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Belly up: Harwood exhibition an ode to tummies of all shapes and sizes

Helen Atkins in the studio. (Courtesy of The Artist)

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — As many of us ponder our pandemic pounds, an Albuquerque artist has created an ode to the belly.

Helen Atkins’ “Soft,” online at the Harwood Art Center, harwoodartcenter.org/soft, is both a tribute to and an exploration of our relationship with the belly as a source of deep cultural and personal roots. It begins with a series of “belly portraits.” The exhibition runs online through Nov. 20.

Atkins launched a social media call for tummy photographs and duplicated the results in 12 ceramics and clear resin with found frames. The portraits hang above a table set with ceramic dishes in the shapes of the organs contained in the torso – heart, lungs, kidneys, intestines and liver.

“Just aesthetically, I think it’s a really pleasing and beautiful part of the body,” Atkins said, “but culturally, it’s stigmatized. Culturally, there’s a very narrow definition of what is a good-looking stomach. The larger belly is deemed unacceptable. I have an issue with that.”

Several of the responses she received featured “before” and “after” photos of weight loss.

“Five,” 17-by-14.5 inches, 2020, stoneware by Helen Atkins.

“When we’re young, we’re taught that people come in all shapes and sizes, but we don’t believe that in our everyday life.”

The diet industry and culture – weight loss programs, exercise programs and supplements – provides ample evidence of that bias, Atkins said.

The artist also ties a thread between religion and weight as another ritual of transformation. We’re told if we adhere to certain rituals and rules, we become acceptable.

The religious references become clear through Last Supper-influenced titles such as “Take Eat.”

Atkins molded most of the bellies from ceramics, mainly stoneware and porcelain. She created mirror images of each in see-through resin.

“I made a mold of the sculpture and I cast it in resin, which is a clear plastic,” she said. “It’s a dialogue between yourself and the image in the mirror.”

“Take Eat” by Helen Atkins

Some of the participants spoke of their embarrassment at the shape and size of their stomachs.

“I had a person who had lost a lot of weight,” Atkins said. “She had this excess skin. She said this was her process of saying goodbye to it because she was getting surgery. So she was shedding her skin.”

Others described surgical scars; most of the participants were female.

“The stoneware piece “Five” features two framed bellies accented by butterflies to signal transformation.

The tableware on “Take Eat” will be the site of an installation performance feast with Atkins and her partner Will Geusz at the exhibition’s virtual opening at 5:30 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 22.

Atkins began the work before the pandemic, but the series took shape during the resulting isolation.

“I think I got a space away from the pressure,” she said. “The pressure to be thin is less. Having the space away from it allowed me to be more critical about it. One of my questions is, why do we do that? Is it natural or is it forced upon us?”

“Soft” is an ongoing series.

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