I first met Willy Heeks in Vermont at an 1850s Episcopal Church that had been converted into artists’ studios, and his enthusiasm surely blew away any sermon delivered there. We ended up partying late into the night with other artists-enjoying passionate conversations about art, life and everything in between.
I first met Willy Heeks in Vermont at an 1850s Episcopal Church that had been converted into artists’ studios, and his enthusiasm surely blew away any sermon delivered there. We ended up partying late into the night with other artists-enjoying passionate conversations about art, life and everything in between. After our laid-back introduction, it was surprising to realize what a renowned artist he is. Since participating in the Whitney Museum’s Independent Study Program in 1973, he has amassed honors and recognition from coast to coast. His paintings are in many museum collections, including the MoMA in New York and San Francisco, the MFA in Boston, and our own Portland Art Museum. Heeks has received prestigious awards from Louis Comfort Tiffany, the American Academy of Arts and Letters and the Pollock-Krasner Foundation. I spoke with Heeks the week his show opened in Portland at the Elizabeth Leach Gallery about art, life and surfing:
Why did you choose the title Echoes for this show?
To be truthful, I didn’t originally have a title. They are just paintings, I wasn’t thinking about the presentation aspect. I was going to title it Echoes of Light, but I settled on Echoes because it has a sense of space, and space repeating itself. The keeper of space creates a rhythm. Within the realm of an exhibit, I thought of the paintings together, on the gallery walls bouncing off each other.
You go through a dense layering process while painting, creating an ethereal air floating with light and darkness. How does it all come about in the studio?
I work in an improvisational style, building the picture as I go. The layering, then allowing the piece to go where you want it to go. I think a lot about the density of the space, and how to open it up. The layers are highly unintentional in the process. I keep some of the shallow layers to retain an early identity of the work while the thicker areas naturally become the foreground.
Have you ever had your work compared to graffiti? How do you feel about that?
Not Grafitti with a capital G, but the drawn line or grafitti-like mark relates to my work. I do use spray cans. It becomes a painted image-in other words, not brush, not hand, not palette knife, not squeeze-on. In the midst of it, there is a playful element that is absent from classical paintings.
What kind of music do you listen to in the studio?
Time Out of Mind, the Bob Dylan album. Bill Frisell is in my player. Nothing formulaic. I like Vic Chestnutt and Neil Young a lot.
What would you say to people who are in art school now wondering what the hell they are doing with their life? I mean, what were you doing in your 20s?
It’s funny you should mention that, because earlier today I was in a music shop and we were talking to this girl who sits there behind the counter. She hates all school. She didn’t want to let go of her drawings. She just didn’t want to give them up. When people are just out of school, I don’t want to sound like I’m on a soapbox or something. Stay flexible and open-don’t let anyone close your world in. Be self-disciplined. I have a work ethic extending as far back as my childhood. If people stop getting so tense about wanting to be part of something and having early success, quit worrying if they are going to make it, you know, get a gallery. Look at it with a blue-collar perspective. A lot of people end up going to grad school only to be among more of the same type of atmosphere, what some consider a “supportive” environment. As an artist in the “real world” you have to be more resilient in how you run your life. If you have to have a job, be sure you divide your time up and dedicate some to your work. Make sure you do it. Don’t worry about enormous success.
What was the best art party of 2006?
Oh shit! I don’t go to any art parties. If you said one, I’d be like, oh yeah, that’s the one I missed.
I know you were born in Providence, but where are you based now?
About 20 minutes outside Providence, R.I., close to the ocean. I do a lot of surfing. I’ve been a surfer since I was a young kid. Being close to the ocean is really helpful to me.
Do you think surfing has an influence on your paintings?
Yeah, definitely. Tossing in the water all the time, it’s a spiritual hot spot. It’s kind of like my sport, but I don’t treat it like a sport. It’s like the thing! I want to try and get in some waves out there on the Oregon coast sometime.
Being from the East, I can say the waves are definitely bigger out here on the West Coast. And you know it doesn’t matter how cold and rainy it is-people just keep on going back into the curl!
I do, too, year-round! I like the tides of surfing, and they enter into the work. I have done a lot of paintings inspired by the ocean. I’ve also done quite a few nautical pieces.
What were the sickest waves you’ve ever ridden?
Since I am not a big traveling surfer, the sickest waves were here in Rhode Island at a spot they call K39 in Point Judith-during Hurricane Isabel. Fifteen-foot waves! Fast, barreling lefts. I was going backside. They were filled with seaweed torn up from the ocean. Their color was an amazing blend of greens and browns. The sun was out and it was toasty warm. That’s what I call inspiration!
EchoesPaintings by Willy HeeksElizabeth Leach GalleryThrough Feb. 24