I don’t like to admit when I’m intimidated. It seems unnecessary to show that type of weakness, to evaporate any sliver of feigned confidence I may be portraying. There are internalized rules that we each hold ourselves accountable to, certain routes we explore to make us stronger, smarter… more safe. It is the individuals that step beyond these constraints that I applaud, and equally admire. The people who adhere themselves to a path of growth, that embrace struggle to enlighten their perspective in some reaching way. The people who step away from their own shadow, if only in an effort to teach someone else about the light.
Liz Bashore Heeren intimidates me, and for good reason. She is poised, polite, and professional. Heeren is an artist, a professor, a gallery director, a mother… Each role presumably as demanding, and rewarding, as the next. Growing up in an artistic family, Hereen was not a stranger to the role of an artist, and the realities of pursuing your dreams in a thoughtful and practical way. Heeren continues to use her long love of science to pursue that beautifully whimsical line between human and synthetic, the marriage of elemental juxtaposition. Her take on this perspective reminds me to give pause, investigate my world in the immediate sense, and every now and then, step into the light. ~Amy
What is the path that has led you to where you are today?
The wall between me and my mother’s studio is kind of thin, so I’ll give you the version that is mother-proofed. (Laughing) It’s definitely true that I came into art through exposure. I grew up with two parents who were extremely gifted, both in visual [arts], and my dad in music, as well. Although they split up, they both remarried to musicians, so art is just something I’ve been around my whole life. As an instructor, there’s a lot of students who come into Drawing I and say, “I can’t even draw a stick figure!” They have a lot of anxiety about it. To me, there’s nothing mystical or even really that special about being an artist, because it was so ordinary to be making things in our household. And the other thing is that I recognize that just having stuff to make things allowed me to develop differently than other people–just access to the materials. So, I haven’t put the artist on the pedestal, because it’s a normal thing that I’ve seen in my life. Plus, I’ve encountered all the normal stresses, like not knowing if we’re going to be able to make our house payment. When you’re young and wondering, what’s the status of our financial life right now? Are we making it? Are we not? I grew up with a lot of creativity, access to materials, and a lot of discussion about art with a very realistic idea about what it meant to be an artist.
When I went to school, I actually really loved science. I really loved biology. I was on the science quiz bowl team. I had a lot of interests. I was in a lot of sports, so I wasn’t your typical art kid. Although we were unusual people, I think, in our small Catholic school in Aberdeen. We were a more unusual family in the way we thought and what we did for hobbies. I didn’t take a single art class in high school; we didn’t have a very well-funded program. When I was going to be a senior, I took a college class to fulfill my art credit in high school and fell in love with it. It was challenging, it was academic and it was not crafty. I got a taste for what it would be like to do that in college–dangerous. But, I was really determined to go into biology, and I was pre-med when I went to school. So I guess I kind of waited for the right opportunity to take an art class. I went to St. Olaf College, and when the opportunity presented itself during an interim, I fell in love with the art department.
I knew I still wanted to study biology, but it didn’t take me long to realize I had nothing in common with the other pre-med people. I didn’t have that competitive spirit that they did. I had a keen interest in science. I love genetics. I loved physiology and I loved anatomy. I loved every class, but eventually I loved my art classes more. I decided to double major in biology and art, which was tricky. It always meant I was taking an overload of classes every semester, and I could really only put 100% effort into a few of them, so I just did my best. I did well, but I was trying to fulfill two big things, and it was kind of a lofty ideal. It was really fun, but it was also a lot of hard work.
When I was done, I applied for a job at the University of Minnesota. I was looking for all these ways to bring science and art together–where’s the synthesis, the nexus, of art and science? I worked for the state archaeological research center, and they let me do some really fun artistic things, like scientific photography and illustration and stuff like that. The reality was that I was an intern and lot of times I was digging big holes. It was physical; I loved that, but I knew it wasn’t right for me. Eventually I went to the University of Arizona and started an M.A. in Art Theory and Art Education and finished that. While I was there I applied for a Rotary International Ambassadorial Scholarship. Somehow I got it, mostly because all the older men in Rotary were from the Midwest and loved the fact that I went to St. Olaf. I charmed them with my Norwegian roots, and they sent me to New Zealand, which was the country I wanted to study in.
