Towards the end of 2016 I lost my beloved friend of over 20 years, Miss Helen. She died after a year of fighting an advanced and aggressive cancer. Miss Helen was a person with the gift of elevating the ordinary life into the realm of magic, and she managed to continue to do this even in the most trying of circumstances. Despite the cruelty of her illness, she faced all that she experienced with great courage. Grieving Helen has been hard for me, and I miss her intensely. One of the worst feelings is that Helen has disappeared, and the world just continues along whether she’s here or not. So I wanted to write something about the space Miss Helen made in the world, and to write a little of her story, and the story of our friendship.
Helen was a prolific artist and writer, working with textiles and multimedia and, most prominently, zines: she is regarded as one of Australia’s most notable zinemakers, making them consistently for 20 years. She perfected the tiny but profound zine: her zines were often small in size but were full of her astute, funny voice, her observations and ideas and her vision of the world around her. Helen’s first zine was Astrogrrrl, a one page zine she made in her teenage bedroom, filling it with lists and observations, questionnaires she’d send to bands, recipes, comments on punk and underground culture, repurposed clippings, drawings, all stuck together so as to leave no space uncovered.
Helen started Astrogrrrl in 1996, the year I started my first zine, Psychobabble. I remember collecting my first letter from her from my PO box. I looked at the address on the back of the envelope, wondering where Loftus was, and who Helen Astro might be. I found out that she lived as far south as I lived north of the city – I liked to imagine us both making zines from our bedrooms back then, both of us with the radio on, listening to Fur or Magic Dirt, writing our way out of the world we were living in, in the hope of constructing or connecting with a new one.
The 1990s was a heyday for zines, and although the scene was small and dispersed across the country, it was a tight-knit one that it was easy to become a part of. Helen was a few years younger than me – I’d just left school by the time I made Psychobabble, but she was still in high school when she made Astrogrrrl. She called it her “secret double life” – by day she’d be at high school with its restrictions and rivalries, “a post-grunge dork with photographs of obscure bands on my folder”. Her secret identity was Helen Astro the zine maker, writing letters to people all over the country, swapping zines and tapes and stories.
Helen and I wrote to each other for a while before meeting in person at a Lawnsmell instore gig at Phantom Records in 1997. Lawnsmell were a zine band, their bassplayer, Glenn, made Scrollzine and they were the kind of DIY punk band that were the musical equivalent of cut and paste. Their sound could be frenetic and ragged, but it all came together into something exciting, made us want to make things. One day last year when Helen and I were talking about meeting at this gig, it was the feeling of energy and empowerment we agreed upon as the legacy of this time. It was a lifesaving thing, reaching out in the hope that we might find people out there who felt similarly dissatisfied with prevailing cultural ideals, and wanted to make things, serious or silly, that were fed from this energy.
This was an exciting time to make zines. There was a lot of vitality and exchange among zinemakers – it was the first time I felt like I was somewhere I belonged, and I know it was the same for Helen, too. At zine picnics we’d meet people in person we’d only ever written to, and sit underneath fig trees in Centennial Park talking until the sun started to set. Helen would organise funny suburban excursions to places like the Tramway Museum at Loftus – although a lot happened in the inner city, zines were as much a suburban and a regional phenomena as a city one. Most zine activity happened through the mail, so it didn’t matter if you lived in the outer suburbs or away from a major city, as long as you could find a photocopier or post a letter.
Helen made 26 issues of Astrogrrrl, the last around 1999, though she continued to use “Astro Press” as the imprint for her subsequent zines. She’d started using the name Miss Helen by then too, moving on from the default zine naming system whereby your name was paired with the name of your zine (making Helen Astro, or Vanessa Psychobabble). After finishing Astrogrrrl, in the 2000s she made zines under different names, sometimes split zines or collaborations, among them: Spycorp, The Hospital for Broken Hearts, The Bubbles Pop, The Little Golden Book of Angst. She believed in the importance of zine community organising zine picnics, and setting up an email list for zinemakers that was, pre-social media, an important way of discussing and organising within the scene.
In the 2000s she also began Fly Away Bird, her other long-running zine series, which she made from 2004 – 2013. Her style had by now refined into individual pages of illustration and text, each of which distilled something of an emotion or an experience, whether it be something joyful or trying. I loved to read them – Helen was my close friend and we regularly went on adventures, catching ferries, eating icecreams, having tea parties, taking her little dog Snuffy out for a walk, sharing tables at zine fairs – but there was something magic about the way she’d turn her life and thoughts into zines. She honoured moments, objects, emotions and frivolity, never dwelling on anything too long, but for just the right amount of time to make you think about it.
There’s a page photocopied from Fly Away Bird above my desk as I write this. A cartoon girl in frilly clothes and boots, floating amid a page of hearts and the words “so happy right now, I could flap my hands like little wings and float away”. The corners of it have holes from the pin marks where it was pinned to a corkboard for her 2007 “Zine Factory” exhibition at Penrith Regional Gallery. The exhibition included her zines as well as her knitted cupcakes and creatures: a giant knitted bunny which sat on a while wicker chair with a cute, stubborn expression on its face. More than anyone I know, Helen harnessed the transcendent power of cuteness. She believed that in our response to cuteness is a feeling of tenderness and love that can be directed both towards the world at large, or inwards towards the self.
In her last zine, Iridescent Jubilee, which accompanied her tea party installation at Waverley Library Gallery, she wrote of wanting to “make things that are ultimate joy bombs”. Missing her, I try to reach for this sense of joy. I haven’t felt very happy over the last few months, certainly not as if I could float away, but every time I look at the happy girl being carried aloft by canaries, I think of how Helen brought joy to my life, and to many others. I know that Helen’s zines affected a lot of people, gave them solace and companionship, whether they knew her in person or not. That feeling that zines sometimes inspire, when they seem to be speaking directly to you, has a strong power. Helen’s zines, small enough to fit in a pocket, always honest, accepting life with its contradictions and struggles and making something good out of it, are treasures.
I haven’t covered anywhere near all the things that Helen made in her artistic life in this short piece of writing, and little of our friendship and how she was such a vital presence in my life. It’s hard when I’m still getting used to writing about her in the past tense. But I’ve made a start. And although she is no longer here to continue to make art and zines, her zines reached thousands of people, and her work is an important part of the zine and DIY cultures she was a part of.
Throughout Helen’s life she believed strongly in the true values of DIY: passion, community, communication. In one of her issues of Fly Away Bird she writes what I interpret as a guide to reading her zines: “I want you to think, to understand and start making your world more like what you want.” The call to action that she and I had felt so strongly back when we started making zines, that there was no alternative but to make the good things you wished yourself to discover. This spirit remained strong throughout all the many things she made and sent out into the world.