In her first trip to Chautauqua Institution, visiting artist Julie Heffernan will paint a poster for an environmental protection campaign.
Environmental writers and activists Rebecca Solnit and Bill McKibben invited Heffernan, whose landscape paintings deal with climate change, to help with a campaign asking American universities to sell off any stakes they have in the fossil-fuel industry.
Heffernan’s most recent paintings focus on landscapes in environmental upheaval. From a distance, her work might look like the polished style of the “Old Masters,” she said, “but up close, it reveals the disasters going on all over the globe.”
She has painted forest fires in the Southwest United States, fracking in the Northeast and droughts across Africa. But Heffernan didn’t start out as a landscape painter. She began her artistic life obsessed with the figure, and will teach figure drawing to the School of Art students during her visit.
Heffernan plans to discuss the trajectory of her work at 7 p.m. tonight in the Hultquist Center as part of the Visual Arts at Chautauqua Institution Visual Arts Lecture Series. She will show slides of her work going as far back as 1986, when she took a Fulbright-sponsored trip to what was then West Berlin. She said the city was a hotspot for Neo-expressionism, which portrays recognizable objects such as the human body in slight abstraction.
“German artists were still involved with the figure,” Heffernan said, “while everyone else was moving toward abstraction. By the ’80s, the figure in art was moribund, but I still thought it could address things abstraction couldn’t.”
While she was in Germany, Heffernan perfected a technique she calls “interior painting.” She would close her eyes and let her imagination stream images in her mind, then commit the best of those images to canvas. In one series, she painted a woman with long, blonde hair traipsing through a magical forest in the style of a fairy tale. She called them “self-portraits” — even though she didn’t model the woman on herself.
“They were portraits of my interior self,” Heffernan said, “not my exterior self.”
Heffernan, who still teaches figure drawing, among other things, at Montclair State University, switched to landscape painting as she became more interested in the environment. She continues to use “image streaming” as a painting technique and hopes to teach the School of Art students how to see more deeply as they create art.
“I teach because I realized at the point I did the interior paintings that I had something to teach,” Heffernan said. “Teaching is about building someone who is multivalent. It’s not just someone who can draw a kneecap well, but someone who can survive in the wilderness of art.”