A game of Jacks

Back to the playground with this set of ceramic Jacks which forms part of The OUTBREAK Games.  They are definitely much bigger than the Jacks we used to keep in our pockets at school.


The OUTBREAK games

The OUTBREAK games is a collection of 12 ceramic sculptures inspired by the strange beauty of microscopic viruses. I started by making a chess set inspired by viral forms then found that that I could not stop making these intricate forms. Their brightly coloured Pop Art pieces look as delicate as coral, but at the same time as dangerous as sea mines. These elegant ceramic sculptures play with our conflicting responses from delighting in their prickly beauty to fearing the threat they represent. Whilst these sculptures were created in response to recent pandemics such as Ebola & Avian Flu, the subject is approached playfully several of the works being based on games such as Noughts & Crosses, Bar Billiards and giant Chess. We are asked to consider whether these are games of chance or are we taking a huge gamble?

Helen Birnbaum OUTBREAK 3 Jacks

This artwork has been exhibited at the Bath Fringe Arts Festival 2016, Warrington Arts Festival 2016 and at the STEAM gallery, Wigan in 2017.

Clay zoo at the FaB arts festival in Bath 2017

These animals tell of society’s elastic and ever changing sexual identities their female and male genitalia tell a  story of confusion about our identity and place in the world.  A brass chain holds the animal down to the heavy ball on the ground, whilst the kangaroo represents a more joyous view of sexuality.  The ape is a symbol of the origins of us all, but stuck in a glass box like an exhibit at the Natural History Museum. 


I will be exhibiting them at FaB – Fringe Bath Festival in May- June 2017.


New Outbreak pieces and the STEAM galllery exhibition

I have been developing some new pieces to accompany the original The OUTBREAK games for an exhibition at the new STEAM gallery in Wigan, 53 Library St, Wigan, WN1 from 11 May 2017.  The exhibition of my work will sit alongside photographic images of viruses under the microscope. This should be an interesting combination.

Outbreak exhibition poster 2017

As well as my OUTBREAK  game I will also be exhibiting a range of work including this WHITE VIRUS TRIO



Virus trio, orange, grey & black



If you would like to discuss sales, exhibitions & workshops please use the Contact form provided below.


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Bar billiard viruses

An old bar game of billiards transformed by spiky white ceramic viruses.  These pieces are inspired by actual viral forms

  • Chicken pox
  • Hepatitis CV
  • Measles
  • Herpes
  • Rubella
  • Yellow Fever
  • Mumps
  • HIV
  • Encephalitis

but also the fragile beauty of underwater coral. The one red piece that sits on its own definitely found its inspiration there.

Virus billiards 1

Virus Billiards 2.jpg

I have also been experimenting with filling chemistry jars with viral shapes. I like the contrast of their sharp fragility with the shiny glass walls of the jars.  In the smaller jar the viruses are almost tipping outside of their protective container.

Virus Billiards 4

Concise guide to the OUTBREAK Games pieces

Black  and white baubles sit on the ripped game board surrounded by small red humanoid figures. These  bright, red blood cells soldier across the board together in a pack looking out for any viruses that may come their way. Look out, they’re watching you.  Pop Art shapes and colours provide a deceptively cheerful vision of Bio warfare.



These posts describe how the pieces in OUTBREAK embody the character of each viral chess piece and the blood cells that carry them.

The  KING  is the most powerful piece on the board– if you lose the King you lose the battle.  This  king is HIV & AIDS.    HIV is transmitted via contaminated body fluids. It can also be contracted as a result of exposure to semen, vaginal fluids, breast milk or blood.

 The QUEEN is a very important player too who can travel wherever she wants, but she cannot jump. The Queen is  T.B.  which can be transmitted when a person with TB coughs, sneezes, speaks, or sings.


BISHOPS traditionally represent the power of the church and spirituality. The Bishop can move any number of squares only diagonally and cannot jump over any pieces. In OUTBREAK they are Bacteriophages  which can be used therapeutically to treat pathogenic bacterial infections. They are created from within a cell’s own DNA.


Related image

KNIGHTS can move from one corner to the other of any 2 x 3 rectangle of squares and is also the only piece that can jump over any other piece. In OUTBREAK  they are Hepatitis B a contagious liver disease which is spread when blood, semen, or other body fluid infected with the Hepatitis B virus enters the body.

White Night


hepatitis virus, dental referrals



ROOKS  can move any number of squares in horizontal and vertical directions, but cannot jump over any other piece. In the OUTBREAK  this is Avian Flu, commonly called bird flu this virus is transmitted by breathing it in, or when a person touches something that has the virus on it and then touches their mouth, eyes, nose or mouth.


Image result for avian flu microscope



PAWNS are more plentiful than any other piece and they are easily removed from the game.  The Pawn can only move straight ahead.  Represented here as RED AND WHITE BLOOD CELLS  which have two main functions; the carriage of oxygen and defence against microbial attack.