When I was there, I made some critical decisions, because I was trying to determine, do I go for a PhD in Art Theory, Art Education or do I focus in on studio? I had already decided well before going to the University of Arizona that I wanted to be a professor. I didn’t know quite how hard that was going to be, but it was just in my head. Getting a job in higher education is really difficult. So I went to New Zealand; I loved it there. I became more interested in painting, but I was really working closely with my peers and interviewing them a lot, so I learned a lot about their way of processing curriculum. During all of this, I realized, I’m painting and I’m getting better at painting. But I’m also learning how to be a better educator. I had the background to do it, mostly because some of my educators going into college and grad school were people I really admired. Some of them were just so good at expressing thought and theory; some of them were just so bad. I wanted to be skilled at that. I knew if I was going to teach, and art is a complicated language, I wanted to be really good at it. That’s why I went to study Art Education. I wanted to know everything theoretical. I wanted to be able to provide infrastructure to curriculum. When I was in New Zealand, that was when I realized that the more I went in that direction, the further I was getting from making [art]. I was getting closer to theory, which is teaching future teachers how to teach art. It becomes two-or-three steps removed from actually making; if you have an MFA, or terminal degree in studio, you’re working directly with the process of making, instead of talking about making or how to discuss making.
All of that was critical for me to be comfortably situated in education, and ultimately I came back to the U.S. and started adjuncting for SDSU. I knew I needed to get my MFA. Certain things kept me in the area–my family. I had ideas that I wanted to go to a school in the east that I really was interested in, but a lot of complicated things occurred, and I decided I was going to stick around my family. I went to USD, met a lot of really great people there. I solidified my interest in South Dakota at that time, which I think you have to move around a bit before you get that South Dakota pride back in you. I found that, and a lot of that was also informed by Ted [Heeren], and really connecting with someone who brought new perspectives and new sense of creativity into my life. From there, it’s just been finishing that degree while I was adjunct teaching and then getting a full-time position at SDSU as it became available. Now I basically head up foundation courses at the University Center, which houses a degree through SDSU in graphic design. I teach a lot of future graphic designers.
What classes are you teaching?
I teach Drawing I, or technical drawing; Drawing II, which is conceptual; Design I; and Color Theory. Color Theory is one of my favorites. So is Drawing II. I’ve taught some specialized classes in mixed media painting approaches; I’m almost always teaching a couple of sections of Art Appreciation. Which, at first I thought, I don’t want to teach this. It’s like an art history class. But I’ve really grown to love it. I really feel like, maybe I’m changing people a little bit in that class. I’ll teach art education classes up at SDSU every once in a while. I’m kind of the fill-in person for that at the moment, but it becomes longer term.
Do you have a routine or a schedule for creating?
You see there’s a gallery out there; I have to operate that. Leading up to a show, there’s a lot of coordination–hanging up, tearing down and stuff like that. What ends up happening a lot when I come here is that I’m managing those projects, and although I want to get to my studio, there’s usually five or six things that need to happen before doing that. Actually carving out time to create has become something financial. In order to justify being in here, which means I’m not with my son and I’m paying someone to watch him, it sometimes means I have to have something where I can justify being in here–like commissioned works. I did some stuff for Raven [Industries] this summer. They [commissions] allow me to work, get some creative juices flowing, but also be able to afford the time that I’m not there with my kid.
In the house, there’s just not much of a chance to make things, so I’m trying to find creative projects. Chalkboards in our house end up being something really fun for me to do, painting with my son, stuff like that. Actually getting to new works takes a lot of time and effort, and it’s something my husband and I have determined we need to get better at. I’ve got so many irons in the fire that the first thing to go is the time where I’m making stuff. So I’m speaking very realistically as someone who’s a mom with a young kid and who’s an artist and has a full-time job. It ends up being such a treat when I get to work in the studio, but more rare than I thought it would be. It’s a juggling act. I anticipate when my son goes to school I’ll have more windows of opportunity, but I’m also dreading when my son goes to school. There’s a lot of joy just being home with your kid. But an artist is used to having that free time to create, and that is hardly available these days, but I’m optimistic.
Do you feel like your work has changed since you had your son?
I think so. I think about all sorts of things through his perspective. Very simple things have become more interesting to me, like the moon–not my idea of what the moon is, but his idea. I was already into the space shuttles and astronauts before he came along, but he’s very into outer space, and I see those things in ways that are very fresh. It gives me so many things to think about and process and creatively mill over that I think will manifest when I actually start to create a little more work. It’s not like I’m not creating anything. I actually created a lot this year, but it’s hard for me to get in the studio.
