Helen Hawley gives body to loss in “Drained Lake”

The exhibit runs through February 20 at Abel Contemporary Gallery in Stoughton.

The exhibit runs through February 20 at Abel Contemporary Gallery in Stoughton.

Photo: An installation of several dozen pieces, each about a foot high, emulates the color and texture of dried mud and sediment in a lakebed . The pieces are shown arrayed across the dark wooden floor of a gallery space at Abel Contemporary Gallery in Stoughton. Photos courtesy of Helen Hawley.

In loss, what is left? This is the paradox artist Helen Hawley explores in Drained Lake, an exhibit that materializes what is no longer there by filling the space with oil paintings of dismembered body parts, a poem titled “Blackwater” projected with light, and hundreds of representations of lake sediments, all made out of canvas and clay paint. The show runs through February 20 at Abel Contemporary Gallery in Stoughton. Hawley tells us of the past by converting the gallery space into dried lake bed gaping with emptiness. In its entirety, the exhibit is about water, language, loss, and most importantly the human condition, which copes with the perpetual state of absence.


Upon entering the exhibition, visitors will hear the piercing sound of a solitary horn. Czech composer Miroslav Srnka’s “Korone” resonates over the speakers, creating a melancholic and wistful atmosphere. The melancholy also emanates from “waterlines,” a close-up painting of a lake with deep azure shadows and ghost-like light gray highlights. Hawley’s interest in bodies of water started when she grew up in rural Missouri, 200 yards from a creek and two miles from the Missouri River. From her childhood home, she would hear the sound of moving water, which she describes as her siren song, because it pulls her in. This motif reoccurs in the work she later produced during her time at the Rhode Island School of Design as an undergraduate student and at UW-Madison as a graduate student. Water at times plays a direct physical role in the creation of Hawley’s work: Her 2019 show The Blues Of The Rain, at the Watrous Gallery, included a “rain journal,” consisting of inked pages Hawley set outside during rainshowers, letting the rain itself alter the work.

Photo: Helen Hawley stands among the lake sediment installations in the gallery.

At the center of Drained Lake are dozens of terracotta installations, which Hawley sewed from heavy canvas, dipped in custom-made clay paint, and wrung out. Once the pieces dried, the process created rough textures that mimicked the consistency of mud. These individually unique forms are hollow inside, with chipboard scaffoldings that hold the canvas up. “These natural materials are dug from the earth,” Hawley says about choosing clay as a medium to make existing and changing forms. The modifiable nature of clay allows it to take up a different structure according to what is demanded from it. Hawley was inspired by the natural formations found on the floor of a dried lake, because the irregular cracks create a pattern that is organic in nature. The landscape is a critical influence in her work.

Photo: Helen Hawley’s paintings “Clay Foot,” “Clay Ear,” and “Vertebra Of A Whale,” depicting those objects in oil on canvas, are shown hanging on a white gallery wall.

On the walls adjacent to the terracotta installations, there are paintings of a foot, an ear, and the vertebra of a whale on separate canvases. These are the found remnants of a past life that no longer exists. Because of Hawley’s previous work in sculpture conservation and book conservation, she’s continually inspired by things that go beyond her. When Hawley was a child, her parents did not allow her to swim in the Missouri River, and this pushed her to collect petrified wood on the riverbanks. “I can look at an artifact that is 2,000 years old and knowing that places me, as an artist, outside of time,” Hawley says. “I don’t really know how to make sense of it, but I feel connected to something older than myself.” Loss draws her into these artifacts.

This loss is also made manifest in the poem “Blackwater,” in which Hawley laments, “Running water, take me back. / I have something to remember / from my life there.” This speaks to an emptiness that is critical to the exhibit. It captures a desire to be taken back in order to remember an easier past that came before the ceasing blow of loss. The poem, which was inspired by David Sylvian’s song “Blackwater,” was written at the beginning of the pandemic, when Hawley stopped having exhibits and spent more time writing poetry. She developed a fascination with the musicality of language and not merely the communicative aspect of language, which can tend to be utilitarian. Meaning is not the end all of language, and poetry is a form that encourages this rhetoric. “How do I even conceive my own work without language?” Hawley asks. Although this is her first time putting a poem in an exhibition, she was drawn to the levity that is intrinsic to the quality of words. As an artist, she has always worked with creating physical objects—but for this exhibit, Hawley became fond of working with the lightness of a word as a material that one can pull from thin air. It possesses an ephemeral and lightweight quality.

In all of the pieces in this exhibition, Hawley explores the relationship of form and formlessness. Clay changes. Language evolves. Memory fades. Water fluctuates and takes up the shape of the container that holds it. It is boundless without its body. The same is true for loss. There is a purity in Drained Lake, because it does not attempt to fill the space where life once was. The lake is dead. What is left is the shell of its former glory. Water, although present in the representation of it in the painting “Waterlines,” is nowhere to be found inside the space itself. Even when expressing nostalgia for the past, Hawley does not attempt to bring that past back. Instead, she shows us what is left—the sediments and the poem, the foot and the whale vertebra—and offers it to us as a gift.

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