Hawkes’ Bright Inner Light
Pam Hawkes is a figure painter whose enchanted, sedately seductive work is based on the traditions of Renaissance portraiture. In her work, Hawkes mythologizes her life experiences into beautiful images. Hawkes explains she doesn’t want to impose the narratives of her own life onto others, but still allegorically conveys her story through her paintings—akin to the old women telling stories around the fire, the kind of stories that instruct and warn and impart wisdom.
Typically, Hawkes doesn’t start out with a clear or specific idea, instead relying on the painting process to guide her to where it needs to go with just a very vague notion of what she’s working towards. She’s convinced that experimentation is crucial to the discoveries that push her creative work forward. She rejects the ‘preciousness’ of a painting; instead she delights in the fluidity and changeability of a painting in flux without worrying about the end result. Describing her process as “chaotic,” she works directly with paint onto metal leaf without a preliminary sketch. She finds the history of the painting—i.e., the marks and traces left from the trajectory—the most fascinating.
Highly inspired by medieval manuscripts, her work is rich with translucent glazes over metal leaf which give her paintings luxurious warmth and luminous depth. She explains, “The luster of precious metals is part of our collective human understanding. It is so culturally steeped in us that translation of its meaning is unnecessary. We instinctively know what they symbolize.” It’s very important to her that the metal leaf glows through the paint, retaining those accidental marks that make it beautiful and interesting.
Hawkes Unraveling is based on her self-described “pathological need” for chaos. She celebrates improvisation in the certainty of not knowing what’s next, and not wanting to look ahead because life intervenes to spoil one’s plans. Yet in this painting she symbolically holds on to those fragments of wishes, longings, and dreams that hold life together—portrayed here as an unraveling headdress—while showing serenity, strength, and acceptance in the young woman’s peaceful face. She credits her outward cheerfulness by working through deep emotions as she modulates her anger, frustration, and sadness through her paintings, yet still manages to instill them with nostalgic beauty and wistful hopefulness.
The recurring theme of the loose floating ribbons is inspired by the Master of Flémalle, Robert Campin’s 14th Century Nativity, where a nursemaid’s headdress comes apart and angels carry the ribbons away. Hawkes loves the visual and uses this theme to convey fragments of stories, furtively suspecting she’s a surrealist at heart.
Hawkes’ Unbound has an iconic stillness; its expression has the quality of a Dutch Golden Age still life, a genre that motivates her to focus on precious details which she uses to point at relationships between objects and the subject of her narrative. Unbound is about the fear of fading into the background while quite the opposite is true. It is about breaking free from metaphorical or physical boundaries, making it a really powerful and joyful painting.
Holding onto the Light was inspired by the movie Orlando, a 1992 British film based on Virginia Woolf's 1928 novel Orlando: A Biography, starring Tilda Swinton. Captivated by androgynous faces, Hawkes examines the concept of the fluidity and changeability of sexuality in flux. She states, “Androgyny is interesting. The notion that nothing is fixed, that our identities are constantly in movement.” The physicality of this painting glows with inner light over the copper, allegorically depicting Hawkes’ ideas about allowing life to just happen yet holding on to one’s core.
Hawkes’ piece entitled Still Here was influenced by the painting Madonna di Ca' Pesaro by the 15th Century Venetian Renaissance master Titian. A beautiful woman with an elegant skullcap seems to struggle free from under the rich, lush fabrics tumbling down over her shoulders. She’s a symbol of the Madonna in all of us—I use the word in its Italian sense, ma donna meaning ‘my lady’—whose place is in the home, tied down and limited, carrying her domestic duties on her shoulders. Despite those imposed sociocultural restrictions, this Madonna is very present in the moment, bearing her burdens with heroic strength and admirable dignity. While feminism has eased many women’s lives since its inception almost 170 years ago, domestic and conjugal drudgery is still a yoke for most of womankind. Hawkes’ painting celebrates all women who, despite oppression and bondage, manage to stay strong and true to themselves.
Night Music epitomizes the spirit and essence of Hawkes’ thoughts about her creative life. Starting with a poem Hawkes wrote overhead, our eyes roam over the exuberant luminosity of the oranges and golds in the rich fabrics and decorative backdrop, and finally come to rest on the woman facing us, holding a perch for the nightingale’s performance. Hawkes loves to paint in the middle of the night when quiet and solitude descent upon her studio. While seemingly lonely these are, in fact, her best hours. The nightingale within her awakens and sings its sweetest song, spilling out onto the canvas.
This piece is a celebration of the art that continues to sustain Hawkes. A single mother of two—now adult—children, she never wanted to create paintings that sentimentalize the struggles of motherhood and life in general, but instead aims to show a certain truth in a quite positive and philosophical manner. During her nocturnal studio hours, Hawkes declares, “the darker side goes through the mill, working them out through my paintings. There has to be honesty with myself. My attitude has always been to push on and punch above my weight.” Obviously, this has worked out well for Hawkes who’s quite laidback and cheerful in everyday life. She adds, “I feel very privileged to do something I love, to experiment, play, be joyful, struggle, live… And achieve something beyond my expectations despite all the limitations imposed by life.”
Hawkes’ piece entitled Autumn is one of four of her Seasons series, inspired by Gerard Manley Hopkins’ poem Spring and Fall. While Hawkes’ favorite season is springtime, she loves the beautiful melancholia of autumn; of a dying world in flux, brilliant and dramatic before the nothingness of winter arrives—and after that, the inspiring renewal of spring.
Considering herself a true northern European painter, Hawkes’ work is often steeped in dark light and melancholia, through which she seeks to acknowledge and honor life’s losses. In Autumn, she examines the perpetual uncertainty of life and how nothing ever remains the same. The female figure personifying Autumn halfheartedly reaches out a hand, knowing that whatever she tries to hold on to will ultimately vanish.
Autumn epitomizes a sense of loss, and ultimately, its acceptance—an aspect of life Hawkes has been starkly confronted by in the past three years. Painting has helped her through the myriad of intense emotions that accompany a dark period of mourning after the devastating loss of her partner of 23 years. Fortunately, the renewal of spring has arrived for Hawkes in the form of a grandchild, this new life has prompted her to turn a page. Her latest piece entitled Nesting is about this new phase in her life which celebrates the joyous re-experiencing of motherhood. The intensity of the woman’s gaze, filled simultaneously with promising bliss, profound knowledge, and reflective acceptance, speak of Hawkes’ superb painting skills as well as her depth of heart.
She says, “I’m embracing life and feel happier than in a long time. I think all women are very aware of the cycle of life, that’s why we are great storytellers. We’re part of transitory life, and we build on each other’s strengths.” All I can add is that I hope this nightingale continues to sing for many more decades.
Written by Lorena Kloosterboer, realist artist & author © Antwerp, April 2017