Helen Purdie at her home in Torrox with two of her paintings on the wall behind her. / SARAH STILO

How art, autism and Andalucía all came together in 2020

Helen Purdie gave up her job in the NHS to go back to her artistic roots and a diagnosis of autism at 46 set the tone for her future in Spain


British artist Helen Purdie has lived in Torrox Pueblo since July 2020. Despite the pandemic, she decided that the time to move was right.

Helen has been coming to Torrox to visit for about 11 years. She came as part of a two week trip to Granada but also wanted to visit the coast. She stayed with a Spanish couple through Airbnb and is still in touch with them now.

Although the idea of moving permanently had been "bubbling away" for a while, once she made her mind up, she said "that was it."

"I am so at home and so happy to be here," Helen admits, adding that although she grew up in a village, she spent a long time living in big cities and at 52 and about to become a grandmother, it feels like "the right time" to be living in a small town, which Helen describes as "a delight."

Coming from a background of mountaineering and mountain rescue in Sheffield, Helen says she loves being near the mountains. She also swims in the sea every week, but admits that her "first love is the mountains."

She climbed La Maroma on her own to see the sunrise on this year's summer solstice. "I have had a very active year and the area I have been least active in is my painting. I have been mainly exploring and meeting people," she admits.

Although Helen was a talented artist from an early age, she decided not to go to art school and she says that she believes that it was "the right decision" for her at the time. Instead she went on to have an extremely successful career with the NHS, as a surgical care practitioner, where she operated alongside the surgeons within cardiac and vascular fields and worked as a medical researcher.

In 2008 Helen decided to give up her career in medicine and concentrate on her art. Although it took a couple of years to completely detach herself from the world she was so familiar with, going back when invited to research projects. "Starting out as an artist I didn't have an identity and having come from a world when I had a strong identity as well as reputation, I struggled with that for a while" Helen confesses.

For a time, her two worlds came together and In 2014 she explains that she "spent many hours, over a few months, sitting in the operating rooms of a hospital in Sheffield drawing the surgical team as they worked."

The result was a book of her work, which is free to download from her website and is quite different from Helen's other work, which has changed from early self-portraits and portraits of other people, to landscapes.

Autism confirmation

Helen was confirmed as autistic at the age of 46. It followed eight years of doctors' and psychologists appointments and a long-held suspicion of her own that she might be autistic.

Helen says that the confirmation helped her to explain relationships with close family members including her mother and daughter.

The artist has since become passionate about helping other people, and in particular adults who have autism. "I want to show people how they can be supported and those around them can get support, to help relationships be they work or personal relationships."

She is involved in running online workshops with people in Sheffield. "COVID opened up my way of working in a way that I hadn't anticipated and it opened up an opportunity to people who may not be able to access resources otherwise," she explains. She is also keen to start face to face workshops for English-speaking people living with autism here in Spain.

Another book that is available on her website is a colouring book designed for people with autism. The inspiration comes from Helen's own experiences as a young girl of colouring in and "getting angry when I coloured over the lines." She hopes the book will help other people with autism and says she has had a lot of "positive feedback."

The exhibition is on at Torrox Costa Town Hall's Edificio de Usos Múltiples on Avenida de Andalucía until 29 November. It features 39 of Helen's works inspired by Spain and the UK. Opening hours are 8.30am to 8pm Monday to Friday and 9am to 1pm on Saturdays. For more information about Helen visit: www.helenpurdie.co.uk.