Helen Swan - She/Her
Creative Director, Cultural Strategist, Artist & Founder
Helen Swan is a creative director, cultural strategist and artist. She has just left her role as director and artist at Lucid Creates, a multidisciplinary design and fabrication studio who create temporary environments that push the boundaries of what’s possible within the physical spaces and environments people interact with and inhabit. She is now pursuing new creative projects and has an interest in creating large scale rewilding projects in cities across the world.
Please tell us about your career
Having played violin since the age of 7, I moved to London aged 15 to study music, art and history at the Purcell School of Music followed by a degree in art and music at Liverpool University (allowing a year off to have thyroid cancer) and then set off on a high speed slalom which took me... back to London and the Barbican, local radio, national TV, throwing a party for Elton John, making a documentary on porn, having my first baby at 26, moving back to Liverpool, writing a book on nutrition, moving to Surrey, stage managing the LSO, doing research for Abbey Road, getting kind-of married in a field, having a second baby whilst founding an compostable party brand, appearing on This Morning as runner-up Mumpreneur of the year becoming a single-mother of 2 small kids on housing benefit whilst touring in a folk band, promoting niche female Irish and American bands, moving back to London (again), gaining a wonderful stepson and creating a blended family, getting married (real this time), having another baby, making reality TV, curating and running an adventure festival (incl. hot tub parties), renovating 2 houses, building a creative partnership in Lucid Creates, who then designed & built a huge venue for Glastonbury, supporting my mum, sisters & brother through their own neurodiversity diagnoses. Having the realisation that I’m neurospicy too and getting a diagnosis, Lucid Creates designing, making and internationally touring a portfolio of huge public art works, going back to my Northern Uni roots and collaborating with some of my heroes at WHP and Chibuku. Being name checked by the New Yorker for a light installation in Pacha. Starting ADHD meds and revelling in my new-found ability to pause and think. Lucid's work being Sunday Times pic of the week. Getting an email from the founder Festival Republic, to convert one of Lucid's artworks into a giant rave for Leeds festival. And most recently showing Lucid's pieces in places as far flung as Adelaide, Aberdeen, Kent, Helsinki, Singapore, Spain & Sydney. Since departing Lucid in Dec 22, I’ve been guiding my kids along their own neurodiversity journeys, supporting other creative women in business and undertaking research on connection, creativity & community in ecology for my next project.
My approach in life - whether in my creative output, my family or my businesses is to create inclusive communities. Although I was only recently diagnosed as neurodivergent, I now realise that my whole life has been focused upon making sure other people didn’t feel lonely, excluded or sidelined and weren’t punished for their perceived faults of flaws (perhaps as a result of me working so hard to mask and ‘fix’ my own). In all the teams I have led or worked within, I have strived to create kind, empathic, caring and flexible working environments that support and develop people’s strengths.
During my time at Lucid, the studio grew rapidly in scale and reputation. In the space of 5 years (of which 2 were the pandemic), Lucid Creates designed and made a large portfolio of internationally touring public artworks and collaborated with the world’s leading festivals and brands to produce some of the largest and most innovative structures, spaces & immersive temporary realities. Whilst the scale of Lucid's work was an achievement in itself, a personal achievement for me has been to create work that highlights social and environmental issues through accessible public art and events, & creating inclusive spaces that raise the voices of marginalised individuals and communities. As Director and Artist, my role spanned design, music direction, concept creation, business strategy, brand development, marketing, PR, funding, relationships, HR, project management, finance, operations and, of-course, hands-on work making the pieces.
My family are all artistic ecologists - my aunt founded one of the country’s leading ecology companies, my mother is an ecologist & horticulturalist and my uncle is an environmental consultant. My childhood was heavily influenced by mother’s passion for the environment, ecology and particularly plants (her undiagnosed autism when I was a child meant constant and detailed education for me on her specialist subjects for which I’m now hugely grateful). During the last few years the knowledge I obtained through osmosis has been pushing to the forefront of my brain and I’m eager to pursue this further - through education and work. I’m investigating rewilding and considering ways in which to incorporate this into my creative practice, with a vision to create large scale rewilding interventions in major cities that have long term benefits for nature and lasting legacies for communities.
How has being Neurodivergent shaped the direction of your career?
ADHD is a super power that allows me to do things that other people think are bonkers & difficult. It means I take risks, think creatively and make connections that maybe neurotypical people can’t. But it’s also an insidious monster that causes me both internal and external chaos. I found working in traditional settings incredibly challenging - I was either bored, anxious or overwhelmed. Having four children did nothing to alleviate the last two! I started my own business aged 27, heavily pregnant and with a 2 year old - and have been in various states of entrepreneurship since. I became a director of Lucid Creates and it became an award-winning, internationally touring design studio. I’m certain that without neurodivergence, I wouldn’t have taken the risks and had the creativity and drive to get where I am now. It’s also enabled me to have deep empathy and understanding of the emotional needs of my team and wider network and I make it a priority to advocate for neurodiversity and mental health.
For so long I felt like I had so much unfilled potential (as per every school report - Helen is bright and could achieve so much if she could only focus…) but looking back writing this piece I realise how much my ND has allowed me to experiment, take risks, push myself and achieve things that perhaps a NT person wouldn’t. Despite having cancer, depression, anxiety, ADHD, ND and four children I have pushed the boundaries of what women in my industry are expected to achieve and have created inclusive, uplifting spaces for people who would otherwise feel excluded.
My mother, brother, two sisters and three of my sons are all neurodivergent. Until we had information and diagnoses we all struggled with low self worth, identity and mental health and all of these have impacted us. By raising awareness and normalising ND we can inform and execute change that means future ND people don’t struggle as many of us have done.
Do you feel that your career is a good fit for an Neurodivergent woman?
I think it’s very obvious now that I read it back, that I’m a Neurodivergent woman - I’m not sure that every step of the journey has been a good fit but whenever I took a role in an environment that didn’t suit my undiagnosed ND brain, I learnt coping strategies and techniques which have absolutely served me, whilst also building an idea of the kind of working environment I wanted to create for people so they didn’t have to constrain themselves.
What advice would you give to another Neurodivergent woman navigating their way through life?
Find mentors. Educate yourself about neurodiversity and use this knowledge to empower yourself and others. The more of us who are open and honest about our brains, the more normalised neurodivergence will become and the more the world will bend to both accommodate our differences and utilise our enormous strengths!