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In Conversation: Lynne Heller

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Still Newfoundland is the latest project by artist Lynne Heller, and the first series of works by Heller offered to collectors exclusively via FFOTO. Heller’s post-disciplinary art practice melds creative pursuits that are not automatically thought of as being complementary. Always creatively expressive, a persistent injury prompted Heller to pivot from a career as a dancer into the visual arts. While making art, she completed an MFA from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, followed by a PhD focused on feminist practice in online culture at University College, Dublin. 

Heller approaches her practice from several perspectives, melding aspects of materiality with digital elements. She is increasingly interested in exploring augmented and virtual reality environments in her work as an artist and as an adjunct professor at the Ontario College of Art & Design University (OCAD University).

The works that make up Heller’s Still Newfoundland are digital composites; scanned objects that are then each carefully edited to construct her individual approach to still-life photography. These artworks lure the viewer through an aesthetic appeal, while raising questions about the veracity of historical records, along with considerations of traditional cultures and society.

I talked to Lynne on behalf of FFOTO followers to learn more about her background, her art practice, and the inspiration behind Still Newfoundland.

Craig D’Arville, FFOTO Co-founder & COO

Still Newfoundland No. 3, 2020, by Lynne HellerStill Newfoundland No. 3, 2020

Craig D’Arville: Hi Lynne. You’ve pursued multiple creative paths in your life. Initially, you focused your energy on training to become a professional dancer. Can you talk about how you transitioned towards the visual arts?

Lynne Heller

Lynne Heller: I left dance in my early 30s because of a recurring injury. All dancers know that they have to pivot at some point. I’d floated around OCAD University, where I now teach, for quite some time as administrative staff, and as a student, and I just moved in and out of that institution in many ways over the years. I'd always been very drawn to the visual arts, and in particular I came through it in a way that a lot of women actually come to visual creative expression, through textiles. As a dancer I was always repairing my costumes. Nobody ever taught me how to do that, but it was just something pretty integral to my upbringing. My mom made our clothes, and I just learned it by osmosis so, during my teens and my 20s, I made my own clothes and I tie-dyed, and I did all those kinds of things. So visual interests were always very much a part of my life.

At the same time, in the late 1980s, I was completely and totally entranced with the emerging digital culture. I remember getting an Atari and a Mac.

Still Newfoundland No. 4, 2020, by Lynne HellerStill Newfoundland No. 4, 2020

CD: Your art practice now comprises a variety of approaches: Performative interaction, graphic novels, sculptural installation. The melding of these areas suggest to me that you’re attempting to encapsulate complete narratives within individual artworks. Am I on the right track?

LH: That’s a great observation. There are times when narrative becomes so obvious, and that comes to the forefront in the graphic novels. You can't help but think of that as very narratively driven. I would say that the narrative impulse is balanced by an impulse around materiality and craft. So, in that case, sometimes the narrative, for example, with Still Newfoundland, I would say that it was driven by this sense of beauty or intrigue by nature and those qualities that, I wouldn't call them narrative… but certainly, in the process of gathering what I did and putting together what I did and augmenting with bought flowers, a narrative has to emerge.

Still Newfoundland No. 4 (detail), 2020, by Lynne HellerStill Newfoundland No. 4 (detail), 2020

CD: In your series Still Newfoundland, each composition is constructed from multiple source images. And it’s the merging of multiple images that had me wondering if you were pursuing a sort of narrative through your choices. A constructed reality, which has its own tradition in the overall history of photography – and in the making of photographs.

LH: You've probably heard this from many photo artists, but right from the get-go it was all constructed. I mean, it's the history of photography and I'm happy to be part of that history. You open your eyes and you start constructing, which is part of my interest in the material and the virtual and their influence on each other. So, I hope that as an artist I take constructing reality to another level to help other people to construct their own reality. But there's no such thing as unconstructed. And the degree to which you do that with artifice, which is not a bad thing, but you might intend to do that. Or you do that with irony. I do it with beauty.

Like, "Can I construct this thing to just wow your eyeballs?" And that wowing of eyeballs is very implicit in embodied reactions, and it's not simply, "Oh, this is beautiful." I can do a whole project on Elaine Scarry, On Beauty and Being Just, which is a book I reference constantly because beauty according to Scarry really focuses us on something. It's a really important function. And so, I think I do it with a bit of artifice, obviously, I'm putting together plants... And that of course references surrealism and this idea that you're putting together disparate kinds of things, which is what I do and yet they look harmonious, and classically beautiful.

Still Newfoundland No. 7, 2020, by Lynne Heller Still Newfoundland No. 7, 2020

CD: What put you on the path to begin Still Newfoundland?

LH: Well, here again it would be a combination of craft and idea. I started to direct-scan things more than 15 years ago, about 18 years ago, and it was so insipid when I started it. And I remember those scans; I didn't even think I could scan real things. Somehow, I thought I had to take pictures and scan the pictures, but I don't know, it was all very complicated in my mind. I could only scan artificial flowers for some reason, not real ones. And then all of a sudden it dawned on me like, "Oh God, I can put anything on there, that's a camera." And that realization was so much fun. It really came out of a textile project where I was making floorcloths.

