Heffernan paints scenes of survival in future environment

Provided Photo
“Self Portrait as Emergency Shipwright,” 2013.

Over the course of her career, the paintings of artist Julie Heffernan have evolved into a “bully pulpit” where she can air her concerns about the current state of the environment.

Heffernan will discuss these ideas in her lecture at 7 p.m. today in the Hultquist Center.

The artist will explore her recent obsessions with apocalyptic scenarios but said she is not interested with depicting humanity just “burning up.”

Although she thinks the damaged state of the environment is a serious situation, her paintings depict places where humans have worked with their natural surroundings to survive.

“I find myself putting them up in trees, creating habitats and kind of doing work to figure out different approaches to sustaining life,” she said.

To illustrate the changes of style and subject matter, Heffernan plans to display paintings from all stages of her career. Her body of work spans her days spent in Berlin on a Fulbright scholarship to her present-day creations.

Heffernan said she had always been a figurative painter, but after graduate school she found the figure had become tired and stale.

“I completely got rid of the figure, and I replaced it with very lush still lifes where I would juxtapose onto fruit these images where I would see welling up in my mind’s eye,” she said.

That’s when she began her self-portrait paintings — although they cannot be defined as self-portraits in the traditional sense, she said.        

Heffernan became fascinated with images that seemed to be coming not from an actual mirror held up to her face, but a mirror in her psyche, she said.

She plans to discuss the role of crisis in an artist’s life, noting times where she threw out whole bodies of work when she realized she was “barking up the wrong tree.”

She said that artists must be extremely honest with themselves while developing their art.

“What we’re all looking for is that thing that we have to say, in a way that can only be said by us and no one else,” she said. “As you’re working your way to that point, you’re going down a lot of avenues that others have already gone down.”

She will also discuss her work that features the aftermath of extreme environmental upheavals, and although she said the damage has been dire, she still has hope for improvements in the future.

“We all know that our incredible technical prowess is the thing that got us into this situation, but I do believe our technical prowess will get us out,” she said.

In that vein, her recent paintings feature human figures rebuilding and surviving in these damaged landscapes.

“I’m focusing on individuals cleaning up messes and building different kinds of structures — things that are much more in the realm of what we can do as ordinary humans,” she said.