Two artists kept busy as bees in their independent studios located a block apart in Downtown Madison. Although Helen Hawley and Chele Isaac did not know one another, over time it became clear as crystal to each of them that they were as alike as two peas in a pod when it came to artistic pursuits.

Hawley and Isaac eventually met and began exchanging images, notes and thoughts. It wasn’t until after Isaacs was invited to be in a show last April at Arts + Literature Laboratory, 2021 Winnebago St., that the two artists launched a quest to consider the parallels of their art. Arts + Literature Laboratory is host to the resulting collaborative exhibit, “LIKE A STRIKING SIMILE: A Series of Objects by Helen Hawley and Chele Isaac.”

“The idea of similes — using one image or idea to describe another — seemed the one way to describe our work; similar, like, but not quite. A simile becomes a third thing, a thing in itself and I think that is what we’re doing by working together and through each other’s influence,” Isaac said in an email interview.

The two artists had been texting their favorite lines from “A Book of Striking Similes.” When they sat down to title their show, Isaac suggested using the book title as their work side by side reflected it.

“I said that I was stuck on using the word ‘book’ but the rest of it seemed perfect. We had already agreed that the show was going to be about resemblances and how our work would be read side by side,” said Hawley in an email interview.

Growing up in “Rust Belt” towns in Pennsylvania and Illinois, Isaac recalls her art-teacher parents encouraging her to make and build things. There were formal art supplies around, but Isaac was drawn to dumps and construction sites for repurposing junk to build forts or obstacle courses. She still likes experimenting with anything and everything from hardware store supplies, found bits of ephemera (collectible memorabilia originally expected to have short-term use), assorted art materials, video and sound.

“I like creating environments within environments. In this (exhibit), a world within the gallery that both responds to it while also doing its own thing.” Isaac said.

When Hawley was a child, paper, markers and colored pencils along with library picture books and copies of National Geographic were on tables around the house to encourage her to work on projects. One of her first memories of creating was a tiny book with poems and drawings that she gave to a woman who later was her art teacher in high school. When the book was returned to her, Hawley recalled, “As soon as I held the book again I could remember making it. I used markers on pink paper, it’s about two inches tall.” Bookmaking is still part of her creative pursuits, along with sculpture, video, printmaking and painting.

Hawley often uses a childhood impression of the out-of-doors where she grew up near the Missouri River on the edge of the Ozarks to explore a relationship between the visual and the tactile when creating art. She describes the Ozarks as a lush place with incredible thunderstorms, tornadoes, fireflies, creeks and caves.

Responding to a question about what was one of the first pieces of Hawley’s that made her aware of their similar ideas and insights, Isaac replied, “I don’t think it was any one particular piece; it’s more about the subtleties that run through all of her work. I can’t say that I always get the exact or literal inspiration of a work, but there is always a sensibility, or tone, and sometimes sly humor that pulls me in. Helen’s work compels and inspires me.”

“When I saw Chele’s piece, ‘There is no fixing the drift,’ I was blown away,” Hawley said. “I had titled a one-minute video, similarly, ‘Drift’ and I recalled that; but what really struck me was the image of the diver, which I found so graphically stunning and emotionally resonant. Water is recurrent in her work and mine.”

“I also had pictures in my phone of Chele’s piece, ‘Blue Water Rising,’ from the ‘Bookless’ show at the public library in Madison,’ Hawley continued. “When I realized (recently) that it was her piece, we laughed — I gravitated to her work long before we ever met.”

Robyn Norton


Robyn Norton is a features assistant for the Wisconsin State Journal.