As I was making those floorcloths my thought was, “Isn't it funny to walk on very real things?” We don't tend to want to do that. I did a big floorcloth for my MFA show, where we put it right in front of the elevator where people came off so that they had to walk on it. It was all about trying to get the real into a place that startled people. And that's where the genesis for Still Newfoundland came from.

Still Newfoundland No. 7 (detail), 2020, by Lynne Heller
Still Newfoundland No. 7 (detail), 2020

CD: You’re based in Toronto. What is your connection to Newfoundland with these works?

LH: I had never been to Newfoundland before, and the Bonavista Biennale was on. Some friends of ours visited there… So there's a whole convergence of me going… Something that we often exoticize in Canada is the myth of the place; of Newfoundland. I think there's this romantic notion around Newfoundland, and sadly I don't think Newfoundlanders can keep up that impression constantly – no one can – because hanging onto these traditional ways of life that clearly are not sustainable is a question for all of us to consider.

Every time you do something that you think is sustainable or references the earth again, it puts it into question for you because you know that we're all tromping on this earth in major ways - and industry, and oil wells, and all that kind of stuff is destroying traditional ways of life. But, do we hang on to it? Do we want to? That's not what history has ever done. Lots of people try to roll back history, and it just doesn't work.

Still Newfoundland No. 8, 2020, by Lynne Heller
Still Newfoundland No. 8, 2020

CD: Can you tell me about Still Newfoundland No. 8; the artwork that contains what looks like cotton puffs? Not a plant I’d associate with Newfoundland.

LH: Here is the artifice; the surrealism. This piece came out of an experience in Newfoundland after seeing my friend Camille Turner’s piece in the Bonavista Biennale. Camille made a historical investigation into slave ships, where they were built and how many people they carried; just trying to really codify that discovery, or record that because obviously it's lost history.

So, I saw that piece and we were with quite a number of Newfoundlanders – friends of friends – and they really reacted very strongly to Camille’s work, and said, “The time that she said that the ships were being built, was the time when the shipbuilding industry in Newfoundland wasn't advanced enough.” And I don't know if this is a direct argument to counter her argument, but they also said that basically the people in Newfoundland were one step above slaves in that they were indentured, and beholden; had no facility to move, either socially or physically. They pushed back really hard on that, and then of course my discomfort around their tension, and knowing Camille and knowing how careful an artist she is…

And so, when I got back to St. John’s, I went to The Rooms. I tried to follow-up; I tried to say, "Do you have any historical evidence about where the shipbuilding industry was at in the 1700s?" And they didn't have anything they could offer me. And then when I would send information back to these people that I was discussing it with, their argument was that the shipbuilding records that said things were being built in Newfoundland were just really not accurate at all, in that back then they just lumped in Newfoundland; they would call anything Newfoundland that was “over in that direction”. Who knows if that's true, but that was their argument.

My response to that was to infuse one of the Still Newfoundland pieces with this idea of cotton because there's no doubt that they sent rotten fish from Newfoundland to feed slaves in the islands, the south. So, you can't get around that one. So, that was the genesis of the cotton and the stuff from Newfoundland.

Still Newfoundland No. 5, 2020, by Lynne HellerStill Newfoundland No. 5, 2020

CD: Where do you see your practice headed – what is currently fascinating to you?

LH: Well, I’m working heavily in virtual reality. Augmented and virtual reality are such obvious directions for me. And I’m hoping to take the flower imagery into that space in some way. I don’t generally create “things” in there; I create journeys or sojourns, or experiences. Landscapes.

Augmented and virtual reality allows you to temporarily get beyond your own body or your own identity that you’ve constructed. It allows you a lot of freedom for different kinds of embodiments, which is nice.

Still Newfoundland No. 6 (detail), 2020, by Lynne HellerStill Newfoundland No. 6 (detail), 2020

CD: How have these extended periods of lockdown affected your or your art-making?

LH: My joke is that I've been practicing self-isolation for years. I'm an introvert. I'm like, "Oh, just leave me alone. Let me make things." Very specifically, I did this whole mask-making project, like a lot of people who know how to sew have been making masks. That was completely out of the blue, and really connected me back to stitching and sewing, which was really lovely and easier on my eyes in certain ways, believe it or not. Digital work is just really hard on your body; the way you hold yourself, the strain on your eyes. And I finished Still Newfoundland. I had it substantially done, but did some more work on it.

I'm in okay shape, despite the lockdowns. I hurt for the people in the meat-packing plants. I just can't believe that that amount of inequality is so evident again. It just floors me that there's so many people who can't escape going out, who then get this disease and die from it. The tragedy of that, how are we going to live through that? When we look back, it's going to feel like having lived through a war or something. And I'm aging too, so that idea that, "Oh older people are dispensable," and that sort of thing is really troubling. I don't know if any of that experience will make it into my art or not. My day-to-day life has been better in that the world has left me alone a bit more.

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Lynne Heller is a FFOTO Exclusive artist. Learn more about Lynne and her practice via her website LynneHeller.com