It took 5 years to happen, but on a Thursday morning in March, I met Heather Garland for the first time at Café Grumpy in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. Heather and I both attended Pratt for our MFAs, but our time there did not overlap. She graduated in 2010 and I entered in the fall of that year. While at Pratt, people repeatedly asked me if I knew her and her work. They said that they thought we would like each other and have a lot to talk about. I think if one person says it, it is something to think about but if multiple people say it, it can’t be ignored.
It is always strange meeting someone for the first time, especially if you have wanted to meet them for a while. I have had things stored up for five years that I wanted to say to Heather about my observations on her work from looking at it online. And we have been corresponding online through Facebook since November. But feeling like you know someone and actually knowing them are two different things. The awkwardness of having so much to say but not knowing where to begin is where we started.
I came in to find her drinking coffee and reading a book—waiting for me as I was running a few minutes late. She was dressed in vibrant shades of blue and green and she seemed a little nervous, but excited. She started off interviewing me, in a way, asking me questions about living in two cities, my apartment in NY, the recent ending of my relationship and the changes going on in my life right now. She talked a little bit about all the changes going on in her life right now too, including her recent engagement and the new changes happening in her work. Her way of conversing is easy, observant and kind and I get the impression that she is an excellent listener. I feel like we are meeting at a point where we are both on the verge of big changes and there are a lot of possibilities opening up before us.
Then we headed off towards her studio, which is a 5-minute walk from the café. Heather’s studio is in a large building in Greenpoint, Brooklyn and she has been in the same studio since 2005, which I find pretty inspiring. To occupy a space and work within it for 10 years is to really claim and know that space in a way that I can’t say I have ever known a studio before. She admits to me that it is pretty funny to her that her studio has stayed in one place, when she has moved her apartment so many times. The room is divided into two studios. The first studio belongs to Heather’s studio mate and Heather has the space further in with the window. The space has wonderful light with four large windows and high ceilings. There are shades in the window to soften the light and a large houseplant is happily living there. The studio feels both comfortably messy and energetically fresh. There is a large palette table in the center of the room crowded with paint, brushes, mugs, and all manner of painter’s tools and a smaller table beside it with drawings and books on it. Between the windows is a setup piled with a stereo, CDs, books and objects. There are lots of little piles on the floor of fabric and cardboard nestled up against the walls.
I am so excited to see the work for the first time in person. There is a lot of work in the space and I take a few moments to take it all in while Heather observes me observing her space. There are three bodies of work going on simultaneously. There are two large painterly oils of abstracted floral patterns on the right wall. And a large oil of an obscured figure on the left wall. On the right wall near the figure painting, is a grouping of six large graphic paintings with drawn repetitive heart patterns with cutout shapes overlaid in black paint. And then clustered on both walls are smaller paintings, drawings and collages that to me seem to be curated collections.
We start off talking about the six large graphic paintings. I had seen images of them on Facebook from her Open Studio and they feel the most in progress—the most of the moment of all the work in the room. I ask her about them and she says that the heart patterns are done in prismacolor and they began as drawings that she has been making in her sketchbooks for a while. The repetitive gesture of drawing heart shapes hark back to middle school notebooks and secret diaries and is there is something inherently pure and sweet about the mark making. Some of the heart patterns are obscured with a blending pencil and some are left as they are drawn. She then overlays each piece with a graphic black cutout shape. I ask her how it feels to paint over a time consuming repetitive gesture to hide all the work underneath and if it is hard to do emotionally. And she says that there is something brutal about it and that is why she is drawn to it. She also tells me that the paintings seem simpler and graphic than her other work but the cutout images are abstracted images taken from her sketchbooks, or historical paintings and the heart patterns are numerical color codes related to birthdates and other dates of origin. She says she is a little worried that these new works seem so different from her other bodies of work. But to me, all of the bodies of work share an interest in pattern/repetitive gesture, collection of meaningful materials/emotional content, a desire to obscure/veil and a blending of sweetness with something wild/brutal. These paintings are more clean and graphic than the juicy paintings and the raw quality of the collages, but the emotional impulse is the same.
