawn to dusk. And because of the nature of the material, I’ve got to be careful about what I leave lying around.”

But when her children caught a glimpse of the naked men, they just thought they were funny.

And after spending six months immersed in a fetishistic underworld, Helen has been left refreshingly unshockable.

The pictures of men were all drawn from life, using a model she has worked with for two years. Her relationship with the fantasy figures remains obscure, especially in terms of the women. She admits: “I’d love to be as confident as that, but I don’t think I ever would be.”

Nonetheless, she is looking forward to letting the public loose on her work for the first time.

The University of Cumbria degree show is being held from Wednesday, June 10 to Friday, June 19. She adds: “I’m quite excited, in a way. I’ve put a lot of work into this, but I have no idea how people are going to react.”

For more information and examples of Helen’s work, visit

Have your say

I did my Fine Art degree at Lincoln, and some of my work was ivolved with female sexuality.
I presented a series of 4feet x 6feet photographs of very explicit photographs, involvinbg close-ups of female genitailia.
This work did cause a bit of a rumpus, and some people wanted it censored. Luckily, I had a tutors that supported me, so they remained.
If you can't have freedon of expression at art college, then where else is there?
Best of Luck Helen!

Posted by Jackie Raistrick on 18 June 2009 at 10:57

You are talented and clever

amazing art work.... they leave you wanting to see more, for those who do not see the creative intensity need to get ut more!

Posted by Jamille Riverol on 8 June 2009 at 16:38

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