Austin American-Statesman  

by Jeanne-Claire van Ryzin

Sunday, September 1, 2013


Comfort — we all crave it. But... how willing are we to receive it, especially if it’s offered by a stranger?

That awkward — and sometimes transgressive — relationship between giver and receiver is the core of Austin performance artist Katelena Hernandez Cowles’ “Comfort Sessions.”

Wearing a dress-like costume made of 100 yards of red fleece that unrolls in blanket-size strips, Cowles centers herself in a pile of pristine white pillows and sings lullabies, inviting visitors to lie down, close their eyes, relax and let go.
  Cowles will be performing her “Comfort Sessions” Sept. 17 and 19 as part of “M Path,” an exhibit currently at Texas State University Galleries.

Featuring contemporary work from a roster of international artists, “M Path” dovetails with the university’s yearlong common experience curriculum, which this year explores mental health. Curator Mary Mikel Stump selected artwork — like Cowles’ “Comfort Sessions” — that explores empathy and emotional caring.

Cowles — who as an undergraduate visual art student at Yale University sang in that school’s storied Glee Club — became interested in lullabies when motherhood became her full-time job about a decade ago. (Her children are Celia, 11, and Gabe, 9.)

“I couldn’t make art as a full-time mom to two young children,” she says. “I realized that singing lullabies was incredibly pleasurable within the daily grind of motherhood.”

Cowles, a native of Houston, began sourcing more songs to sing.

She uncovered lullabies from cultures around the world. She sang songs from Broadway shows and Disney movies, from the pop music charts and the Great American Songbook. She sang cowboy ballads, gospel hymns and folk songs. (Cowles now has more than 130 songs in her repertoire.)

But then, a strange thing happened: Cowles began to suffer from extreme insomnia.

At first, a 2006 fall from a horse, which cracked the helmet she was wearing, seemed more an embarrassing goof than a life-changing occurrence. (Perhaps ironically, it was one of the first weekend getaways she and her husband, Jay Cowles, took after their children arrived.)

However, months after the fall, Cowles began to sleep less and less each night, eventually managing only an hour or two.

As her injury manifested more neurological symptoms, her world became increasingly circumscribed. She had to stop driving. And she suspended her board and community work for organizations such as Women & Their Work and the Austin Museum of Art.

Watching her children fall asleep as she sang was often as close to sleep — and comfort — as Cowles could get.

“Singing offered the only time when I felt happy and calm,” she says.

Eventually, through a long process of biofeedback therapy, Cowles regained the ability to sleep — and the desire to make art again.

As she recovered, Cowles conceived of the “Comfort Sessions” as an art performance. And, as a tangent, she also began singing by invitation to anyone who asked her for a personal session. She went to homes and to hospices, singing by request.

She has performed as part of the 2011 iteration of Fusebox, the annual performance art festival, and at arts venues in San Antonio.

Originally, Cowles hoped her “Comfort Sessions” would offer an irony-free respite from our cynical age.

But, instead, Cowles found that the act of singing for someone in so intimate a manner is actually an awkwardly charged experience for many.

A collegial hug to a co-worker might be deemed appropriate, for example. But what about lounging on a pile of pillows with a bunch of strangers in a gallery? And when does emotional intimacy become romantic or sexual?

Cowles’ “Comfort Sessions” has aroused tears from some participants and romantic proposals from others. Frequently, it takes people a while to settle down and relax.

“There are nebulous boundaries in terms of comforting someone else or being comforted by someone else,” she says. “We’re all very unsure of what we’re supposed to do and what we’re not.”

And yet we all crave comfort.

“We’re so programmed to keep ourselves inside a shell, to seem competent and in control all the time, that we can’t let go and be vulnerable,” she says. “But we all need to be comforted.”

“Comfort Sessions”
When: Noon to 2 p.m. Sept. 17, 7 to 10 p.m. Sept. 19.

“M Path”

Exhibit continues through Sept. 28

Gallery hours: 9 a.m. to 10 p.m. Mondays-Sundays

Where: University Galleries, Joann Cole Mitte Building, Texas State University, corner of Sessom and Comanche streets, San Marcos

Cost: Free

Information: 512-245-2647,


San Antonio Current


by Scott Andrews 

May 1, 2013 

"Until last year, the exhibition space at 107 Lone Star was called LoneStar Gallery, and was run by Sean FitzGibbons, son of Blue Star Contemporary Art Museum executive director Bill FitzGibbons, whose cavernous sculpture studio carved out a once-a-month niche in front for show space. Sean left town for graduate school, and took the name with him. Now named 107 Gallery, the pop-up space is managed by the Lullwood Group, comprised of Emily Baker, Chris Castillo, Esteban Delgado, Joseph Duarte, Joe Harjo, Julie Ledet, Clay McClure, Willie Sanchez, and Connie Swann. Dedicated to “encouraging participation,” the group staged a rare exhibition of their own work during this year’s Luminaria where, to the delight of visitors, they filled a room of the Instituto Cultural de México with balloons and lights. Though several of the shows they have staged since taking over the 107 space last June have been rather traditional, at least in the media presented — paintings and sculpture — their last show, featuring Austin performance artist Katelina [sic] Hernandez singing lullabies while wrapped in a pillow-filled dress that cascaded to offer comfort to nestled visitors, was exceptional."

Full text of the article can be found here.