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The Artist as Alchemist: The Craftsmanship of Mary Heebner

Part II of II

An Interview of Volume 5 cover artist Mary Heebner

by Silver Webb

"Veiled woman, possibly a goddess"

Greek and Roman gods and goddesses are in abundance in Mary Heebner's art. What grips me about these collages is this. Imagine that two-thousand years ago, an artist chiseled a Greek goddess out of marble, using a woman as a model who was here on Earth but a short while. The female form, alive and vital, is rendered in stone, into some mythical, perfected version or myth of a woman. Over time, she may lose a limb or two and the paint she was likely colored with, as classical statues are wont to do. She becomes ingrained in our cultural awareness as “classical.” Two-thousand years later, an artist visits the antiquities, sketches them, photographs them, and then uses subtle coloring to bring that marble back to life, to frame them in terms of intimacy, the name of the collection from which the Volume 5 cover collage “Ariadne/Apollo” comes. I am looking at a rebirth of a Greek woman who lived long ago, shown in the universal terms of human need. To me, this is alchemy and grants the images something far more intriguing than what is initially evident. But I wonder how Mary experienced these moments, spending time with these antiquities? Did they come alive to her then?

Mary responds, "Working for years with the ‘anonymous ancients’ for so many years, a palpable sense of embodiment, and feeling within the metamorphosis from cold hard marble into flesh, as an expression of our own sensuality, vulnerability, ephemerality of life and longing…”

"Venus, Lady Dawn" and "Venus in Longing"

“The emotion carried by a face belies its size. A human face is really no larger than the span of one’s hand. We are so hard-wired to recognize faces, that even two hollow depressions worn in stone can be easily read as human eyes looking back at us. On New Year’s Day 2001, I was guided through the many temples of Angkor, in Cambodia. I took photographs, wrote, and sketched. I returned again during the rainy season, in August 2002. Time-traveling among the ruins of Angkor, I felt the ancient presence of the buildings and sculptures. Human form melds into the heavily wrought facades, and this joined presence brings to mind earthly forms such as crevasses, ridges, and trails. I catch sight of a new geography -- a geography of faces.

6 x 5’ hanging grid collages, and display of artist’s book, Silent Faces/Angkor, and 4 handmade watermarked paper scrolls that roll up and are contained in a hand-crafted box. Wesleyan University.

I ask her why she thinks this is, why most cultures are driven to preserve record of themselves. Mary responds, "For millennia we have carved likenesses into stone. As a testament, perhaps a prayer or a shout in the face of death, because stone is permanent, it endures. Yet stone too goes the way of the very beings whose portraits cut from its core. Their journey touches the slower edges of time, but steadily, to the earth again, they return, grain by grain. We sieve through some of these grains, a detritus that is by turns, tangible and conjectured. Understanding comes both slowly and in an instant as we piece together these bits and fragments. Each recollection becomes part of the pattern, a story that is imagined afresh each time we remember, reconsider, reconstruct the past, a dream, a lifetime.”

"Veiled/Unveiled Apollo/Ariadne"

This interview comes on the heels of 7+ months of quarantine in the United States, and I ask Mary how she’s faring during quarantine, when travelling to distant lands, not to mention walking down the sidewalk without a mask on, is not possible. How does artistic vision endure during times of global crisis, and what role does art play in sustaining us in dark times? Mary responds, "I have had the good fortune to travel to all continents via writing assignments with my photographer husband Macduff Everton. We’d be on the road 120-200 days a year, it took some adjustment to not travel. However, one silver lining of this pandemic has been that my sense of time stretched out, a sostenuto of simpler rhythms. Time to slow down, to notice details, time to remember. Our fauna brethren are breathing freely during this pandemic. At the land’s edge more shorebirds seem to go about their foraging unperturbed by the occasional bipeds who pace up the beach and back again."

"Body Soul Embrace"

"We are also foraging and gathering—our senses, our center, our physical selves. Beach-walking unspools my thoughts. It is the way I learned to see, to bring things into focus. The white-on-white of snowy and great egrets against wave break; the patient, vigilant great blue heron; the scuttling staccato of a clutch of sanderlings moving as one; the stippling that remains in sand where willets pecked for their daily grub; the pair of osprey who for years have nested, hunted and circled above the recumbent folds of the hanging cliff wall. A cliff that morphed as earth contorted and twisted like taffy. This beautiful formation is the fault-ridden residue of cataclysmic thrusts and slides seen through the longer lens of geologic time."

Mary at work.

Mary's most recent work is her new artist’s book, Prayer Flags & A Tale of Longing released in 2020, on the occasion of the 25th anniversary of Simplemente Maria Press. As she describes it, "This project began in Sikkim, India, when I traveled there in 1993, after which I made a small prototype, and some handmade paper, but the book idea got back-burnered as I worked on other projects.  This turned out to be fortunate, for when I revisited my notes in 2019, I realized that for a book based on Tibetan prayer flags, I needed to compose my own invocations. Handwritten prayers addressed to a distressed planet in the form of handmade paper prayer flags.  The 5 colors in traditional Tibetan prayer flags represent the 5 elements: Earth, Air, Fire, Water and Aether, and I use that color scheme for my flags. My original journal notes became the basis for 'A Tale of Longing.'"

I hope you’ll be curious to see more of Mary’s work. The Bromer Gallery in Boston recently featured an exhibit of Mary’s work titled “Intimacy,” of which the cover art of "Veiled/Unveiled Apollo/Ariadne" is part. Bromer Gallery describes Mary’s work as practicing “an artistic archaeology, capturing the timeless, spiritual beauties of relics and landforms and recreating them in sensuous compositions.” You can visit Bromer gallery’s website and take the virtual tour of Mary’s “Intimacy” exhibit here. Please also visit Mary’s site here. And, of course, if you would like a copy of Volume 5 of the Santa Barbara Literary Journal featuring Mary’s work, Volume 5 is available here in our bookstore.

Photos by permission, courtesy of the artist.

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