Helen Sijsling is the current chair of The Arts Society - Nerja, formerly NADFAS. The UK- based organisation, which has five branches in Malaga and Gibraltar alone, changed its name in May this year and Helen says that she “supported the change 100 per cent”. She felt that the acronym wasn't clear: “No one knew what it stood for,” she says, and believes that many people associated it with a somewhat stuffy image of a group of middle aged, middle class art lovers.
“Everything has changed,” Helen explains and says that the D stood for 'decorative', the F for 'fine' and the A for 'art' which felt limiting in terms of what the arts actually encompass. Now, the art historian says, the society can freely include other areas such as performance and literature.
Helen lives in the Axarquía permanently with her husband and has done so for 17 years. “We came to Spain to look for a nice place to build our own house. We were looking for a warm climate, a country rich in culture and beautiful landscape and a language not too hard to learn,” she says.
Helen explains that they had tried living in Crete and learning Greek but eventually chose the south of Spain because of “the wonderful balance between culture and stunning scenery”.
“We chose the Axarquía because it so much reminded me of Australia where I was born. Also we found the Axarquía very authentic and now have come to love the people living here.” Helen adds: “We would never want to be anywhere else.”
She was born to Dutch parents in Australia and the family returned home when Helen was ten. She went on to study English Literature and Philosophy at Oxford University and then became a teacher in the Netherlands and also the Caribbean. Helen is a qualified art historian, but confesses that she doesn't actually practise art herself.
When she is not chairing The Arts Society, Helen studies Arabic at Vélez-Málaga's official language school, takes flamenco dancing classes also in Vélez and looks after her various animals at her finca near the town. “Vélez-Málaga is my town, I do everything there and I love it,” she says.
She speaks fluent Spanish, which she says has helped foster a strong relationship with Nerja town hall and some of the Arts Society's sponsors (each lecture is sponsored by a local business).
The subjects of upcoming lectures include The East India Company and Pop Art. In March next year, the son of the late British author, George Orwell, will be talking to the society about the life and works of his father.
During her time as chair, Helen has worked tirelessly to attract “young, buoyant speakers” and indeed open up the society to younger members. She says that her efforts are paying off and that in Nerja she confirms that there has been a rise in the number of younger members. “Especially Swedes who come here in their 40s and 50s. They often still work but make the time to come to some of our meetings.”
Helen speaks enthusiastically about the organisation, locally and internationally and is clearly inspired by the recent name change and the 50th anniversary celebrations in 2018. Coinciding with that, the Nerja branch will be celebrating 25 years next year and there are great plans in what will be Helen's last year in the role.
Like most clubs and societies whose members are foreign, the Arts Society struggles with nonresident members - people who only reside in Spain for part of the year, which makes finding committee members difficult. “Being chair is almost a full-time job,” laughs Helen, but the reality of needing to find her replacement in the near future is a real concern due to the transience of members.
Helen is clearly passionate about what she does and where she lives and that vibrancy emanates from her as she talks about the life she has built in the Axarquía.