Do you typically work in series for your subjects?
When I was really looking at construction sites, I was very interested in synthetic, brightly colored, very clearly plastic, man-made elements that were situated in natural settings, within the dirt or resting in grass. All of it was a combination to me, how you convey the tube and the conduits, and the bright colors in and around dirt and disorder. There’s something telling in the relationship of where those two things are found, sometimes beautifully combined and sometimes situated unnaturally together. That was something I was exploring, and it was real whimsical, also not easily understood by other people. It was just something I was processing. That’s where the science comes in. My work is always being informed by some level of science or my understanding of the relationship between humans and the natural world. Right now I’m more likely to investigate human and synthetic, and maybe bits of natural, whereas before I was way more on the natural spectrum. Maybe these things are more likely to convey that–finding the way to address the environment that houses this organism, with small human elements being introduced. You know, like a bear in a terrain that is rough and unpredictable with a slight hesitation or tentative quality in what he’s doing. That was way more on the natural realm, whereas now I’m trying to think of things from a human perspective.
I love blocking out information and making it synthetic and graphic. Graphic design is playing a bigger role in how I understand my own art; I tend to be more graphic. Sometimes I’m uncomfortable with how controlled my work is even though I don’t go into it with any idea what’s going to happen. It’s very rectilinear, minimized, with a lot less of the artist’s hand shown in the end. Some of it is clearly still present, but a lot of it is masked out. You’ll always see my work swinging in the pendulum of highly abstracted with fully realized detailed elements or fully realized with minimal abstraction. My work has always been in that zone of analysis, but never concretely on one end of the spectrum or the other.
I’ve had the opportunity over the years to draw a number of figures, sometimes even people I know. Often times the models appear very bored or kind of aloof, and I think that’s natural. A model doesn’t often come off as highly energized or highly emotional. They’re just kind of in their own world of detachment, and that became more interesting than accuracy or their clothing. It’s that kind of biased, in-their-own-world kind of quality that the model takes on, which can almost come across as disdain. I love that. When I found out I had a collection of works like this–they’re quick studies, fifteen, twenty minutes max, I adhered them to boards, coated them in acrylic and began to blank out all the paper information besides the figure. That’s a completely different way of working for me, and it’s really uncomfortable. It’s not like starting blank and working your way up with the image, because you’re starting with the image already in place and then determining how you’re going to move around it. It’s so awkward. It takes me a lot longer. I have a tendency, I think, to treat the figure in a really sacred way. And in this case I can’t do that. I’m trying to find the way to move in and out of this new layer of information I’m putting down. It’s a total reversal of my process, and it’s perplexing. But I like it– a lot. It’s a challenge for me. Resolving it can be difficult, and I don’t want a lot of information there. Determining how much I want to remove from the picture will be somewhat calculated, somewhat by chance. Sometimes I’ll feel like I made a mistake along the way, but that’s part of the process.
Do you ever go back and rework old pieces?
Not really, but old pieces that I love I’ll hang onto, because there were solutions that I found that inform what I’m doing now, still. I’ll still reference them and acknowledge that maybe it’s very cluttered, but it has some really great, spontaneous breaking up of space; some movement in and out of concrete and super unrealistic areas that I found interesting; flattening of spaces that still fascinate me a little bit. There’s still a little bit of romance. And if it’s that important, I’ll keep it around instead of selling it or giving it to my husband. Thankfully, he really likes my art.
Who are some of your favorite artists?
I really love Gerhard Richter, and I will probably always love him. Anybody who can move in and out of abstraction and realism the way he does is pretty fascinating. I like Eric Fischl. I like a lot of local artists. I feel like my heroes aren’t always the art stars of the world, but people who bring newness or conceptual perspective into my life or who process information a lot differently than I do. Sometimes even filmmakers. Who’s not in love with Wes Anderson? He’s such a visual genius. I can watch one of his films and feel like painting afterwards, because he can put a complex set of emotions into something so visually well-developed. I find it super fascinating. But he’s very mainstream. [In Sioux Falls,] I spend a lot of time around painters, and have met some great artists through Fresh Produce. It’s not hard for me to find a lot of inspiration around me. There’s a huge amount of talent in the designers here at Fresh Produce. My friend Altman Studeny gives me something new to think about and challenges me a lot; he’s really bright. I get my mind blown by him regularly. Peter Reichardt and Diana Behl, Cassie Marie Edwards–I could go on. We have a lot of friends who are really talented and surprising me all the time. They’re all so great. I think it [the Sioux Falls arts scene] just continues to grow. There’s a lot of initiative to foster interesting perspectives now. Not necessarily by established galleries, but by new rogue, more entrepreneurial efforts.
