On a remote hillside near Strathdon in Aberdeenshire, metal sculptor Helen Denerley has cultivated a lifestyle rich in inspiration.

From her purpose-built studio, Helen, 67, lives an intentionally solitary life with her pet lurcher transforming scrap metal into distinctive works of art – mostly comprised of animal forms.

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In her latest solo exhibition Salvage, showing at Kilmorack Gallery by Beauly from 4 – 29 August, Helen will showcase more than 40 new sculptures. “This exhibition is a complete retrospective of ideas,” Helen explains. “Salvage is a collection of sculptures inspired by a lifetime of observation combined with the joy of the natural world and the love of scrap metal.”

Helen is perhaps best known for her arresting scrap metal giraffes on Leith Walk in Edinburgh. Other notable installations include Dragons – the Eniwa Garden Project in Hokkaido, Japan, Blue Whale, South Georgia, and a recent commission titled Tree of Life at Dundreggan Rewilding Centre.

A sculptor for 46 years, Helen has become synonymous with skeletal sculptures of animal forms made from industrial, agricultural, and domestic metal waste.

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“Sometimes the shapes are fairly minimal and there’s lots of what other people would call ‘negative space’, but I name it ‘positive space’ because the eye invents things for it, the imagination can fill the space with muscle and bone – you can say a lot with very little,” Helen says.

“The orangutan sculptures in my new exhibition, for example, are made of old British motorbike frames and they’re very powerful looking just with minimal shapes.”

As well as her trademark animal forms, Helen has ventured into new territory and crafted more abstract, experimental pieces for Salvage.

“In this exhibition, I have created a three-metre spider outside the building, large enough to walk through,” says Helen. There are also specimen boxes of metal butterflies and beetles.

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“I have made several chess sets for the exhibition using keys, spark plugs, golfclubs and simplest of all found objects, beautiful in their own right.

“I hope the exhibition inspires those who see it and helps them relate to themselves, the natural world and those around them.

“I care enormously about climate change and what we’re doing to our fellow creatures on this planet, so of course that message is in there but it’s not the primary message.”

Over the decades, Helen, a graduate of Gray’s School of Art in Aberdeen, has built up an abundant stock of scrap metal at her workshop – a collection she has mentally categorised. “If I’m making work for an exhibition and I can make whatever I want, sometimes the scrap can inspire the idea,” Helen says.

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“I’ll go into the scrap pile, and I’ll see a piece and think ‘that would make a really good forehead for a wolf’ or something like that. Then I’ll work from there and see what I can create.”

Helen’s process involves extensive research and observation, followed by many hand-drawn sketches, before she draws them to scale and assembles the scrap metal pieces to fit the shape. She will then begin the welding and fettling procedures to assemble the work.

Reflecting on her extensive career, Helen reckons her success as a sculptor is down in large part to her grit and determination.

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“You would have to be fairly strong-minded and be really driven to want to do this because, in the early days, it was a very precarious existence,” Helen notes. “It does take a long time to find your feet, it’s not the easiest way to earn a living but I was very determined and I’m happy it’s got me to where I am now.”

When Helen moved to her home, workshop, and now arts studio 30 years ago it was a hillside ruin– there was no electricity, no roof, no road, no water – nothing. 

“But it seemed like the right place to build a life where I could make sculpture,” she adds. “It was an adventure for us and for my kids, I had to make sculpture to basically afford to put a roof on the house. But we all got there because we all believed in it, and I still believe in it.

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“I was prepared to give priority to the drive of believing in making the art and in creating this lifestyle, and that to me was more important than the security of knowing whether I could actually get there. I just believed it.”


Salvage is showing at Kilmorack Gallery by Beauly from 4 – 29 August