Studio Visit: Kathleen Hawkes

Words & Pictures: Jamie Ho

February 07 2016

Kate’s objects are suspended in time, whether they are delicate china being submerged in hazy, milky liquid or mittens and cherry blossoms frozen in ice. Her new work, "Anthropocene," marks a shift away from her mediations of the past to a focus on her concerns about the future. Instead of beautiful objects weighed by history, we see chaotic groupings of disposable items: candy, cocktail umbrella picks, shark stickers and more. Almost like star clusters, the work comments on the complexity of the current discussion on climate change.

Kathleen Hawkes is an artist and photographer who teaches in Wisconsin and lives in Minnesota. Her studio practice spans both states. Just as she lives and works across state line, her work crosses the border from loss to preservation.

We visited Kate in her beautiful home in Minnesota to learn more about her art practice.

What is your Sunday ritual?

Hmmm….   well now that the weather is a bit colder, Sundays generally involve eating some good food and taking the dogs for a walk.  Probably eating some more good food.  And spending the afternoon hunkered down with some studio work.  We are pretty big on listening to books on tape while we work, most recently we have been listening to The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton, but we also listen to our fair share of trashy space operas and murder mysteries.   

You grew up in New York; you’ve lived in the dry desert of New Mexico, and now, are braving the cold winters of the Midwest. Does place influence your art making?

Yeah, this is a really interesting question.   I do think that place does influence art making.   It struck me the most when I moved to New Mexico.   The landscape was so foreign to me I may as well have been walking on the moon.  At first, I was felt really uncomfortable with how open everything is in New Mexico, how much sky there is, how far you can see.   It was as if there was nothing to contain my existence, or it was all going to just blow away.   But after a while I found that I felt quite productive there.  I started to see that place and time almost like a void space – I was removed from everyone and everything that I knew back home and could breath a little.   And, I actually started making work about home back in the Northeast.  I think there was something about being away that allowed me the metal distance to reflect on things in a new way.   

Also, I think the climate has really played a role in the work that I make.  For example, when I was living in the desert, the dryness and the heat played a very direct role in the work – works about water vaporizing or ice melting.  Likewise, when I was living in the South Pacific a few years ago, which is a tropical, humid environment, I was really interested in photographing ideas of overgrowth and density.  

And, one more things that comes to mind in regard to space and time, is the act of relocating to a new place.  I really noticed it when I moved here to the midwest.   It is hard to move to a new place, because you don’t know anyone and it takes a while to find your place.  On the other hand, when everything is new and you don’t have many commitments or an established a routine, there is all this time to make work.  I think also, seeing things for the first time is inspiring.  So, I find that when I am in a new place, I am more productive for a burst which feels good.   

Both of your series, Dusk and Desert, have resonated deeply with me. Some of those images have stayed with me since I first saw them a few years ago. In your statement, you indicated that your photographs of worn sheets, and of broken china are metaphorical stand-ins for home. What is home to you?

Yeah, really good question.  I think that I really associate home with childhood.   And a certain sense of security that one has, well that I had, as a child.   But the work is really about returning home as an adult and having that perception of home change.  The experience of trying to reconcile being in one space and having the memories of comfort that I once felt there, but at the same time feeling the emotional distance or detachment that I feel as an adult.   I think that ambivalence is hard to reconcile, but also really interesting – like being in two places at once.  So I wanted the work to have some sense of tension of feeling stuck between multiple forces.  And, also that it was in the middle of some sort of inevitable transition – things were just about to fall apart.   

Your newer work has moved from images of tangible objects, often domestic to more abstract photogram-like images. What influenced this shift?

I like that you thought of photograms, such a beautiful, simple process.   And with this new work I was thinking a lot about negative and positive space and having there be some confusion between substance and void.   But, the marks or shapes in this new work, Anthropocene, are also made by photographing recognizable objects, though they may become hard to recognize in the final pieces.   The objects are mostly things like odd bits of plastic, candy (there is a lot of candy actually), cheap trinkets, bits of yarn, party paraphernalia, etc.

