Heidi Brueckner blends together layers of texture and color in order to create her vibrant portraits, which range from friends to strangers met during travel. Each one pulsates with the energy of her subjects, capturing details that may have gone overlooked in a day-to-day interaction. As figurative work has always been her first love, her practice has become even more focused on the figure due to the life-altering pandemic.
Join us in conversation as the artist and I discuss her visceral, almost synesthesia-like reaction to color, why she uses recycled materials, and how her interest in archetypes has influenced her work.
Brueckner is a Professor of Art at West Valley College in Saratoga, California where she has taught painting, drawing, and design for over 20 years. A native Californian, Brueckner studied at the University of Heidelberg and The Goethe Institute in Germany in the late 1980s. During this pivotal year, she was able to visit the major museums of Europe and found herself heavily influenced artistically by 20th century German art. Most recently, she was awarded 1st Place in the international Italian art competition, Prisma Art Prize. Upcoming solo exhibitions will be at GearBox Gallery in Oakland, California in 2021, and at Buckham Gallery in Flint, Michigan in 2022.
Let’s start with your artistic background. What originally brought you to art? Did you study art in school?
I have appreciated art and beautiful things for as long as I can remember. My mother was a painter and as a young college student I thought Art History would be an interesting thing to learn about, along with Anthropology. As part of the curriculum, I started taking studio classes, too, and loved it.
During my college junior year abroad, a major priority of mine was to visit as many museums as I could. I became so inspired that I realized I actually wanted to study studio art and that I had been making excuses to myself why I shouldn’t major in it all along. I had finally discovered and admitted that making art was my passion and really the only option for me going forward. I ended up double majoring in Art and Art History at University of California, Santa Cruz. Then I taught art to kids for a few years in San Francisco and finally earned an MFA in painting from University of Kansas in Lawrence. I have now been teaching art for over 20 years at West Valley College in Saratoga, CA.
What has your process been like developing your unique style?
Using and combining color is euphoric to me and has always come very naturally and instinctively. I have a visceral and almost synesthesia-like reaction to it in that I can almost taste it and hear it, because the visual reaction is so strong. It’s as if one sense gets overloaded and spills into another. I have had a deep interest in working from both life and imagination, though I have found that working from observation to understand form, lighting, and dimension has been integral in informing all kinds of approaches to image-making. I’m a bit of a traditionalist at heart.
In much of your work, you paint on recycled materials. Can you tell us about why you made this choice?
I have been experimenting with some alternative substrates engendered by the pile up of pandemic-related detritus. In an effort to recycle, I started by using paper bags because, for a while, we weren’t allowed to bring in used bags to the grocery stores. I then switched to using pieced-together bubble mailers because of all the mail ordering that was done during that period as well.
I love your series “The Arcana Shuffle,” which is loosely based on tarot cards. What inspired you to create this series?
I wanted to make a series of paintings that would include the life-sized figure, social commentary, and some kind of repeated basic compositional structure. I had become interested in archetypes at the time and thought it would be interesting to have them play roles in allegories that could also reference contemporary culture. This felt like rich subject matter to delve into and I realized that a series of tarot cards seemed to be a perfect way to move forward with the ideas. I was encouraged to read the book Jung and Tarot and it very much solidified the series in my mind. I decided to invent most of the characters but simultaneously have some of them reference some of the traditional cards.
Tell us about a turning point in your art practice. This could pertain to your career as an artist or your artistic development.
In the somewhat recent past, my interest in archetypes led me to create a series entitled Monsterbet, which consists of 26 oil and mixed media paintings, now also a book. The works are based on the traditional format of children’s alphabet books, but here, each letter of the alphabet stands for an invented monster. Each monster has a particular quirk that touches on some of my favored themes of human vice, morality, and fear.
I was looking for another direction after such a long project. I wanted to revisit the figure because it has always been a kind of first love for me. I started working on portraits and then the pandemic hit. I almost immediately became solely focused on this subject because I missed people and felt a strong need to study faces and expressions. At first, the paintings concentrated on people that I lived with. Then the work expanded to friends I couldn’t visit and also began to focus on people I met through traveling. Recently, I turned my attention to painting people I don’t know, inspired by a series of antique photographs my great-grandfather made in Sheridan, WY in the mid-late 1800s. I’m currently starting to research and possibly collaborate with the present day relatives of people in the images.
The process has been a different way of spending time with, or “seeing”, people and has also aided me in remembering what it’s like to travel and meet new people. It has helped me thrive in the pandemic world by quite naturally allowing me to think about people intensely for a long period of time. This body of work rings very true to me, and its authenticity is guiding me to do some of my best work. It has been quite rewarding and personally important.
What historical artist would you say is your biggest influence and why? What contemporary artist inspires you?
I really can’t pick just one artist from history who has influenced me, but the top few that come to mind are Alice Neel, Lucien Freud, and Otto Dix; Neel, for her ability to use distortion to create truthful interpretations of her sitters; Freud, for his ability to use painterly impasto while capturing such intricacy; and Dix for his delightfully grotesque grit. Current artists I am most influenced by lately are Hope Gangloff, Bisa Butler, Hung Liu, Amoako Boafo, and Jordan Casteel.
What are you currently listening to and/or reading?
I just picked up Hanya Yanagihara’s third book, “To Paradise”. I’m excited to dig in because her previous books were remarkable. Her fiction is complex and nuanced. I listen to a lot of politics and art podcasts but also tons of music. Tom Waits is a favorite for me in the studio—great songwriting and quirky musical influences from all kinds of genres. The narrative in his work is really strong and it influences how I think about narrative in painting. He describes a scene so perfectly with a masterfully crafted turn of a phrase. Like him, I often enjoy nodding to the margins of society and contemplating the precarious and dark aspects of humankind.