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November 14, 2013

Local artist draws inspiration from life, motion

By Bera Dunau Staff Writer
Cooperstown Crier

---- — Cooperstown artist Christine Heller has recently returned from a residency at Roanoke College in Salem, Virginia.

“This was a great experience,” said Heller, a painter, three dimensional artist and muralist whose work has been exhibited across the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic.

Heller spent over a month as a artist-in-residence at Roanoke College. From Aug. 28 to early October, Heller and her work became entwined with the workings of the college.

“I really put myself into the life there,” said Heller.

Heller lived in faculty housing and ate at the campus cafeteria while she did her residency. Her first task when she arrived was to paint a 10 foot by 26 foot mural for her exhibition “Life/Body/Action/Time.” Heller said that she was given eight days to complete the mural, and that the deadline didn’t phase her, as she enjoys working under pressure

Heller begins her murals by projecting sketches of figures onto a wall with a projector. Heller has hundred of figures that she’s drawn over the years stored on her computer. Some of these sketches were done of posing models, while others were made of people she sketched in cafes, but the vast majority of them were drawn from photographs.

“I’m always collecting photographs,” said Heller, who says that she often draws inspiration from photos of athletes, and still picks up physical copies of the New York Times for the photographs, even though she has a digital subscription.

After projecting the figures onto a wall, Heller will sketch them in white chalk. Once she is satisfied with the proportions of a figure, Heller says she usually goes over the chalk with charcoal. She then may finish a figure in paint. Heller likes to have a wide variety of figures in her murals, and prefers to draw them life size.

“It’s dance and the figure that are really really interesting to me,” said Heller, who says she gets a lot of inspiration from dancers. “I try to combine energetic figures with figures who are more ambiguous.”

In addition to the mural she painted at Roanoke, “Life/Body/Action/Time” included work from Heller’s exhibitions “Lives of Children,” “The Anatomy of Time,” and “In Our Name: Iraqi Children in War.”

Heller also taught two days of drawing classes, co-taught a poetry class, and did power point presentations on her work at a number of other different classes.

“I really wanted to be available for classes,” said Heller, who said that she would tell interested students about the different issues she was having with her work and then get feedback from them.

“There’s a performative and improvisational aspect to my work,” said Heller

Heller said that this environment was a great transition away from the generally solitary nature of her work as an artist. She also said that she appreciated not having to worry about cooking or shopping, and that the school food was very good.

“All I did was work. It was like a dream,” said Heller.

The mural at Roanoke College is the fourth mural Heller has painted this year. She began painting murals in January 2012, and says that she appreciates the impermanence of the form, as her work is painted over after an exhibition is finished.

Said Heller, “I like the fact that I’m not dragging my work around.”

Heller said that she is looking for a public art commission, however, which would leave a mural of hers in place permanently.

Heller has been working as a professional artist since the early 1980’s. Heller has her MFA from the Tyler School of Art at Temple University, but received her undergraduate degree in chemistry from SUNY Buffalo.

Heller said that meeting her future mother in law, an artist, sculptor and dancer, inspired her to become an artist.

“Everything she did you loved,” said Heller, who said that she became very good friends with her future husband’s mother, to the point where they said they’d remain friends even if Heller and her son broke up.

Heller ended up marrying Mark Heller, and moved with him to Cooperstown in the 1970’s, after he got a job as an intern at Bassett Medical center. Mark Heller became a doctor at Bassett, a position he is now retired from.

Heller and her husband have lived other places besides Cooperstown since their move, but they have always kept the Cooperstown property.

Heller said that while she has heard that getting married or becoming a mother ends some peoples careers as artists, she has found the opposite has occurred for her.

“All my art comes right out of my life,” said Heller

Three of Heller’s exhibits; “America Comes Home,” “In Our Name: Iraqi Children in War” and “Mission Accomplished,” focused a critical lens on the Iraq War.

“I was angry that we went to war,” said Heller, who feels that we didn’t need to invade Iraq.

The inspiration for “America Comes Home,” came after Heller saw a picture of a young, female, American soldier in The New Yorker with a prosthetic leg.

“I froze when I saw it,” said Heller, who said she was reminded of her own daughter.

This motivated her to create America Comes Home, which combined muslin figures, paintings, photographs and statistics to document and memorialize American casualties of the Iraq War. She characterizes the exhibit as a parent’s view of war.

This was followed by “In Our Name: Iraqi Children in War,” a series of paintings and drawings based off pictures of wounded Iraqi children, and “Mission Accomplished,” which hung the muslin cloth figures from “America Comes Home,” in a three-dimensional space.

Heller sells some of her pieces, but she primarily makes her income as an artist from her exhibitions. She was paid for her time as an artist-in-residence at Roanoke College.

Heller and her husband will be traveling this week to Colorado, where they will be house sitting for friends in Denver for three to four months. While they are there, Heller says she will try to get a public art commission to make a mural and she has already reached out to members of the local art community through the internet.

“It’ll be fun,” said Heller.