Zoe Hawk’s Unsettling Scenes of Institutions, Girlhood

by Margot BuermannPosted on

Midwestern artist Zoe Hawk explores the social constructions of femininity through her portrayals of adolescent girls on the verge of womanhood. Her narrative works resemble illustrations one might find in a children’s book, with her subjects playing the parts of sweet-natured schoolgirls, candy stripers, and girl scouts. Yet, as we begin to look beneath the surface, it becomes clear that things are not always as they appear.

“I like my paintings to seem sweet and playful at first glance,” the artist told Figure50, “but as you look closer they take on a more sinister quality. I want the viewer to be slightly unnerved.” Working primarily in oil and gouache, Hawk creates scenes that on the surface appear idyllic and controlled. The young girls are dressed in uniform, conveying the restrictiveness of their environments and the idealized femininity they are taught to adhere to. Within these larger scenarios, individual dramas unfold as the girls are caught in candid moments of mischief, rebellion, and internal conflict between the desire for individuality and societal pressures to conform. Like dolls in a dollhouse, the girls appear stuck within the confines of these various institutions.

Hawk was raised in St. Louis, Missouri in an artistic household (her father is an artist and painting professor) and began creating illustrated stories as a young girl. She notes the significance of feminism in her life and work, starting in her teenage years when her mother introduced her to Reviving Ophelia: Saving the Selves of Adolescent Girls by Mary Pipher. “This book was so important to me,” she told Figure50, “because it described real case studies of girls my age… as I at the same time was transitioning out of childhood and trying to come to grips with the harsh realities of womanhood in a sexist culture.”

Hawk’s work has been published in New American Paintings and The Oxford American. In 2016, she completed a residency at the Women’s Studio Workshop, where she produced new silkscreen prints that build upon her theme of young girls in conflict with our gendered society. Currently, Hawk lives in Doha, Qatar, where she is an instructor at the Virginia Commonwealth University’s Community Education Program.

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