Written by the rain

Artist Helen Hawley crafts a conceptual deluge at the Watrous Gallery.

Artist Helen Hawley crafts a conceptual deluge at the Watrous Gallery.

Helen Hawley decided a few years ago to try and make a book she could read in the rain. What the multi-media artist ended up with instead was a piece where the precipitation played a more active role. Hawley created an edition of 40 art books called Come If You Won’t Stay Long, in which each two-page spread is a solid blue painting with rich bristly texture and rounded corners. Set the book outside, open it up to the sky, and raindrops fall on the chemicals that coat each page, reacting with them and drying up again. The way Hawley sees it, the rain ended up writing the book.

Hawley’s solo show The Blues Of The Rain, up through November 3 at the James Watrous Gallery, includes two of the books. They are works in progress, with “blank” blue spreads along with evocatively speckled and smudged ones that capture the results of showers in Madison, London, New Jersey, and Tennessee. Hawley and several friends and fellow artists have been carrying the books around over the past few years.

“I don’t want this to be something that has to be in my possession, Hawley says. “I see it as these objects that are going out that I want other people to use.” 

The books include instructions for anyone else who might want to use one as their own rain journal. Tucked into the back over of each is a sort of poncho that one folds around the book to make sure the rain only falls on the intended pages, protecting the rest of it. Hawley created that after a few trial-and-error sessions left her with soggy ruined books. Hawley has also created sturdy metal cases to protect the books on their travels.


“There were a lot of technical considerations for this book, like what kind of polymer paper to use and how to print it in such a way that the ink would release and dry down again. I see this as a long-term project with different people having these books and the books moving to different places, and keeping this record over a long period of time,” Hawley says. “This book went through a lot of different dummies and a lot of different paper, a lot of different solutions of gum arabic and starch and talc to figure out how to make it release.”


Come If You Won’t Stay Long, while still far from “done,” also set Hawley off exploring the ideas and emotions that surround rain through a characteristically wide array of materials and approaches. (Not included in the current show is “A Place Where It Rains,” a video and installation piece that incorporates a rain barrel, which Hawley exhibited in the 2016 Wisconsin Triennial at the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art.) The works in The Blues Of The Rain encourage viewers to treat the rain as, Hawley says, a “screen” onto which they can project whatever it is that rain happens to stir up in them. The artist statement on the gallery wall notes at one point that “people feel so much,” a choice of words that feels intentionally broad and vague. Hawley opportunities here for calm, for sadness, for harmony with nature, and for subtle confrontations with the struggles of people dealing with either too much or too little water. Some pieces incorporate an element of humor and mischief, but at no point is Hawley nudging people to feel one particular way or another. 

Photo by Helen Hawley.

Photo by Helen Hawley.

A set of three paintings titled “Raindrops-Teardrops” dig into the visual nature of rain, which can be both highly repetitive and ever-variable depending on how one looks at it and how the light of a streetlamp or a sun shower plays off of it. Over a variation of background colors—steely grey-blue, soothing light blue, hazy volatile green—Hawley creates rigid and gridded lines of raindrops, using one stencil shape over and over again to create practically identical drops in thick impasto paint. From a distance it looks like something machined rather than painted. Subtle variations in the drops’ color and luster give these paintings a sense of movement despite their tight structures.


“There are 1,200 drops on each canvas…I love that play that happens between something that looks very mechanistic and highly ordered, but that is actually made by hand,” Hawley says.

Photo by Helen Hawley.

Photo by Helen Hawley.

Two pieces called “Big Muddy,” on the other hand, are rich with chaotic texture. They really look like two big squares of mud mounted on a gallery wall, reminding us that there’s no water cycle without the ground. Hawley created the pieces by mashing up paper pulp with a beater, running it through a sieve, and mixing it up with earthy pigments and flecks of mica. Hawley wanted to challenge herself to make mud paintings without using actual mud, and ended up with the most literal, tactile representation of all the subjects she takes on in the show, looking deep and damp. The pieces could evoke the abundance of rich soils and timely rain or the destruction and chaos of a flood.

Photo by Helen Hawley.

Photo by Helen Hawley.

There’s a counterpoint of sorts in “The Bottom Fell Out,” which unmistakably refers to drought. The piece is a sculpture of a jug, suspended above a platform and gradually crumbling apart as the clay in the structure dries out and cracks, exposing a structure made of rope. The bottom of the jug is slightly cut open, and presumably one of these days will thunk down to the lower platform as visitors quietly browse in the gallery. As of this past weekend, just a few grey flecks have fallen from the piece. Hawley deliberately set out to make a piece that would gradually self-destruct, but isn’t quite sure how long it will take. 

“Before I made the mud paintings, I was working with using clay to crack handmade paper. I love how the cracking actually follows a somewhat regular pattern,” Hawley says. “I don’t think this jug will necessarily have a life after this show, and I think it’s good to have temporary pieces that let you see the show as a moment in time, and the best way that I know how to do that is by making this piece that is just a moment in time, that’s part of this set of things.”

As more and more of the rope structure emerges from within the clay, Hawley notes, “It’s kind of hairy. I see it as almost a swamp vessel that’s in a state of coming undone.”

A lot of the work in Blues Of The Rain finds Hawley giving up control in one way or another, none more so than a big soft raindrop made of plastic and latex, titled “Feeling Blue Squishy.” The drop has a little crying face painted onto it, and a placard invites gallery visitors to touch it. It isn’t comforting material and it doesn’t offer up the satisfying resistance of a stress ball—again, Hawley isn’t necessarily telling us how to feel—but it can take a lot of abuse. Smush it down flat, and it will still expand back to its comically plump and pointy shape.


“I don’t like the word ‘interactive’ so much, but I do like the idea that people participate with the work—through handling the book, through maybe actually using the book in the rain, through actually touching the work, just starting to recognize themselves relative to these objects, maybe even how they start to move around the space,” Hawley says. “I am creating pieces that will hopefully make people slightly self-aware in this space, in connection to the objects I make.”

Photo by Helen Hawley.

Photo by Helen Hawley.

Hawley bookends the conceptual scope of the show with two small oil paintings on wood panels. “The Cloud That Drove The Storm” is simply a turbulent representation of a cloud, billowing up and filling the panel but not in a way that Hawley sees as abstract. “What Is Not But Could Be If,” titled after a Silver Jews song in the wake of David Berman’s recent death, shows a swan on a placid pond. Both pieces take the well-worn conventions of landscape painting and rip them out of context, hanging as they do alongside Hawley’s experiments with a whole slew of different materials. “I wanted this painting to be like an apparition,” Hawley says of “What Is Not But Could be If.” “I think as artists, if there’s a conceptual aspect to our work, we want to shy away from these romantic images like clouds and swans and sunsets, and I want to take them back and do them anyway, I guess.”

Going forward, Hawley is collaborating with musician Page Campbell on a piece for the 2019 Wisconsin Triennial. Hawley will also join fellow Madison artist and frequent collaborator Chele Isaac at MMOCA for a gallery talk on November 1 from 6:30 to 7:30 p.m.

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