Briefly describe the work that you do.
I have several distinct bodies of work, but I think of them all as dimensional drawing. In my current body of work I use thin layers of slate or quartzite as the substrate, much like working on panel, except that the surface of the stone has texture and topography. In the previous body of work, I used delicate (2mm) glass rods, which I acid-etched and then hand-stitched to sheer stainless steel mesh. The rods became sketch lines on the surface of the mesh, but also created a shadow drawing (or multiple drawings, depending on the lighting) on the wall. I made layered works in the same technique that were more mysterious, as each layer of mesh partially obscured the layer underneath it. I’m now starting to work on translucent papers, like vellum and gampi, that will enable me to work in layers, and possibly with shadow. A common thread in all these bodies of work is that your experience of the piece depends on where you’re standing. They invite movement.
At what point in your life did you decide to become an artist?
I would say it’s more a question of at what point did I give myself permission to think of myself as an artist. I have no formal training in art (I have two degrees in English, which I guess makes me an “outsider” artist) so it wasn’t until I started exhibiting alongside artists with MFAs that I began to feel comfortable applying the term to myself. But I guess I have always thought of myself as a “thing-maker” – I started weaving at fourteen, and even before that had done pottery, batik, silversmithing, leatherwork, and stained glass. I was proud to call myself an artisan for all the years I worked professionally as a weaver.
Tell us a little about your background and how that influences you as an artist.
My background in textiles means that I am used to working within, and pushing against, constraints. Unless you are a tapestry weaver, working on a loom means that your structure is always based on a grid. Coming from that world, it’s not surprising that I was drawn to geometric abstraction. But when you do what’s called “loom-controlled weaving,” your work is largely determined in the design stage. The execution contains some additional choices, but not many. I needed to be making work that required more frequent decision-making, the constant feedback loop of eye, hand, and brain. I still value the creative challenge of constraints, and each series I make has its own set of rules, but within those rules each piece is an improvisation, never sketched in advance.
What types of conceptual concerns are present in your work? How do those relate to the specific process(es) or media you use?
I am fascinated by everything we are learning about the way the brain processes visual information. We are hardwired to seek patterns, but our brains get bored when the pattern is too obvious. Patterns that are irregular or elusive keep our synapses firing, make us feel more alive. I like to make work that challenges the edge of perception, using close tones, shadow, layering, or reflection to keep the eye and brain moving. I use earth pigments that are naturally reflective – ground metals, hematite, silver graphite, mica – so that different layers of the work catch the light at different angles. The geometric structures I’ve been exploring come from foams, specifically from those moments in the life of a foam when they hover between perfect spheres and complex polygons – an exciting hybrid of order and chaos that make my synapses buzz.
We once heard Chuck Close say he did not believe in being inspired, rather in working hard everyday. What motivates you in your studio practice?
One of my favorite quotations comes from the artist Ruth Asawa, who said something very similar: “Sculpture is like farming. If you just keep at it, you can get quite a lot done.” I love the practicality of that attitude. Farmers can’t control the weather, and we can’t control the vagaries of the art world, but we sure as hell can keep at it and get quite a lot done.
What artists living or non-living influence your work?
Non-living, I’d have to say Paul Klee; Kazimir Malevich; Fred Sandback; Gego and many of her fellow Latin American geometric abstract artists. There isn’t room to list all the living artists I admire. Not to get too geeky, but I keep a spreadsheet of artists I’m following, with a few keywords about each, and I’m up to nearly 700 names. I love discovering new work and sharing my discoveries. Influencing is a different question. When you’re younger it’s easy to be overwhelmed by how much good work is out there. You see great work and wish you had made it. You go back to your studio and try to make work in that vein. Now that I’m older I like to think of art as a huge community garden – we’re each working our own patch, and sometimes we end up growing the same things. And yes, sometimes your beans will be tastier than mine. But I’m happy to visit your patch and then return to mine. I’m content with what I’m growing. I like any work that’s so good it inspires me to go home and make better work – not to make that work, but to work harder on my own.
When you are not making art what types of activities and interests do you engage in?
I’ve been pretty active in political work, organizing volunteers for local and national campaigns, and also for art-related activities in the public schools. Public-school kids are so hungry for art, which keeps getting cut back so that more time can go to test prep. A few years ago, working with a great organization called Haiti Cultural Exchange, I helped organize a series of 40 arts and arts-therapy workshops for kids in the Haitian community who had been traumatized by the 2010 earthquake. We also held an art-supply drive for their school; completely renovated their art/music/drama room; and painted an outdoor mural at the school, designed by the kids. I’ve just started a project to collect castoff art supplies from the private schools in New York City (who get rid of everything at the end of each school year and buy new each fall) and recombine these supplies to make fresh kits for public-school art teachers.
Jeanne Heifetz’s recent and upcoming solo exhibitions include the Durham Arts Council (Durham, NC), the Earlville Opera House (Earlville, NY), Lane Community College (Eugene, OR), the University of Connecticut (Avery Point, CT), and the AVA Gallery (Lebanon, NH). Selected group shows include “Shifting Ecologies,” at The Painting Center (New York, NY); “The Last Brucennial” (New York, NY); “Cell Mates,” curated by Jeanne Brasile and Lisbeth Murray (Seton Hall University, NJ); and “Recent Acquisitions,” Fresh Paint Gallery (Los Angeles, CA). She is included in the Drawing Center’s online curated registry and is the founder and editor of the Textile Study Group of NY’s blog, where she interviews artists about their practice. Heifetz is also the author of When Blue Meant Yellow: How Colors Got Their Names. She holds degrees from Harvard University and New York University. Her residence and studio are in Brooklyn, New York.
All images copyright of the artist and used with their permission.