I just love the work of Brooklyn-based artist Heather McKenna, whose practice, which emphasizes painting but often incorporates sculptural elements, investigates the way we see objects and interpret them in light or in different spaces. Here's a really wonderful interview with her about her studio practice, what she loves most about her work, and some upcoming projects!More info at the links afterward!
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First, can you tell me about yourself? What first interested you in making art?
I grew up in Santa Cruz, CA and currently live and work in Brooklyn, NY. I studied painting and sculpture at Pratt Institute and I am currently studying the balancing act of making work and making rent in New York. Outside of my practice, I manage a conservation frame shop which specializes in vintage photography.
I can’t really remember a time that I was not interested in making art. As a little kid, I was totally into crafts and the like, with both of my nature-loving /scientifically-minded parents encouraging a regular practice of looking, investigation, and questioning. Starting at the age of 9, I was involved in a pre-professional ballet intensive program, until an injury at 16 caused me to stop. From that point, I got really involved with my high school’s art department and a love of making paintings and other objects quickly filled the void that the ballet practice left. There was also an embarrassing two year period between 11-13 where I carried around a camcorder constantly, and there are various photos of me as a baby staring up at shafts of light, so I guess I’ve always been pretty fascinated with light.
Growing up around nature and studying dance sort of set the ground work for the interests I have in my practice today. I’ve always loved dance for the way in which so many inputs are combined to make a single work: sound, space, bodies, light, and time all together. I like to think that my focus is still about those types of interactions, about the relation of the different parts acting together.
You mix elements of sculpture and painting in your work, often quite minimally. Can you tell me a bit about your work?
I like to work in phases or different series, so the project at hand tends to dictates my medium. This last year I’ve been really into painting and making images. Prior to that, I was making paintings and sculptures that were directly tied to the space and each component was integral to other parts in the piece.
I’ve been thinking a lot about shadows lately. They are always formed by something other than themselves.
What is your process like for getting started? Where do you derive your ideas from, or find inspiration?
My practice usually has two starting points: the image or the space.
I make works through a process of transcription. In the series “A Line From Here to There”, the paintings were based off of the sculptures and the sculptures were based off of small drawings, blown up. Pixelation occurs when the smaller drawings are projected and reveal new forms. In the case of the series “But It Did, and You Saw It”, I painted images of shadows that I photographed. Its funny to say out loud, but working as a framer has a real influence on the way I look at images. I get to see some pretty amazing work come through the shop, documenting photography from its advent through the 1970’s or so. We see a lot of Weston, Steiglitz, Drtikol, Blatz, Josephson. The process of matting forces the framer to consider the image in relationship with the space around it. The framer needs to be as thoughtful to the matting as the photographer is with their cropping. Its an active maneuver. This is a process that contemporary painting isn’t usually taken through. In a way, the documentation of a painting in a space, on a gallery website, instagram or a book, is that process, just in a different context.
Utilizing a hybrid of painting and photography, feels like a more honest interpretation of the way I experience the world. Separately, they carry their own distinct meaning and structure, but when they are given simultaneous consideration there’s dissonance and overlap.
What is your studio like? Do you have any routines or rituals there?
My studio is part of a recent (permitted) build-out of 17 new studio spaces in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, run by two recent grads of Yale. I subdivided my 300 sq. foot space, leaving about 160 sq. feet - and the skylight! - for myself.
I’ve been in this space for about 3 months so its still in a fairly early state. I made a group of 4 new paintings and drawings in the new studio that are currently on view.
Maybe its just the ’newness' of the space, but I’ve really been trying to incorporate the ritual of cleanliness and tidiness into my practice. At the frame shop, an inherent zen tidiness to the space is a requirement.
This was definitely not a trait of mine in the past (did a hurricane just come through?, total mess, brushes not washed in a month, etc, etc.), but your work becomes a part of you in mysterious ways!
Is there a tool or an object that you can't live without?
This may sound bad - but its either my phone or my computer! Both are critical to my practice. The phone (camera) is a really nice ‘in between’ screen. I can use it as a view finder, a record keeper, or an on-the-go or a place of reflection and meditation. I am a big fan of photographing the ground and blank walls, shadows, and other things in movement. I like to go back and look at the images throughout the day. The phone is a place to look back on the flattened files, zoom again, find the grain in the pixel, find the flatness in the thing I just felt as so real.
The computer continues this process of recall, review, and remaking. Can I physically change the file by taking a screen shot? I like to edit the pictures I take and use them as the ground work for new paintings.
