Conversation with artist Julie Heffernan

In preparation for When the Water Rises: Recent Paintings by Julie Heffernan, LSU MOA curator Courtney Taylor discussed the work and inspiration for the exhibition with artist Julie Heffernan. Below is an abridged version of one of those conversations.

Courtney Taylor: Is it fair to say that around 2008–2010 that your vision became more expansive? You had been working with those "smack in the middle" self-portraits in interior spaces and then you moved to a larger, more global view.

Julie Heffernan: Absolutely. I think feminism is obviously an important movement in itself, but I think it also a way for a woman to check into the basic relationship between herself and her politics. So all of that early work came out of trying to understand my relationship to feminism and feminism as a movement, that is about the larger idea of nurturance, nurturing the earth, not just children and partners. I was bringing up kids so it was a lot about the bounty of having a family growing in my life and all of their toys and stuff and just the bigness—you know a family is kind of yourself writ large. And then my sons got older and they went off to college. It was when they went off to college that Tender Trapper and Scout Leader and Boy in Flight happened and that kind of got me out of myself and into the experience of the next generation. Of course the experience of the next generation has everything to do with what the world is going to look like when they're our age, not that I hadn't always been interested in conservation and all that stuff, but the politics of the environmental movement, literally what kind of world are they going into became very, very urgent. So, I think I was always interested, but the urgency became clear to me. 

Julie Heffernan, Camp Bedlam, 2016, oil on canvas, 68x104 inches, Courtesy of Catharine Clark Gallery.

CT: Your self-portraits now seem very active compared with your earlier self-portraits, and engaged in a more global way, perhaps modeling behavior.

JH: I definitely wanted to engage the idea of active engagement with an environment, whether it be rearranging a tree for a habitat or putting out a fire in a tree. I wouldn’t say model for behavior because I’m certainly not trying to be a scold, but I would not at all deny that it is important to me.

CT: [In terms of this traveling exhibition, you stated that "painting can do a lot and that it can change minds." What would be your biggest hope for the response to these works? What happens if it does work and people recognize climate change, or recognize they need to change behaviors? Then what? 

JH: This is why we read novels. The arts exist to be extensions of the brain and the brain's shortcomings. We read novels, not to gain information, but to gain empathy, and if it's a good novel to enter into another person's experience. I remember after 9/11 it was very interesting to see different friends' reactions to it. There were friends who knew it was an awful thing, but didn’t register that things had changed in any significant way. And then there were friends who immediately got their emergency kits together because we might have to evacuate the city. Sometimes the imagination runs a little bit too wild, but sometimes imagination helps us prepare for a different kind of world. I think there are a lot of people who just aren’t inclined to…I don’t think their imaginations take them to places where they can imagine what it's going to be like when we have no elephants anymore. What it's going to be like if all the polar bears are gone. This must be the reason they aren't acting because if they could imagine that, really, if they could imagine all the people that are going to be suffering from [things like] desertification then I just know they would do something! I'm hoping [these] paintings provide a sensorial experience of the predicament—you know, we're up in a tree and we're kind of stuck because down below is a ravaged world … what would it be like to be stuck in a tree? To prod the imaginative organs of others, or to share a kind of 'this is what I see, tell me what you see' response with someone else. To engage in a conversation with a stranger through one of my paintings is certainly something I care very much about.

CT: I think a possible critique of these paintings could be that painting, and contemplating painting, is a luxury—a privileged way to spend your life—while others are suffering. Just as you've re-purposed luxury items in the paintings to new uses for our new environmental reality, you're in a sense re-purposing painting as a luxury item to painting as a serious message (not that paintings haven't historically had serious messages), but we're talking about this idea of a creative sublime with a very real hope for change.

Julie Heffernan, Self Portrait as Red Tent, 2015, oil on canvas, 54x66 inches, Courtesy of P.P.O.W.

JH: I think that's a great observation. It's exactly what I was talking about with the [paintings from the early 2000s]. It goes back to those. You know I put my kids through college with those paintings, but after they left home and I no longer had the financial responsibilities of kids I started to think, what am I doing? Do I want to keep making the same painting over and over again? Am I making consumer items? I don’t want to make consumer items; I want to make things that are vitally important to everything that I believe in. [With the stories in these paintings], I'm basically creating a consumer item that nobody is going to want to consume in the usual way of dressing up your couch or whatever. These paintings are not necessarily things you would want to put in your home. On the other hand, a museum provides a realm of contemplation as opposed to a showcase for one's wealth. I guess it depends on which museum, but in general that is the case—and that's the kind of position I want to speak from.

CT: As Americans, we are large contributors in a lot of the climate-related catastrophes, but aren't suffering as much as other parts of the world—we’re still getting to have this conversation and make paintings talking about it. I think you're acknowledging complicity in a system and that's the whole thing: all of our systems are too big; we're all complicit; we can’t escape it. This is the whole complexity of the issue.

JH: Yes. That’s what kind of occurred to me at a certain point when I could not make those [paintings from the early 2000s] anymore. Do we need any more? So much of the things I was seeing continued the creation of luxury goods for people to adorn their townhouses with. I wanted to make paintings that people would be loathed to put in their townhouse because it would be too, you know, you wouldn’t want to live with that. It's really interesting to me the difference between what people want to live with in their home and what they want to think about in a museum. I just couldn't do it anymore. I couldn’t be a maker of luxury goods.

When the Water Rises, organized by LSU Museum of Art, will be on view at the museum March 11 through September 17, 2017 and is a collaboration between the LSU College of Art + Design, the LSU School of Art and the LSU MOA. This exhibition will be accompanied by a fully illustrated catalogue with essays by curator Courtney Taylor, art critic and writer Eleanor Heartney, and LSU Professor of Art Kelli Scott Kelley.