Helen Petts at Kurt Schwitters’ Merzbarn in 2012

Still from Gentian Sprite 2023

Helen Petts began her career in community video making “MsTaken Identity” with Albany Video and a large collective of young women. It won Best Foreign Video award in 1986 at the Turin Youth Film Festival and was subsequently broadcast on the new, fledgling Channel Four TV, in their experimental 11th Hour series. Over the next few years she worked as a researcher and producer/director, making films for television including the BBC2 series The Late Show. She also worked as an assistant director on many music videos and in feature films. A major road accident in 1991 shifted her into a different direction and she studied Fine Art at Goldsmith’s College. After a number of years spent painting, she returned to the moving image when technology became even more portable and cheap. Interested in tiny shifts in light and sound in the world around her. She now often works alone with small cameras, her phone, as well as more professional cameras.

She has been the recipient of six Arts Council grants for her moving image work, including Throw Them Up and Let Them Sing (voted one of the 10 Best Art Events of the 2012 Cultural Olympiad by the Huffington Post). Her films and videos have been seen in many festivals both at home and abroad. Passionate about music, she has collaborated with many leading free improvisation musicians including Phil Minton, Steve Beresford, Lol Coxhill, Roger Turner, Adam Bohman, Sylvia Hallett, Ute Wassermann, Okkyung Lee. For 5 years she worked with guitarist John Russell filming his free improvisation concert series Mopomoso. Her Youtube channel of this work, helentonic, developed a cult following and has had over 1m viewers. 

In 2010 she fulfilled a lifetime’s ambition to visit the Himalayas whilst teaching film-making to post-grad music and ethnomusicology students at Kathmandu University in a former temple in the ancient city of Bhaktapur. 

In 2012, she completed a commission for the London 2012 Festival, an artist’s film responding to Kurt Schwitters journey to Norway and the Lake District for her first solo exhibition at the Hatton Gallery in Newcastle, which then toured to Trondheim, Molde, Tate Britain and Jakarta. 

In 2013, a year after his death, she was commissioned by the Full Of Noises Festival to make, Solo Soprano, a film about her friend saxophonist Lol Coxhill.

In 2018 she made "Space and Freedom" about Chinese artist Li Yuan-chia, exploring his legacy and relationship with the Cumbrian landscape. Commissioned by Manchester Art Gallery, the film mixes his archive 8mm footage with current footage of his LYC Museum, and features Steve Beresford improvising on prepared piano. 

In 2022, after 2 years spent filming flowers during the covid epidemic, she began to make ‘Gentian Sprite’ - a portrait of 97 year old botanist Margaret Bradshaw and her devotion to the rare Teesdale arctic alpine flora. 

Petts currently divides her time between London and North Yorkshire.