The next question I ask her is about the smaller pieces that are in groupings around the room. I want to know how she curates these groupings and how she knows when something is a standalone piece or part of an installation. She tells me that her work is mainly intuitive and diaristic and it is all related to memories and feelings. She says that she began as an oil painter and up until midway through Pratt; she was painting still life paintings. She would create these tableaus in her studio comprised of found strange objects and paint them repeatedly. But as she moved through the work, she had a desire to bring in found materials. She shows me a piece that is hanging in the window and says that the scrap of lace on it is from a dress she wore in a play in middle school. Smaller works that look like stretched found fabric; she reveals to me contain oil paintings veiled under the translucent floral fabric. She says that the work tells her what it needs and she responds. In making the work, and grouping it, she feels what the work wants and she follows its desire. It is really refreshing to me to hear her say it and that is the impression that I have been getting from the work—that she isn’t forcing it, she is letting it guide her.
I ask Heather if she always wanted to be an artist and she says yes. She tells me about her idyllic childhood in Michigan and that there was a wild patch of woods behind her family home. She grew up in Highland, Michigan with a mother who did various things before ending up with the USPS and a father worked for General Motors. She was always making things and she especially loved making puppets and had a fascination with Jim Henson and the Muppets. When she was 13 years old, her family moved to Ft. Wayne, Indiana. She attended the University of Indiana in Bloomington for her undergraduate degree in Art. The first artist that she remembers meeting was her aunt by marriage. And she remembers going over to her house and seeing her work on the walls and thinking, “What is that?” Her aunt and uncle split up, so the influence of the aunt was only for a brief time but something that stuck with her. I ask her what was the first art that really struck her and made her realize she wanted to be an artist and she tells me a story about visiting Chicago and going to the Art Institute and encountering Joseph Cornell’s work in the permanent collection. It makes sense, I can see the connection to her work and I understand why it moved her as I also feel his work is magical.
I ask her about her relationship with New York City and she tells me that recently she was speaking with a childhood friend and she was reminded that when she was young, she declared that she was either going to live in Chicago, New York or California. Heather laughs about how well she knew herself even as a child, but had forgotten until her friend’s reminder. She says she loves New York, and her loving New York makes sense to me. I tell her I have a weird relationship with New York and we talk about that for a while. New York, this city we both know in different ways.
In preparation for our interview, I asked Heather if there was anything she could suggest for me to read, watch, look at to understand her work more clearly. She said she had just finished Edgewise: A Picture of Cookie Mueller by Chloe Griffin and she really enjoyed it. Sometimes we don’t know why something really resonates with us or at least we can’t put it into words but that book is magical and reading it made me understand Heather’s work in a much deeper way. There is something so sweet, pure and naïve about Cookie Mueller as evidenced through the interviews with her friends, lovers and fellow actors. But there is also something wild, gritty and raw about her and the way she lived her life. I see the same duality in Heather’s work and from my limited perspective, in Heather herself. Heather and I talk about the book in our visit and we both agree that it is an amazing portrait of Cookie. Heather says that Cookie reminds her of her friend Margaret Coleman, who she was in an art collective with called Non Solo. The collective also included the artists, William Hempel, Anna Marie Shogren, Yasamin Keshtkar and Stephen Eakin, Heather’s fiancée. There is a passage in the book when Sharon, one of Cookie’s lovers, describes seeing Cookie for the first time. I find the description a perfect representation of Cookie and the feeling that I have surrounding the combination of sweetness and wildness. Cookie is riding her bike through Provincetown with a little basket attached and her son and dog inside. She has wild hair with bits of refuse in it and she is slowly pedaling along. Reading this book did give me a clearer understand of Heather’s work, maybe in more ways than I can fully articulate.
We move to the other side of the room to sit and she points up to the painting of the obscured figure on the right wall. I mention that I noticed she recently made it her Facebook picture. She says that she made that painting at Pratt and recently she pulled it out because she felt it was important to look at it. That there was something about the way it was painted that she wanted to tap into again. Then she says she wants to show me something. And she turns around a large painting that was facing the wall. It is a really vibrant painting with stripes in the background and a portrait of an angry obscured Godzilla in the center. It is so different than all the other work in her studio. It feels all wild, all brutal, all raw with none of the sweet nostalgic emotions to balance it. I have seen images of it before on her old website and there is something really powerful about it in person. I understand why she has it facing the wall immediately. She explains that she made it at Pratt, and many people were really excited about it and thought it was the best painting she had ever made. I understand what it is like to be literally haunted by something you have made in the past and I know that is what she is experiencing with this painting. There is no denying its magnetism, but it is obvious that this painting represents one path, and she has chosen another. She turns the painting back against the wall and the energy of the space returns to how it was before and both of us relax a little bit. I ask her what the Godzilla represents in her work. He is in the painting and a figure of him is balanced on the shelf in the window. I also remember seeing him in the pictures of her recent installation at Trestle Projects in Gowanus, Brooklyn. She says that she has used him for a while as a symbol of intense emotions and she realized recently, that she doesn’t feel the desire to paint or draw him and that is because she is actually really happy right now, and she laughs.