You undertook a term exchange to Glasgow School of Art while you were pursuing your BFA at Pratt. How important do you feel that exchange was in your education?
I loved my time in Glasgow! It was an immensely important part of my education and invaluable in the development of my practice.
Prior to going on exchange, I was in the painting department at Pratt. I felt pretty restricted both in my medium and the type of conversation and critique in the program. At Glasgow, our curriculum was totally opposite that of Pratt. Instead of like 8 classes a semester I had only two: studio and a once a week seminar and lecture series. Instead of medium specific coursework, I had the opportunity to make what ever I wanted. I had never felt so free in the studio and so motivated about what I was making. That being said, I made some totally cringe-worthy work, but it was a really important time for me to start playing with different materials, forget about stretcher bars, and have the time to just make things.
The other thing I really loved about my exchange was that It gave me a chance to develop relationships with other artists from different cities and countries. One thing that is cool about making art is that you can just plop down in another place and already have a defacto community ready to go. I was lucky to also have the chance to travel a lot during that time and meet other young artists outside of Scotland. It was important for me to see both the similarities and differences in the artistic communities we visited with Brooklyn. New York can be particularly daunting and I found the general vibe in Glasgow, Amsterdam, and Berlin to be more inclusive and focused on the making of art (and not just the going to of openings).
After the exchange, I switched into the sculpture department at Pratt and felt I was in a much more challenging setting, more aligned with what I wanted to make. It was also sort of refreshing to have classes again!
What do you do if you find yourself in a creative rut?
I am not a fan of creative ruts! They are the worst.
They seem to happen for me at the end of each project. Every time, I am convinced that my work is totally worthless and that I should just quit right then and there, but undoubtedly, I always start making things again. I have started to recognize this as a pretty consistent pattern of mine, so now each time this happens I try to remind myself that this is probably just a regular part of how I make work. I turn to photography when my studio game is not so hot. Even if I’m not seeking anything in particular out of the images I shoot, they are a really great starting point for projects later on. These in-between stages have grown into pretty important parts of my practice.
What do you find to be most challenging or daunting about pursuing art seriously, especially now that you've been out of the university setting for a little bit now
There’s been a couple of daunting aspects about being out of the university setting. First, there are the logistical and monetary challenges that are brought to the forefront when just coming out of school, like rent for the first time. I was really fortunate to have the help of my parents funding my time in school, and after graduating I quickly realized how difficult it was to balance this whole 9-5 thing and have a practice. It was also hard transitioning from school, where the whole focus is on your personal development to work, where that is not the goal at all. I’ve been lucky to find a job that is really rewarding and pays enough that I am able to work 4 days a week.
The other part that was a weird change was no longer having a centralized place to see your peers. I didn’t realize how much I relied on running into people as my main form of maintaining friendships. Being out of school really forces you to make plans, go to people’s studios, and reach out.
Is there a piece of advice that you've received, which you find yourself revisiting often?
I don’t remember the source of this advice, but its solid. It’s all about the œuvre. Focus on the long haul. It’s not about each piece you make but about the body of work you’ll make in the end. I get pretty anxious sometimes about my lack of being able to “make it happen” right now. I think there is a lot of unspoken pressure on young artists to find success and popularity at an early age. It’s good for me to keep my vision in long form and try to tune out my brain from getting in the way.
What is the most rewarding aspect of doing what you do?
There are a lot of rewarding aspects of an art practice. I make work for myself, of course, and I get a lot of joy and satisfaction seeing something that was once in my mind takes physical form. But I think the most rewarding aspect is when others engage with the work and have a similar take away (or completely different) to what I had intended. Art making is a form of speaking and a way of relating. Its not that I make work specifically for the reaction of others, but using work as a starting point for dialogue sort of seems like the point of it all.
Do you have any upcoming exhibitions or projects you're working on?
I’m really excited about a book project I’ll be working on with a wonderful graphic designer and friend, Nick Weltyk. He’s been producing some really beautiful collaborations with other artists. The book will be made using a series of some recent drawings I’ve been working on of plant shadows. I’m looking forward to seeing where it will go!
I’ve also been thinking about video a lot again lately and making some small pieces that I’m not quote sure yet how they will be shown - definitely a part of a larger whole. Lots of zooms of receding waves. We shall see! And of course, I’ve always got some paintings cooking...
Anything else you would like to add?
If I hadn’t been prompted to write this, I definitely wouldn’t have done it on my own. I appreciate that you’re providing a platform for young artists to talk about the work we are all making.
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