Briefly describe the work you do.
My work is composed of psychologically and/or emotionally charged paintings of a female figure in different spaces. I love painting the figure, and painting myself felt different than painting other people. It is much more personal and introspective. I deliberately don’t paint my face so it is less about making a self-portrait and more about expressing a feeling using my own body. This is why I use myself as the model in my personal narratives.
At what point I your life did you want to become an artist?
When I was a child I was always drawing everywhere for hours. When I grew up I thought I would do commercial art and become a graphic designer. Two years into working as a graphic designer I felt depressed and unfulfilled, so I took a few night and Saturday art classes at the city college. I realized how much I missed and loved making paintings and drawings. I knew I would regret it if I did not try to be an artist. If I failed at least I knew I tried rather than not at all. So I quit my job after getting into art school, moved to a new city and have never looked back.
Tell us a little about your background and how that influences you as an artist.
I was an English Literature major in college and have always loved stories. As I make paintings I’m always thinking about the life of the figure in the painting. As I work I imagine what were they doing right before the captured moment and what will happen after. I’m always using myself as the subject matter. It’s always in the back of my mind because it’s not something I can get away from, as a female and a Chinese-American. It’s part of my identity, which is why I paint myself over and over, coming to terms with who I am in this society—whether it’s as a painter, an observer or a culture maker.
What types of conceptual concerns are present in your work? How do those relate to the specific process(es) or media you use?
Most of my work is comprised of oil paintings and drawings that address the quiet, the silence, the intimacy and the immensity of a single point in time. I capture a fleeting moment with my camera and further pause and extend that moment in time by painting it. The use of painting as a medium to capture this pause is particularly appropriate in that the process can be slow, methodical and oftentimes labor intensive. I’m always drawn to the most ambiguous moments from cinema, photography and life; instances that make you think twice about what you are seeing. There is a quiet simplicity at first glance, and yet a second look beneath the image’s exterior reveals much more depth and possibility. It is this mysterious and elusive quality that I seek to capture in my work. A majority of the paintings from this series is set in the domestic space, which becomes the backdrop for psychological drama. I explore and reenact my anxieties, fears and desires within this space.
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?
Sometimes just getting to the studio and being there is just as important as making the work. If I don’t get to my studio or work on my art enough I feel discontented. I’m often working outside of the studio, doing research on my computer, taking photos, thinking and reading. All of these activities feed into my work, even if I am not physically in my studio. I am constantly thinking about my work.
What artists living or non-living influence your work?
I am influenced by the painters Johannes Vermeer, Vilhelm Hammershoi, and Edward Hopper. Photographers who have affected me are Cindy Sherman, Jeff Wall and Thomas Struth. I am also very stimulated and moved by cinema and directors such as Sofia Coppola, David Lynch and Wong Kar-Wai.
When you are not making art what types of activities and interests do you engage in?
I love to read fiction books, watch movies and television. I also love travel, walking and taking pictures of things I see, as well as eating and trying new restaurants.
Helena Hsieh was born in Long Beach, California. Hsieh earned her BA in English Literature from the University of California, Los Angeles, BFA in Painting from the San Francisco Art Institute and MFA from the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston/Tufts University. She was chosen by SMFA to be their student speaker at the 2012 commencement. Hsieh has received a number of awards and recognition including being selected as one of 30 artists in the “30 Under 30” Exhibition at the Arsenal Center for the Arts, Boston Young Contemporaries, and receiving a Montague International Travel Grant to Paris and Berlin as well as a post-graduate teaching fellowship at SMFA. She has exhibited nationally and her work has been featured in Art Business News, Studio Visit Magazine and New American Paintings. She currently lives and works in Boston, MA.
All images copyright of the artist and used with their permission.