Helen Ansell of Mullewa  |  100x70cm Giclée Fine Photographic Print by Martine Perret (2022)

Town entrance mural in Mullewa, in the background, by local artists Helen Ansell, Susan Merry, Deb Maher, Pauline Bell and Charmaine Green.

Helen Ansell

"I was born in Melbourne but I've spent nearly all of my life living in regional Western Australia. I grew up in Meekatharra. My dad was living on an Aboriginal community, about 75 kilometres inland. I had a great childhood, riding bikes to school, going to the swimming pool after school, walking down the creek and coming home when it was dark. I studied at Edith Cowan University and got a degree in Social Science. I haven't actually studied art. I wanted to be a youth worker. Art is something that just kind of happened. I never planned it. 

The very first exhibition I had was when I was 22. I contacted a teacher of mine from high school. She really put me down saying: your work isn't good enough, you don't know what you're doing. And when I asked her to open the exhibition, she replied it would ruin her reputation to be associated with my work. So I nearly didn't do it, but I went ahead and had my exhibition. I actually sold every single piece on the opening night!

I enjoyed being in Perth but really wanted to get away. I had a travel bug. I went to the UK on a three-year working visa. I worked in an art shop. I had a portfolio and knocked on a lot of gallery doors to see if anyone would exhibit my work. I ended up getting a market stall at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival with 30,000 people walking down the street every day. That’s when I first started doing prints of my work. I sold to people from over 30 different countries. It was really exciting.

My visa expired and I cried on the plane all the way. When I came back to Perth, it was a culture shock. My Dad, who was still on the Aboriginal community, asked me if I would be interested in going and working out there with him. I told my Dad: I can't move from Edinburgh, to the desert and not have the internet! So he got the internet connected for me and I moved out to Ullalla Station and loved it. That is also when I first started painting wildflowers. Before that, I was painting women with high heels and handbags – a very different style. I think sometimes you need to go away and come home to appreciate your own country.

When I left in my 20s, I was saying: this is boring. But when I came back, I thought wow, if any of my friends from Scotland could see where I'm living and see our flowers and how amazing they are. It would blow them away. I've never looked back.

I then met my husband and we went to Wiluna. I ran the Tjukurba art gallery out there. That was exciting to have my husband living out in the desert with me, seeing my 'home' and my "Aboriginal family".

They all loved him more than they loved me! He could take them out hunting and could fix their cars. And when I'd see them, they’d ask: Hi Helen, where is Kim? He really loved it. We then moved to Geraldton.

Six years ago, we moved to Mullewa, and by then we had three kids. We moved here purely because of the real estate. I had this vision, as my husband is a musician and I'm an artist, what if we could be mortgage free? I was thinking if there was some way that I don't have to pay off a big house and be locked into a mortgage, then I'm free to to do my art. I looked everywhere in Australia, and eventually a house came up for sale here. Our offer on the house fell through because somebody nipped us in the bud, but it got us thinking about this town and eventually we found a house here for $17,000.

My friends in Geraldton said, Helen, you’re crazy. What do you want to live out there for? I said, $17,000 is less than a year's rent and if I hate it, we can walk away after a year and not even sell the house.

We moved and we love it. There is a lot of freedom in the country with young kids. I'm not stuck in traffic, I don't have to take them to all their basketball, ballet and lessons after school. I don't have to helicopter parent because everyone knows my kids, and I know everyone else's kids. We're only an hour from Geraldton and can go to the beach for the day. I can go shopping, catch up with a girlfriend for a coffee and I can come back here. It's the best of both worlds.

I never ever expected to sell my art here. It's a real little town. When I used to come through Mullewa I never even stopped. It's like blink and you miss it. To my surprise, in August and September, we have thousands and thousands of tourists. To my surprise, my work was selling very well in this little town, but everybody wanted a coffee. I ended up doing a barista course to learn how to make coffee. I remember thinking, oh, I might sell 20 a day... but we have between 100 and 200 people a day! My daughter was only one at the time and I was really stressed out. I remember hiding under the table with my mobile searching what's the difference between a flat white and a latte. Last year, I found a permanent space and decided to turn it into a gallery cafe. I absolutely love it after painting on my kitchen table for ten years. I feel like a new woman. It's amazing.

I think one of the things that I love about being in a little town is you have a sense of community. There's also the negative of isolation. A lot of people, especially women out on the farms, might be half an hour drive from their friends. I'm lucky being in town. I'm a lot closer to people. Obviously, I can't just go the shop and get my yellow paint if I run out, I've got to be really organised for that.

The internet has really opened things up. The fact that I can live in this little town and sell most of my work to New South Wales, with clients buying from all over Australia is really amazing. My career has really grown since moving here. It feels like I’ve been a blessing to the town, but the town's been a blessing back to me. It's been amazing.

I feel like I'm really doing what I want to do. I'm very, very lucky I'm able to do that. If anything, I want to slow down. I want to do less, not more. I'm trying to find a balance. I don't want to grow an empire. I'd like to have this nice, happy medium between making enough money that I don't have to lie awake at night stressing about how I'm going to pay bills, and where I can pay my staff and not worry, but also where I can spend time with my kids because they are still little and will grow up quickly.

One of the hardest things as a businesswoman, being in the country and being a mother has been to put up with stuff that men would never, ever have to put up with. It's hard being a mum. We don't have day-care here. I've had to work at home on the kitchen table with kids calling Mum, Mum, Mum the whole time - but I wouldn't swap it. I love it even if it's hard work.

I think the women out there are superheroes."

After being shown at Saint John of God Hospital in Geraldton for four months, the expanded Women of the Hinterlands exhibition was relaunched at Helen's gallery in Mullewa on the evening of International Women's Day in 2024.


Click below to view the full portrait and read each story from the Act Belong Commit exhibition Women of the Hinterlands