Senior Thesis Spotlight: Madison Heltzel

Madison Heltzel is currently undergoing the final steps of her senior thesis project, a mixed-media endeavor that revolves around recontextualizing shapes and colors found in the natural world.  While the unconventional materials are sometimes identifiable, the work as a whole is rooted in abstract imagery.

What is the focus of your thesis?

I’m doing a series of works on paper in various scales, some really large and some small. I’m trying to use natural materials, different pigments from mud and beeswax that have these really interesting qualities. [using] sort of a natural palette and creating big circle formations that I’m thinking of as mandalas and exploring this circle pattern and the way the body feels with the motion of creating circles. a mandala is a symbol almost like a map of the universe, thinking of the universe in cycles like seasons and life and death and basically a sacred symbol of the way the universe.

How do mandalas relate to your work?

Well, mandalas are very carefully drawn with rulers and you have all this geometry and measuring straight lines and i’m trying to take it out of that sort of that aspect of religion where everything is prescribed and compare it to how we can find these beautiful things in the natural world and see the same formation. But they have imperfections which make them more interesting and, in my thinking, more special.

Do you find inspiration in looking at artists who have similar goals?

Yeah, I’m actually really interested in abstract expressionism where the goal is the experience of creating it and how it can contain all these ideas without being literal. I’m trying to use colors and symbols and I’m definitely looking at Adolph Gottlieb, one of my favorites, he sort of uses zen painting ideas and makes big calligraphy characters that don’t mean anything. He just uses the aesthetics of calligraphy without any of the concrete meanings. I also look at Andy Goldsworthy who explores temporary things like the loss of control, which is something I’m trying to do and embrace the messy parts of the art and the natural things that occur.

So would you say process plays a huge role?

Yeah, I think I’m going for a sense of minimalism. Basically, the process is a little bit apparent, and when the person looks at it they can tell how it was made. They can feel the motions that my hands made or the materials made, so yeah I’m basically trying keep a little bit of clarity or simplicity so that they can see the strokes. I’m trying not to overwork it.

 Could you talk about materials more? One unique thing about the work is that you don’t use traditional two-dimensional tools.

That was one of the big things I wanted to be able to do in this project, to find a way to get myself outside. I’m also using these mushrooms that I find. I collect them and dry them. It’s sort of a meditative process just walking out in the woods and looking for the shapes and colors that I find and then building my work around those shapes and colors.

So you think about the image while you’re collecting stuff, is it always in the back of your head or do you gather all these items and then begin imagining the final version?

I think I definitely base [the work] off what I see. I don’t have a predetermined appearance in my mind I guess I’m trying to take these natural things and elevate them and showcase their inherent qualities that I find so amazing, and then mimicking the patterns and things I find in them. One of the challenges I think is that there are such beautiful and amazing things that already exist. It can be hard to think about altering that. Thinking how can I ever make something that compares to this because they’re already so cool. So I’m trying to find a balance between having found objects, but also creating my own mark that comments on them in some way and putting them in a different context on a wall, on a piece of paper, in a building.

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