Above the doorway of Heather’s Sausalito studio, written in big, rough and loose letters, are the words, “Being Heather Wilcoxon” It was the first thing I noticed when I turned around and looked about to survey the room. I saw a lot of other things, of course— art on the walls (most of it is Heather’s, but some of it is not), family photos, keepsakes and memorabilia, wild marks from her oil sticks, flyers and postcards, and her sweet dog, Lucy. But all the art and objects I saw didn’t quite manage to capture my initial interest the way that fragment of a sentence above the door did. I was taken with the simplicity and truth of its language, and possible message— that upon walking through that doorway and into this room an acknowledgement of someone’s existence and identity was not only immediately necessitated, but more importantly, it was recognized as a practiced, active state of being. When we construct sentences, grammatically the verb functions to express action, existence or occurrence, and in this case the “to be” verb (the most slippery and irregular in our language) is in its progressive form… which to me says a hell of a lot. Essentially, it conveys that “Being Heather Wilcoxon” is an act that is in process; that a conscious decision is being made over and over to exist, to be… that “being” is a full blown action as opposed to a passive condition. And I gotta say, as an artist Heather is truly in a state of being.
Oh, a quick side note: When I asked Heather about the phrase above her door she explained that it was the title of her 2010 solo exhibit with Jack Fischer Gallery. And for me this fact was neither here nor there, because I had already inferred my own meaning and run off with it.
Heather welcomed us to visit her in both her studio and the houseboat nearby that she calls home. In conversation, I found Heather to be unusually forthcoming, humorous, and charmingly offbeat. She didn’t shy away from tough talk about what it means to forge a life that is deeply committed to art making and though she readily acknowledged her vulnerability and fears, she seems to have managed to keep a firm, steadfast grip on who she is and what her life’s trajectory is. Honestly though, it was really nice to hear someone say just how damn hard it can be without mincing their words. She said at one point, “This is all I know… I’ve been making art all of my life… It’s what I do, it’s who I am.”
When we visited Heather she was making art that was almost cartoon-like in its aesthetic— colorful, wacky, with layer upon layer of richly imagined creatures and characters that depict an almost child-like understanding of the world while still imparting the viewer with a deep sense of heartbreak, yearning, and tribulation. Recently, she emailed me a few images of new paintings she is working on, a series that is inspired by and focuses on boat imagery. Though the fast and loose look of her lines are still there, and there is vibrancy in her colors and you can see the way her imagination has stretched and tugged at the shape and form of boats, there is a distinctively different mood to this series— there is more darkness lurking, more wounded heat in her reds, and glacial disquiet in her blues, more stillness and a damp kind of sadness. I was so appreciative that she sent those images over… it simply reaffirmed my understanding of her kinetic sense of identity and her constant and active participation in who she is as an artist.
How would you describe your subject matter or the content of your work?
My content or subject matter changes all the time. Sometimes it’s a personal statement about lost love, physical pain or loneliness. Other times it reflects my concerns about the contemporary human condition like greed, narcissism, power mongering and our destruction of the planet.
What mediums do you work with?
I use oil paint, RB oil bars and graphite. I layer, scrape, rub and draw into my surfaces. I also glue paper onto my canvas, which creates a smooth surface to work on. I use image transfers from my drawings. This process comes from my years of monoprinting. I have also experimented with bees- wax, resins and other materials, but I find that I am most comfortable with oils and graphite in my practice.
How would you describe your aesthetic?
Funky because of how I use my materials. I layer images upon images, paint over paint. It can get rather messy and juicy at times.
Raw because my work comes from a very deep place of just pure emotion.
Humor because it adds a comic relief and a juxtaposition to my dark imagery.
Your work is full of childlike imagery that expresses humor, yet also a sense that danger lurks everywhere- can you tell us more about this tension in some of your work.
It’s a complex mix of sweet and sour. That body of work had a quality of innocence and playfulness about it. I would intentionally put a bite into it to offset any cuteness. I would invite the viewer in with pretty colors and childlike imagery, but if one looked closer you would fine it a bit uncomfortable. It would have a bite to it. However, in the last 6 months my work has been changing. My imagery has more of a serious, romantic and sensuous bent to it, so the humor is gone right now…
What are you presently inspired by— are there particular things you are reading, listening to or looking at to fuel your work?
As I have mentioned above, my work has been changing. Boats seem to be my focus of attention right now. Although I have used boat images before, I have never worked on a series of them. I have lived on the water most of my life and have navigated the Pacific Ocean in a small sailboat, so I find it interesting that now my present work is about boat hulls and water. I walk around the waterfront and photograph boats, boat yards, old hulls and neighborhoods that I grew up in. Then I draw them from memory or go right into a painting. I also taught drawing and painting this last year at College of Marin so I drew and painted more formally. That experience influenced my practice. My work is less cartoony now. Artists are like sponges. We soak in what is around us and reflect that experience in our work. I welcome change and do not want to get stuck in a formula.
You live on a 100-year-old houseboat on the Sausalito waterfront among a community of artists, boat builders and maritime workers— how has this environment informed or affected your work?
I live in a magic land— In a community of diverse and interesting people. We are a big family. I feel lucky to live this lifestyle because it has given me the freedom to be who I am; to be the artist I am. I am surrounded by like-minded people who support each other and I know everyone of my neighbors, some of them for over 30 years.
The physical beauty that surrounds me is ever changing— the tide comes in, the tides goes out. The wind, the fog, the light, the clouds, the winters, the bird migrations, the marsh by my boat all effect my daily practice. Plus, I can walk to my studio.
Is there something you are currently working on, or are excited about starting that you can tell us about?
Yes, as I have mentioned before, I have been working on a boat series which I find so interesting because so many people are responding to the work positively. And that has never happened before. Perhaps because the imagery is something people can relate to. My past work has at times been very difficult to digest for some viewers. But you put something like a boat image in a painting and bingo they recognize something they can understand. So I have to say that I am excited about this body of work I am producing right now.
Other than your art practice what other work do you do?
I have been teaching painting and drawing at the College of Marin, which I love to do. I learn so much from my students. I also teach monoprinting at the University of California Berkeley Extension in San Francisco.
What kinds of sacrifices have you made to live and work as an artist?
Being a fine artist in our culture can be tough financially unless you’re independently wealthy or are one of those 1%ers who make it to the top. Not having a regular pay check most of the time can be stressful. However, I like working for myself and always have. I like being in charge of my life and my studio time. I would rather have less money and more time for my practice.
How do you navigate the art world?
I think that the Internet has really changed the game of the art world. There is a huge community of artists, curators, collectors and students from all over the world that are connecting with each other on a daily basis. I find this very exciting. There are many platforms like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Artstack or Flickr where you can post your work and get feed back or sales or ask to be in shows. It’s all happening at your fingertips. That is how I navigate the art world these days.
Words to live by… a favorite quote or motto?
“Paint what you want and die happy.”
Are you involved in any upcoming shows or events? Where and when?
I had a two-person show with Chicago artist, Tony Fitzpatrick at Jack Fischer Gallery this last February, called Winter Works.
I will be in a group show in August at ARC Gallery in San Francisco, curated by Michael Youchum.
Next year, 2015, Livia Stien and I will be showing at the Stanford University Art Spaces in Palo Alto, curated by Dewitt Chang.