I then ask her about the show at Trestle Projects and how she created the installation that she showed there. She tells me that curators Will Hutnick and Polly Shindler invited her to make an installation in the space. Heather says she brought way more stuff from her studio than she needed, but she wanted to make sure she brought enough to fill the space. There were a few specific pieces she knew she wanted in the space—a white fur rug, a small painting veiled with a piece of fabric, and one of her cut-out pieces with fringe on it. But the rest of the installation developed organically in the moment. She wanted to create a furry cave of sorts in the gallery for viewers to discover small moments of the installation and she said she got great feedback about the installation and people really enjoyed it at the opening.
I wonder if the desire to make an installation is somehow related to her desire to curate—a longing to bring works together and create a larger conversation—and I ask her about the two shows she has curated in the past. In the spring of 2013, she co-curated a show with Polina Barskaya and Alexander Kaluzhsky titled 25 Artists. The show was in at Suite 217 (the first incarnation of Honey Ramka) and featured the work of 25 artists. It was a big undertaking to figure out where to put all the work, but Heather really enjoyed the process. She also curated Nike Head in the fall of 2013 at Cuchifritos Gallery in Essex Street Market. That show was a solo show of work by Cristina de Miguel. She says that show was easier in a lot of ways—larger work, smaller space, one artist. I ask her about her time at Pratt and she tells me that she worked primarily with Michael Brennan, Cyrilla Mozenter and Linda Francis. She said at her last Open Studios in Greenpoint, Michael Brennan brought one of his classes by her space and it was great. She says that Linda Francis is gifted with an amazing eye for work. We bond over a mutual admiration for Cyrilla as a person, professor and artist. Heather was moved by how thoughtful Cyrilla was—how she would bring in a book for Heather specifically to see and how as one of her students you had the feeling that Cyrilla was always thinking about you. She tells me that Cyrilla asked her if she was literary, if she liked to read—and when Heather said, “yes,” Cyrilla replied, “I thought so.” Heather does give off the impression that she likes to read. She is very thoughtful with her words and also a natural storyteller. Throughout the course of my interview, she has responded to many of the questions with stories, which I find endearing.
I ask her about her time since Pratt and how she has navigated her career as an artist. She laments the fact that she has not done more to promote herself and her work. She says that she did not feel prepared and that she wished there had been more emphasis on professional practices when she was in school. I find it hard to believe that she is so hard on herself. What about the shows you curated, the shows you have been in, I ask. She says that she finds it easy to promote other people’s work. She can talk forever about it. But she never thinks to do the same for her own work. She tells me a story about when her mom was visiting New York and they were walking around looking at galleries. Heather started a conversation with someone working in a gallery about her ex-boyfriend’s work. Later, when they left the gallery her mom asked her why she had not mentioned her own work and she said she didn’t think of it. I say that it is hard to ask for what we want and that is something I struggle with as well. We don’t want to be seen as pushy or demanding, it is about balance. Heather says she has a hard time asking for what she wants since childhood, she was so used to being told, “No.” And she laughs.
During our talk, we discover that we were both born the same year, 1980. When she learns that, she asks me if she can show me something. She pulls out a book that she made when she was a child and I tenderly hold it in my hands. It is maybe only 10 pages long and bound by hand with her crayon drawings and a typewriter typed story about her childhood dog. She turns the page to a drawing of a kitchen scene and there the background of the drawing is covered in the repeating pattern of tiny hearts. She tells me that was her childhood kitchen and the wallpaper was really tiny red hearts. I am touched by the intimacy of this book and her vulnerability in showing it to me. Heather’s work simultaneously echoes the past while also touching on her present moment. That process happens through the objects, patterns, memories and emotions she collects. The book gives me chills—as if I am in the room with both Heather the child and Heather the artist and the same interests and observations are echoing around both of them. It is an amazing feeling.
Heather's website http://heatherelizabethgarland.blogspot.com/