Do you have any advice for aspiring artists?
I think you anticipate as a young artist that you’re going to get out of school and start making it as an artist. And I’ve never had that sense that is was going to be that easy. We grew up, not struggling, but with a very real perspective on how hard that was. I always had a plan, and it hasn’t always been me creating art to make a living. It’s always been me finding ways to remain creative, to earn money, to buy the time, to create the art I want to. So I always had a strategy. That’s what I encourage students to do. Be realistic about remaining creative and remaining stimulated. I don’t care if that means working the meat counter at Hy-Vee. If that’s fascinating to you and it will inform your process, that’s what you should do. You should do things that inform the subject matter within your work and allow you to become fluid and well-informed with your subject matter.
As a biology major, I’ve always resourced outside material or projects in order to create. I think there’s something magical about that. I think the mystique about being an artist is just that–you spend ten hours per day in your studio and come out looking like a mad scientist at the end of the day, having created some genius stuff that you’re going to make money off of. It’s hard. It’s hard in South Dakota, but it’s hard everywhere. My advice to young artists is to really seek hard, seek in a very deliberate way the things that will inform and inspire you. That’s as much a part of your process as actually making art. Making art is the second part. Thinking about and processing the world around you is the first part. If you neglect the importance of that and put all your energy into finding a way to just be in your studio the whole time, I think you sell yourself short. There’s a lot more to the process of creating. And I’m just realistic about that stuff. That doesn’t sound like a lot of fun advice for young artist, but it’s real. I think you do need to be practical about it, especially when you come out of school with some debt. That’s a tough time. You have to really think through how to use those dollars you spent on yourself. Not saying we all need to make a lot of money, but you have to know how to exist and have comfort in your life.
This semester, I was being really frank with my students. I said, listen: you can go out to Target and buy a canvas, and it’s going to match your throw and your pillow perfectly. Or you can think about everything we’ve talked about this semester and the creative energy and the conceptual ingenuity that goes into a unique work of art that you connect with, and it will connect with you for your whole life, instead of matching your pillow. I’m really trying to think of ways to convert their way of thinking about those things. I think every artist has the potential to convey those things to the people around them. Maybe we just need to start doing that more.
How could the Sioux Falls arts scene change for the better?
Support from the broader community and acknowledgement of art that is really thoughtful and inspired would be a big deal. I would love to have all of Sioux Falls in an art appreciation class, trying to make them think a little more about that rather than just art as simple matching decor. I also think that artists need to support artists. I think the idea of cooperative spaces and efforts that bring lots of artists together to look at one another’s work and talk about it, shows that expose diversity within a single idea, that’s fun. Community among artists is a big deal. When you see energy in the art space, people get energized by it. That’s wonderful. I think there’s some of that going on right now, which is really fun. I’d love to see more spaces for rent for artists where they can have studios. Downtown is under the ownership of a small number of people who have all the properties. I wish there was a little bit more diversity in how some of those properties are being used and who can use them. I’d love to see more studios downtown.
I do try to support the people who I think are creatively making a go of it and doing inspired work. It’s important to us to support them by acquiring their work, not just because we want to acquire it, but because we are challenged by it and enjoy it visually and want to showcase it. I think the Fresh Produce collection grows as we get to know more artists.
I think of times when we’re addressing the public and people who are strangers to art, but interested, there’s more of a discreet and energized way to discuss work where you don’t dwell on the negative. And that’s something that really bugs me, when people talk about what’s going wrong. Because really it’s not that hard to change things pretty quickly by just addressing people and staying positive and doing fun things and celebrating. That’s the one thing I haven’t said yet. My goal is to really celebrate the authentic voice of people who come from this area, to find it and unearth it. Even if it’s a sign painter from the area that’s super compelling. The joyfulness celebrating these various facets of art is part of what I want everybody to share in.