Self Portrait as Boy in Flight by Julie Heffernan
WTR: Describe your process for painting; where do you get your ideas? How do you start? Do you complete several studies before actually putting paint on the final canvas? How long does a typical painting take you to finish? Do you paint with show themes in mind, or do you just paint and then assemble the work for shows?
JH: I start a painting with a faint image in mind and make a transparent wash. I don’t do preliminary drawings, but I do wait for an image to well up before I start working. I move
things around in the painting and make a thousand changes until patterns and shapes emerge that interest me and say something about the subject matter. It’s only then that I think about finish.
My work came into its own after I had been painting for a number of years –maybe I had had enough of those accidents that teach us so much. I was on a Fullbright in West Berlin and painting all day every day, working my way madly through a multitude of ideas and painting problems. I was working in a sardonic Neo-Expressionist mode, making paintings about the fecklessness of humankind, and doing a lot of them. For some reason, one night, after I’d painted all daylong and, exhausted, had gone to lie down for a bit I began to notice, suddenly, a stream of imagery welling up in my mind’s eye. These pictures appeared to me like film stills and each was fascinating, like somebody else’s movie in my mind; not daydreams or memories or anything familiar like that. I wanted to look more closely at those images and know them better: the best way to do that seemed to be by painting them. I taught myself a different way of painting in order to make these pictures as clear on the outside as they were to me on the inside. If there were such a thing as a core of creativity within me, this image-streaming seemed to point the way, so I threw out that entire sardonic body of work I’d been making, which now seemed superficial to me.
Over time I continue to use that method of conjuring to figure out problems in my work. The process functions in a way akin to what happens in an epiphany. You identify a problem and you seek an answer to it; you get frustrated and, with a sense of despair, give up and go take a bath, or a nap or a walk—something that relaxes you. Here’s where interesting things start to happen. In a theta wave state, the alert but relaxed brain tells the pre-frontal cortex to go into action and search the entire brain for a solution to the problem. When the answer is found gamma particles line up, as if incandescent, and we have an answer. I wake up with a newly configured image in mind that is some interesting combination of those half-formed ideas I’d been flirting with before, now reformed by the subconscious into something much more germane and complex in meaning.
Recently my concerns about the environment have become the subject of my work, imagining what a hotter world might look like, how we might adapt, where and how we might live. But the deeper content of the work is never clear to me until I’m inside the painting, where it will then show me what I really care about.
WTR: Can artists truly make anything original? How?
JH: Is a dream original? Yes and no. There’s the ‘new’ to each individual, but that’s always relative. What’s original is the new combination of things aligned with a fresh perspective that allows me to see things I’ve known in a way I hadn’t before. Spilled paint wasn’t new to Pollock – he just noticed how beautiful the drips on his studio floor were (as most artists do) and took them seriously. I don’t worry about originality – I don’t think any serious artist does. It cannot be the first thing on your mind when you go into the studio, or you wouldn’t be able to work; and if it’s the last thing you think about when you leave the studio you
probably weren’t working hard enough. I think most of us just want to notice more, make things that surprise us, that we can get pulled into, like a gambit or a hike through unknown territory. It has to feel new and urgent, but original? – I don’t think it’s up to artists to worry about that.