ELEVEN SIX WOMEN | HELEN TOOMER
Photography by Jurate Veceraite | @jveceraite
Vaida Sweater in Citron with her own denim short and Carla Colour sunglasses.
Meet Helen Toomer: a vibrant, energetic force in the art world with an impressive 20-year career working in art fairs, events and even a stint at running her own gallery.
The British Expat now resides upstate NY with her family where she has founded many incredible things! In 2017 came an artist residency with a focus on women and families: Stoneleaf Retreat, in 2020 Helen started Upstate Art Weekend: a celebration of art in the Hudson valley and also in the mix Art Mamas Alliance: a support group for parents in art. After a small pause from the art-fair world creating the latter, Helen took her most recent role as director of Photofairs New York: a new photo-based contemporary art fair at the Javits Center, New York City.
Last week, We were honored to borrow some of Helen's busy art-fair schedule down in Miami and capture Helen in some of her favorite knitwear pieces from current collections, styled (of course) in Helen's own bold, fun, signature way. Read on to discover more in our Q+A...
Can you share some of your background and how your career path led you into the art world and then into the art-fair space?
I did a fine art degree in the UK and realized a great artist - I was not! I really enjoyed organizing our end of year show and that love of organization around art and community climate in the art fair, event and residency work I do. I've been working on art fairs for the past twenty years now and so has my husband who built his company SPACE productions to design them - so we are an art fair family of sorts!
Helen wearing the Athena Cardi with the Cora sequin tank
We love your creation of the UPSTATE ART WEEKEND. The event has grown so much since its debut in 2020. What was the motivator behind founding this and how would you like to see this weekend continue to evolve?
It came from wanting and needing connection with people and art again during the dark begin time of the pandemic. Upstate and its abundance of nature, space and incredible history of artists, made sense to host events safely at that time. I wanted to connect the dots so visitors and residents alike could celebrate the arts already being made in the Hudson valley and Catskills and see how vibrant the arts scene is, not only during UPSTATE ART WEEKEND.
You also founded the STONELEAF RETREAT in 2017 with your husband with a focus on women in art and mothers in residence. What was the catalyst behind this project for you both, how do you both interact with the artists during the residency and what have been the most rewarding elements?
The residency is a gift of time and space for the artists to do what they need to do during that time. Whether that's rest and respite or working on a project or exhibition to finish - there are no expectations on our end from them.
I LOVE hanging out with the artists and their families! We have dinners together, bonfires, art trips and studio visits and if I'm free I'm happy to do a little babysitting! It's really a gift for us too, to share our home with artists.
Art Mamas is also another incredible initiative you founded, acting as a supportive, community space for artist mothers. Please share how the desire to create this space was born from your own Motherhood experience and how have you seen it motivate and propel Mothers back into creativity?
Art Mamas started with my dear friend Katy Donoghue (who currently is fighting breast cancer), and I just want to share what an incredible human, mother and friend she is! We are both mothers to boys born within 6 months of each other and we starting sharing and talking about how hard being a parent is. During the pandemic we starting weekly calls with our friends - every Monday night without fail (and I hate Mondays!!!) but the calls would leave us feeling uplifted and supported. This expanded into a membership group of over 300 members where we meet online every month and in person when we can.
It strikes me that the most simple thing of providing a time and space for people to speak and listen freely to others about their parenting and professional highs and lows, has been the most impactful. I'm forever grateful to Katy for creating this with me and to the Art Mamas who have shared with us.
Helen wears the Bailey Sweater (an artist collaboration with Gemma Bailey) and is photographed with her son, Harry
You stepped back into a big new role this year as director of PHOTOFAIRS New York, a new photo-based contemporary art fair that debuted at Javits Center this past September. How was it stepping back into the art-fair space after a few years out, has a lot changed and what are you excited about evolving in this new role?
PHOTOFAIRS New York has been an enormous joyful challenge! It's allowed me to use the skills and knowledge harnessed over the years to create a much needed platform to celebrate contemporary photography and image making in New York City.
The first edition was beautifully embraced and I'm so excited to expand on the foundation made and return to the Javits Center for the second edition, September 6-8, 2024 .... Which also happens to be my birthday week!!!!!
Your breath of experience is vast and skill-set is so very versatile, from being able to direct within larger art-fair organizations and then work with independent, emerging, artists from the ground up. How would you describe your approach and strengths to each of these areas.
It comes down to authentic connections and creating spaces which seem to be the thread of what I've done and do. That and artists. I forever in awe, and in service of artists. Without them and their commitment to make, think and share - the world would be much darker than it already is.
Helen wears the Uma Stripe Poncho with her own white denim short
When did you move upstate to the Hudson Valley full time from the city and how has this transformed you and your family's lives?
We bought our place in 2016, started the residency in 2017, Harry was born there in 2018 and moved 'more permanently' in 2020. I love being there - I saw there as I'm currently writing this in Miami!
I am a forest girl - I grew up near the New Forest in England and it sets my mind and heart at ease. Also, STONELEAF is a magical place, it has totally enamored me, the family (and a few artists!) and I hope to remain there for many moons to come and hope it will always be an artists' haven.
It's also magical that Harry, our little bean, gets to share his home with artists and interact with them, their families and artwork, which he loves! He'll probably end up an accountant or something not creative after this upbringing! But even at five I know that he values spending time with so many epic artists!!
Helen wears the Cora sequin tank with her own jean short
What are your favorite ways to unwind and switch off when you are not working?
Read. Walk. Snuggle with Harry and Eric. Make lots and lots of fires.
Where are you dreaming of hopping on a plane to next?
What is a series/movie/book you just read or watched that you loved?
Just finished a book called 'Do/Pause - you are not a to do list' by Robert Poynton. I would highly recommend!
Your fashion style is always bold, statement-making and fun which seems so reflective of your personality...what are you attracted to in clothing and how would you describe your style?
Eclectic! I love shapes, color and texture. Also I'm a 'magpie' like my mum, so anything sparkly catches my attention!
What does the ELEVEN SIX brand mean to you and which are your favorite pieces to integrate with your own style and wardrobe?
I love that it's cosy, chic and cool. I love that it's women owned, run and that Catherine is a lovely human.. that and she's another Brit upstate!
I am OBSESSED with the Athena cardigan! SOOOOOOOOOO SOFT! I love the way it's made, the soft tufts on the arms, that I have it oversized and will be wearing it as a dress all winter ... and ... IT HAS POCKETS!!!!! Dream!
I also have to give a shout out to Jurate Veceraite: the photographer. I was nervous about the shoot but she set me at ease and we had fun playing with the clothes, locations and poses. I think sometimes we as women overrate being comfortable, but from comfort, comes confidence and that's what Jurate and these beautiful Eleven Six pieces gave me! Thank you x