Beauty in the mud: a look into installation process at Blo Back Gallery

Filed in , BY Rory Harbert

March 2, 2023
Helen Dunn
Photo by Rory Harbert

A large swath of rust-colored mud poured into one third of the narrow hall: this pueblo-clay mixture will dry out over the duration of the exhibition. The installation will be displayed for the entirety of March and begin to crack, creating a constantly transforming exhibit. In addition, a mural will be painted on the opposite wall. It depicts an androgynous figure rising into a blue sky. This mural will also be covered in clay. At its foot, a framed trough will be filled with the same clay and sprinkled with alfalfa and broccoli seeds. Over the month, the sculptural and performance artist will pour water over the top of the mural, letting the muddy water run down the wall which, if all goes as expected, will erode the clay, revealing the mural, and provide water to the seeds to sprout in the mud at the figure’s feet.

The “Cracked Earth-Rising Blue” installation by Helen Eberhardie Dunn opens at 6 p.m. on March 3 at Blo Back Gallery, at 131 Spring St.

Dunn is the director of Sky Soul Studio, where she creates her art, as well as offers private classes and one-on-one tutoring. Dunn has a Master of Fine Arts from the Royal College of Art in London. It was there she started incorporating performance art and other mediums in her artistic style. She teaches as an adjunct professor at Colorado State University Pueblo, Pueblo Community College and Pike’s Peak Community College.

Dunn was inspired by how the mud had cracked in a culvert near her house, where she and her family worked to get a plaster of this ephemeral sighting before any water washed it way—as it did a week later in a flood.
For this exhibit: there are many processes that will evolve over its time installed at the gallery. Many separate processes will contribute to the month-long evolution of Dunn’s exhibit. Once the gallery is open to the public, she cedes control to the natural change in the elements that comprise her work.

“That’s the key: change over time,” she said.

With careful planning and a lot of trial-and-error, Dunn can only make predictions about how this will work out. She has experimented with how the clay will crack by creating different mixtures of locally sourced clay and the perfect amount of water. Cutting the Pueblo red clay with a more industrial variety from Summit Brick Company, located on 13th Street, she can adjust the color, consistency and, most importantly, dry time. Once she was confident of the consistency, she and her son set to fill around 30 large, commercial buckets of wet clay in their driveway the Saturday before the exhibition opens.

Mud cracks are a process of desiccation and “only form where wet sediment is exposed to air” and typically form patterns of polygons, according to the Geological Society of America. This unique effect is an important part in determining the presence of water on Mars.

“I find these patterns so beautiful,” Dunn said. “They mark the passage of time and the interplay of earth and water. Insects leave their footprints.”

Dunn says her goal in this exhibit, and in most of her art, is to create an “immersive” experience and create a change in physical sensations by incorporating the elements. For example, she often hangs her art from the ceiling to conjure thoughts of air and flow. Though, she explains that she is most personally connected with water.

“We’re water, carbon, heat and air,” Dunn said. “But predominantly we are water.”

In a way, Dunn said she feels that this art is how she processes the reality that “we have less water and that the earth is warming.” She explained that this art is a process of grief.

“The Earth will adapt and survive, and we might not,” Dunn said, with hurt in her voice.

She said she is experiencing “solastalgia” which is a way to describe a form of grief for changes in environment or home. She described her heart as being “full of tears” at the thought of losing humanity by means of our own destruction. Dunn said she hopes that as she processes this grief via her art, it will help others grieve as well.

“I’m not some special being,” Dunn said. “Traditional views of the artist have them being gifted or blessed with special skills—or more, cursed—to have empathy… I need to somehow make a change… It would be a lot easier not to do this… Maybe this is the best I can do—this is my offering.”

She also draws inspiration from an “important dream” she had. She said felt she was inexplicably rising into the sky but was tethered by children clutching onto her. This dream inspired the figure in her mural.

Dunn moved to Pueblo West from Colorado Springs with her husband Jimmie, a famous rock climber, and their 17-year-old son in 2019. Prior to having their son, the couple lived in a Volkswagen van from 1997, the year they met, until 2004 when they learned of her pregnancy.

She taught kindergarten through eighth grade, eventually stepping away for her mental health. She said she needed to focus on her passion.

“I’m a very empathetic person,” Dunn said. “I became like their earth mother. But I started getting sick.”

Dunn’s “original love,” as she calls it, is carving stone. A large Carrara marble statue sits under a gantry hoist. Dunn says that the piece should go for over $100,000 to the right buyer which depicts her interpretation of the tantric heart, or the eastern practice of the “divine embrace.” She was 17 years old when she started carving stone which she described as “life-changing.” Dunn turned to pottery as it was a more efficient way to make money from her skills and fund her more close-to-heart projects.

Dunn has performed at Blo Back Gallery before, where she used the opportunity to protest the repeal of Roe v. Wade via her art.

Dunn would like to thank Mark Jesik at Summit Bricks; her family, Jimmie and CJ; Bob Marsh, Matte Refic and Julie Kim at #SCAPE, the Spontaneous Combustion Arts Performance Ensemble; and the School of Creativity and Practice at Colorado State University Pueblo. Dunn has a performance art show for the 2023 faculty art exhibition at 6 p.m. on March 10 in Gallery 101 in the Art Building on the Colorado State University Pueblo campus.

<a href=''>Rory Harbert</a><a href=''>Rory Harbert</a>

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