In advance of this weekend's Outsider Art Fair in New York City, I spoke with Andrea Joyce Heimer about her painting practice, her writing practice, and the beauty in people laughing at her work. Heimer is a self-taught painter who grew up in Montana and now lives and works in Washington state.
Your paintings contain tremendous darkness while remaining playful and continuing to make viewers smile. I'm curious about the interplay between innocence and darkness in your work.
Humor and play have long been important to me. Even as someone with depressive tendencies I still have quite a playful personality that inevitably comes out in my work at a subconscious level. However the purposefully humorous aspects of my work are placed there with specific intention. I feel my paintings are successful when they elicit a physical bodily response from the viewer, whether it be a shudder, a raising of the eyebrows, or - my favorite - a surprised laugh. I think the humor my viewers are responding to is not so much a haha-funny-type joke, but the particular thrill of recognizing something embarrassing or hidden in someone else that they harbor within themselves. To me, this is a beautiful interaction. I feel I have done my job well if my work reminds the viewer they are not alone.
As a self-taught artist, do you draw inspiration from other artists (visual or otherwise)?
An ebb and flow of artistic inspiration definitely occurs. Some standbys I am continually humbled by are Henry Darger, Edward Hopper, Balthus, Picasso, the list goes on. I am also deeply inspired by certain compositional elements of medieval paintings as well as the narrative qualities of ancient Greek, Roman, and Egyptian antiquities.
The titles of your paintings are unique in many ways. They tend to be very long, sometimes consisting of multiple sentences. They also tend towards the deeply honest and are spoken quite matter-of-factly. How is writing part of your practice? Do you have a writing practice outside of your art practice?
Writing has always been a part of my creative process. At my core I am both an organizer of information and a storyteller, and in many ways I feel there is nothing more evocative than the written word. In fact, I had been a freelance writer for several years before seriously committing myself to painting. It came naturally for me to define my paintings in a way that utilized a comfortable storytelling skill like writing to complement the visual narratives I was just beginning to develop. I have also written several pieces of fiction which stand apart from my art practice. My last piece of writing, titled "Red," is a reworking of a section of the classic "Little Red Riding Hood" tale and was recently adapted into a short film starring Zosia Mamet.
I Have Not Been Comfortable In My Skin Perhaps Ever, Not Now And Certainly Not Back Then. 18x24", acrylic and pencil on wood, 2014
Tell me about the themes of domesticity in your work.
Domesticity is a tricky word. By definition it refers to home or family life which is such a vast and subjective index. The domestic elements I use in my work - familial gatherings, a living room, ugly curtains - tend to function almost as stage props for the darker psychological narratives to unfold around/between/amongst.
Many of your paintings feature numerous patterns composed of small intricate drawings, almost like textile prints. What led you to develop this technique?
My earliest art-making memories center around painting ceramic figures with my mother and grandmother. There was nothing particularly artful about the pre-made ceramic pieces we painted and fired in my grandmother's kiln, but there was a soothing effect to the entire process of choosing the figure, sanding the seams down, choosing the paint, etc. We used inexpensive acrylic paint from the craft store which is the identical paint I still use today. Collectively our favorite pieces to paint were figures called Softies. Softies were smallish ceramic figures, usually animals, with creases and seams molded into their surfaces to resemble fabric. The point was to paint them in such a way that they appeared to be quilted, which meant loads of time hunched over their ceramic flanks with tiny brushes hammering out miniature flower patterns. This quiet meditative practice worked its way into my being and tends to come out in the wallpaper and fabric of my paintings. The repetitive practice of making these small marks over and over still soothes me in a way unrivaled by much else.
In what ways do you blend fantasy and mythology into scenes that are rooted in the recognizable human realm?
As I mentioned earlier I am a storyteller to my core, and in painting we have this agreed upon space - usually a rectangle or something similar - where the artist can tell their story. I love the challenges this contractual rectangle represents but the limitations of this space are real. Because of these limitations narrative painting becomes an exercise in being succinct. Visual shorthand becomes very valuable. Human/animal hybrids, natural elements in disarray, even the patterning in the wallpaper is an opportunity to present the viewer with a complex map of symbols with which to decipher the story.
You have said that your art practice acts as a kind of therapy. How do you find comfort or relief through your work?
I think on some level the process of making something is therapeutic to any artist - we all find relief from it in our own ways. The best way I can describe it, and I've said it before but it continues to ring true, is that painting is a bodily function for me. It is an organic process involving build ups, gathering, sorting, longing, sifting, organizing, output, and so on. It is a process that feels at once ancient and engrained, and absolutely bursting with excitement and mystery. I can think of nothing more beautiful than that.
To see more of Heimer's work, visit www.andrea-joyce.com and Instagram andreaheimer. Her work will be with the Lindsay Gallery at this weekend's Outsider Art Fair. Additional upcoming shows include: Class Acts, February 27 - March 27 at Subliminal Projects in Los Angeles, Inside Out, March 4 - April 24 at Castlefield Gallery in Manchester, UK, and Unreleased Backgrounds, March 12 - April 1 at Athen B. Gallery in Oakland.