Bangalow-based sculptor Ben Hellewell recently wrapped his first solo exhibition, Where Movement and Stillness Collide. Created mostly from assembled driftwood, it’s a body of work that represents the deeply personal journey Ben has been on since the course of his life changed four years ago. He’d lived in the Shire for about a year, led here on an “expansive journey” travelling around Australia and other parts of the world building off-grid earthen homes. During a rough patch in the ongoing pain of losing his mother as a child, he was camping on the beach in Mackay for a few days of timeout. Growing up near the coast in regional Western Australia, the beach has always held special significance. His mother’s ashes were scattered in the ocean and it’s the place he feels closest to her.
He’d never studied art, but walking the beach that morning, a beak-shaped piece of driftwood captured his attention. “I’m yet to know how to articulate it properly, what happened in that moment, but it was a turning point in my life. I felt so invigorated and excited, like this child within me that had been totally shutdown since Mum passed, came back alive, and I just knew that I had to make an eagle. I had to follow the feeling.” He spent the rest of the day collecting pieces that looked like feathers and talons. “It was one of the most satisfying, purposeful days of my life.”
A short holiday became two months scouring the coastline. About a month in, he was questioning his sanity – was he really going to make sculptures, or was he just becoming obsessed, and a hoarder in the process? Using a drill and chainsaw, he built a humpback whale on the beach from four perfectly weathered pieces, and knew he was on the right path.
Taking out a loan, he bought a truck, flewback to Byron to get his heavy vehicle licence and returned to Mackay, where he loaded up tonnes of driftwood and made the journey home. He set up a studio in the Bangalow Arts Yard and began work on the eagle.
Urged by a mutual friend, he reached out to Gabrielle Pool, who had recently opened Peek Gallery in Byron. To his surprise, she arranged to visit the studio, whereupon she offered him a contract on the spot off the strength of the whale, amazed it was his firstever sculpture. She wanted three pieces, with the whale to headline Peek’s inaugural show.
But the elation was soon shattered with the unexpected passing of Ben’s father. It was an enormously difficult time, but full of inspiration, he explains. The eagle took on even more significance, being the animal his father always said he wanted to be reincarnated as. “It was how I processed everything. It was my therapy.”
Reincarnate, sold before the show opened. “Adversity is there to help us grow. I’m getting better at reminding myself that it’s for the benefit of my life.”
Since then, he’s participated in other group exhibitions and worked on private commissions. He feels the beauty of what’s revealed by nature over time in the weathered wood is what makes the sculptures special. “These old hardwood pieces have such incredible stories I’ll never know, although they do speak in their own way… I listen for the inspiration to come through.”
The centrepiece for the solo show, a floating 400kg shark, crashed to the floor halfway through the exhibition run when the ropes suspending it from the ceiling snapped, breaking apart its lower half. After screaming at the sky out the back of the waves, he reframed the situation and embraced the shark’s new form, piling the disassembled wood and snapped ropes on the floor underneath it, the inner structure now visible like a timber skeleton.
He says the exhibition has brought closure and clarity after the “scatteredness” of the past four years, and hopes his work inspires a deeper connection with nature for the audience. “When we engage in communication with the natural world, magic happens.” Like that morning on the beach at Mackay.
“We’re conditioned to think death’s the end, and I’ve definitely learned that it’s not. For so long I thought my connection with my mother was lost, but rebuilding my relationship with her over these past four years has taught me so much. She talks to me a lot. I talk with her a lot. Often through driftwood, and my work. Sculpture has helped me integrate my grief and form a stronger connection with both my parents. This is part of who I am.”
Check out more of Ben’s work on show at Vampt Vintage 14 Bayshore Dr, Byron Bay or on Instagram @ben_hellewell_