Two weeks ago, I sat in a nexus where art, culture, and ecology meet to get a lesson in the “school of life.” It was from an extraordinary teacher who was living an amazing life and creating an innovative haven for artists.
Tucked away on a tiny street in Bloomsbury, the literary and intellectual hearth of central London, is the October Gallery and its globe-skipping American director, Chili Hawes. Enter this nineteenth-century former Church of England school and you will find a gallery space filled with people and art from far away places like Japan, Ghana, Benin, Palestine, Kenya, and Australia.
Hawes has a multicultural sensibility that stands out, even in a diverse place like London. In the October Gallery, the walls, the rooms, the courtyard, and the people tell the story of a peripatetic life that led Hawes from her native Colorado to explore the world. But wherever she landed, she has been focused on creating beauty.
The October Gallery currently features the work of Benin’s Romuald Hazoumé, among other artists. Hazoumé uses various forms of media to create a dialogue about sometimes-painful events that have shaped both his country’s history and contemporary international culture. His “Market Forces: Better to Sell Meat than Men!” is one such artwork. The panoramic photograph series captures the former site of an open sandy landscape where Africans had been sold and transported onto slave ships during the height of the British and European slave trade. The area is now a market for goat sellers. Gallery literature says the contemporary market “provoke[s] reflection on the financial evaluation of lives, and the dangers of ignoring the recurring patterns of history.”
The transatlantic slave trade is a particularly poignant subject as 2007 marks the bicentenary for the abolition of the slave trade within the British Empire. There is a shipload of controversy surrounding the topic, and the October Gallery has become a forum for artistic dialogue.
The concept of transforming people from an automatic state to a much more sensitive state when they view art could be the overarching philosophy used to explain the exotic series of events that led Hawes to becoming the director of a flourishing gallery more than twenty-eight years ago.
Rewind to the 1950s in Grand Junction, Colorado and you would find a young Hawes, itching for adventure, living in a small community of 28,000. “I wanted to see the world,” she said. “I wanted to go where they didn’t speak English.” So in her junior year, she attended the University of Paris-Sorbonne to learn French (she also speaks Spanish). “This meant so much to me—to go away for a year outside my country—and then I was off.”
Off she went to Santa Fe, New Mexico, to make adobe houses. Off she went to build potteries and wood and metal shops. For a while, she even assayed silver, copper, and platinum. By this time, she was working with a small group of like-minded friends. It was 1967 and they had met in San Francisco. By 1974, their relationship had a name. “We formed what we called the Institute of Ecotechnics, using ecology and techniques in harmony.” The group designs projects that establish a relationship between people and the environment in different biomes—seas, rainforests, deserts, savannahs, and urban areas.
This mission enabled Hawes to trek across the globe, living out her desire for adventure. After building solar and wind powered homes and constructing a 50-foot diameter geodesic dome in New Mexico, they farmed in France. On a ranch in Aix-en-Provence, they raised winter wheat, chickens, rabbits, and pigs. Hawes also had three children.
From France, they moved to western Australia, near Derby, to help battle 5,000 acres of eucalyptus roots, now serenely called Birdwood Downs. It was to raise drought-resistant seeds that they in turn sold to countries affected by aridity.
Up until then, Ecotechnics’ aim for a city project had not materialized, although a sea project produced the RV Heraclitus, a deep-ocean research vessel. Built in San Francisco, it is an 85-foot long, three-masted junk ship that has been on the water since 1975. And a rainforest project in Puerto Rico also came to fruition. “But nothing was really being done to study what was the ecology of the city,” Hawes said. The group considered other international cities, but they thought London offered a richer selection of cultures.
In 1978, they purchased the nineteenth-century former school, and after extensive renovation, including uprooting a tree growing inside, the October Gallery was born. Now it is a staple institution in the London arts scene. “It’s survived by the skin of its teeth until right now, which has been wonderful because we’re starting to sell lots of work. This has come after twenty-eight years. Lots of sweat equity,” Hawes said.
“When I first went to Paris when I was twenty, I saw Monet, Manet, Van Gogh, Gauguin. I had not seen many paintings before. Ever—and I realized how important art was to me. They made me see things differently: they made me understand things differently. And I was also into [Charles] Baudelaire, and all that, but I understood for sure that one thing utmost in all of my interests was beauty—whether it was working on a farm or making beautiful buildings or artwork. Beauty was one of the dominant values for me. And not “pretty,” “beautiful” has some other qualities to it. It’s something that is piercing, it’s passionate, it’s individual—all those things.”
The group coined the term for the October Gallery’s aesthetic—“transvangarde.” These artists would be called avant-garde, except for its limits to western art, Hawes said. “Transvangarde is at least an attempt to make a definition of a word that would encourage the work of artists from all cultures who are working at the forefront of the new.” Even the moniker of the gallery has meaning. “October is the name because we would show both those who are in the October of their years, and in the southern hemisphere October is spring so we would also show those who are just starting,” Hawes said. “I’m kind of dedicated to that idea of letting the individual really manifest.”
It is evident in the trajectory of her life and the success of the October Gallery and its artists that Hawes lives this philosophy. Even her advice to aspiring artists is illustrative. “Reach down very deep into your inner most dreams and dare to dare. Dare to be completely different,” she said.
Aubrey Williams, Guyana
Shostakovich 11th Quartet Opus 122, 1981
Oil on canvas; 130 × 203 cm