But, you are right that there definitely is a shift in subject matter.  With the work of domestic scenes in Dusk, I wanted the objects to feel like things that are used, cherished, and maybe passed down from one family member to another.  With the new work I want the objects to feel like cheap, disposable items that are mass-produced and just sort of accumulate in the periphery.   In Dusk I suppose I was thinking more about mourning the loss of something and in that reflecting on personal experiences and looking to the past.  But, in the new work, I am wondering about the future, the environment more generally, and about the persistence or staying-power of the materials we are producing today.  

There are paper poppies everywhere in your house. Can you tell me more about this project and who you’re collaborating with?

Yes, collaborating so directly on a project is really new for me.  I am working with an artist named Misha Bolstad.  Misha’s work is very different than mine, she makes these large interactive, environmental  installations out of fabric and upholstery.    I saw Misha give and artist talk about an year ago, and I was struck by how the ideas she was talking about  resonated with me and my work.  She was talking about excess and trying to find this point where something is just a little too saturated – too much of a good thing.   

After I heard her speak, I asked if she would be interested in working on something together.  She agreed, but at that point we had no clue what it would be.  I was surprised to find the process very fluid, ideas building on other ideas quite quickly.   We talked about taking some process, or formula and just repeating it to a point of oversaturation.  And then eventually settled on this idea of the poppy field from the Wizard of Oz representing some sort of liminal state.  We began making poppies out of tissue paper about 6 months ago.  I think we have something like 4,500 at this point, though we wish we had more, there is never enough…   And, we are about to show them in a gallery in Winona in the next few weeks.  The poppies will be installed as though they are bursting or growing out of various domestic vessels – suitcases, cooking pots, coffee urns, etc.  We want it to look like some strange twist on a future reality – as though somebody is obsessively scavenging these flowers and hoarding them, or trying recreating some idea of botany that no longer exists.  

You have a great partnership with Roger Boulay, who is also a fantastic artist. What is it like living and sharing a studio space with him?

Yeah…   good question.   In short it is wonderful and motivating to live and work alongside another artist like Roger.  We are accomplices in what we do and how we choose to spend our time.  For me it is motivating to have Roger producing things in the same space because, for one, it sets a certain pace, and two, some of the things he makes inspire me to think about something I am working on differently.  Beyond that, it is really nice to have someone who’s opinion I really trust present so that I can have feedback on what I am making.  We do this for each other.   One of us will put something on the wall and ask the other what they think.  Sometime this conversation last 10 minutes, sometimes it last an hour, sometimes it persist on and off for days, and sometimes it is just a nod or gesture that the other understands instantaneously.  Whatever it consists of, having another person who is very invested in your work and offers honest feedback is huge.    

On the same note, you and Roger have two beautiful dogs. Do they ever get into your projects?

Ha, they certainly force their way into our studio practice and space when they want something.   But, we feel lucky to have them and their companionship.   We have had different weird inspirations to try to make artwork with them or about them, but nothing has ever become fully realized.    To give you a sense – we tried inking and printing their old dog toys, Roger has tried scanning Lenny’s ears, and also tried making a movie of the dogs licking off a glass window pain.  Nothing has quite turned out.  Though, I suppose that our emotional vulnerability toward them has probably informed or inspired our work subconsciously in many ways.   

What’s next?

Well back to my connection with Roger Boulay, though we share a space, as of yet, our work has remained separate.  But, we have discussed working on a collaborative piece or exhibition in the future.  We are both really captivated by the imagery returning from the New Horizons space probe, so possible the work will have something to do with curiosity and planetary bodies.     

Find more of Kate Hawkes’s work on her website. Follow her on Instagram @hawkkate.

Jamie Ho is a photographer based in Madison, Wisconsin.  Follow her on Instagram @honda.quint.