Helen Walsh (b. 1930) has been involved in designing and making glass since the early 1970s, and was at the forefront of the craft resurgence that followed soon after. Like many of those who were fascinated with glass at the time but had nowhere to learn the basic techniques, Helen devised her own learning by asking questions and experimenting with glass.
She asked the glazier who came to fix her broken window ‘how to make leadlight’ and was told that you ‘put the lead around a piece of glass’, which – to say the least – rather undersold the skill and precision required, and no mention was made of solder! Not to be daunted, Helen instigated ‘Araldite parties’, asking friends to help by holding the glass pieces against an existing window for the requisite 5 minutes until the epoxy went ‘off’. Needless to say, as arms tired, there were some quite disastrous (and hilarious) results.
Soon after this period of experimentation, Helen found E.L. Yencken & Co. in Gaffney Street, Coburg (Vic.) and, more importantly, Charlie Marshall, who was head of the lead light department. In Helen’s words, ‘he was a brilliant worker and I used to spend ages with him every time I went to Yenckens. I hung around and asked “WHY WHY” and he spent hours telling me why and how. So I owe a lot to him.’ And, to extend her skills, Helen attended Klaus Zimmer’s glass-painting classes at Caulfield (now Monash University) where she met and learned from Basil Barber, a visiting English master glass-painter. They got along famously and while travelling in the UK Helen stayed at his dilapidated mansion near London. She still has his gift of two 100+year-old pieces of glass as a memento of the visit and their friendship.
Fig. 1: Swing tag from ‘The Lead Balloon’, 1970s.
Working with a group of women at that time, she intended to set up a co-operative studio but ultimately opened The Lead Balloon at 108 Bridport Street, Albert Park in conjunction with the graphic artist Elana Zdane. The main focus of her business was designing, making and installing domestic leadlight, as well as restoring the Victorian and Edwardian stained glass and leadlight that abounds in the bayside suburb areas around Albert Park and South Melbourne. However, she also fulfilled commercial and church commissions. Two significant works were the major four panel ‘Fairies’ commission she created for Gill’s Grendon Nursery in Hampton (Vic.) in the 1980s in collaboration with Jenny Pyke of Regeneration, and the window she crafted to the design of stained glass artist Klaus Zimmer – his first church commission – for St. Louis de Montford Church, Aspendale (Vic.) in 1973.
Interior of Gill’s Grendon Nursery, Centre Road, East Brighton
Photographer: Melanie Ryan
Teaching has been a part of Helen’s career – in her Albert Park studio, at the Council for Adult Education, filling in for Derek Pearse, and running courses at Monash. Through her teaching she introduced many others to the art and craft of glass, including Graham Stone and Nick and Eva Georgiadis. A significant outreach to a younger (as well as older) generation was through her appearances on the Channel 7 (HSV7 in those days) educational program, This Week has Seven Days, with Shirley Shackleton. She is a founding member of Melbourne Artists in Glass.
Since leaving the Albert Park business in the late 1970s, Helen has continued to kiln form glass, with wall hangings, plates, bowls and platters becoming the canvas for her glass painting. She often uses float glass, a legacy from the time when coloured glass was in short supply and draws on her extensive travels, as well as photographic images from sources such as National Geographic. Helen explained that she ‘wanted to preserve and own [the photographs]’ and painting her interpretations on glass captured them for all time.
Fig. 2: Boys Fishing 1961, 500 x 500 x 8 mm float glass. Inspiration for this work was a National Geographic photograph, taken in the Cook Islands. ‘So entranced was I that am sure they were speaking to me as I reproduced them.’
In 2013 she was the featured artist at the Festival of Glass held annually at Drysdale (Vic.). Naturally, Helen’s has created leadlights that suit her Inter-War period home and she surrounds herself with unusual and quirky works of art, including a superbly drawn cartoon by Basil Barber. Outside her Yarraville studio a hand-crafted glass fountain gently flows to provide background music to the day’s work.
Designed by Jenny Pyke and Helen Walsh, crafted by Helen Walsh, The Lead Balloon
Photographer: Melanie Ryan
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In September 2017 the fate of Gill’s Grendon Nursery windows is under a cloud. The nursery (and the context of the windows) has moved elsewhere and the building likely to be sold.