Valerie Hegarty (b. 1967, Burlington, VT) Previous solo exhibitions include Nicelle Beauchene, NY; Marlborough Gallery, NY; Locust Projects, Miami; Museum 52, London; The Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago; and Guild & Greyshkul, NY. She completed a public project for the High Line in NYC and a special project of installations in three of the American period rooms at the Brooklyn Museu. Hegarty's work is included in the permanent collections of the Brooklyn Museum, the Perez Art Museum Miami, the Saatchi Gallery, the New Britain Museum of American Art, the Portland Museum of Art, the Tang Museum and the Wadsworth Atheneum. Hegarty received her MFA from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and has received grants and awards from the Pollock Krasner Foundation, The New York Foundation for the Arts, the Rema Hort Mann Foundation, the Tiffany Foundation and Campari NY. She has completed residences at LMCC, Marie Walsh Sharpe, PS 122, MacDowell, Yaddo, and Smack Mellon, and she served as the first Andrew W. Mellon Arts and the Common Good Artist-in-Residence at Drew University in NJ.
Valerie Hegarty is a Brooklyn-based artist whose work frequently employs critical engagement with American History and addresses themes of memory, place and art historical legacy through painting, sculpture and large-scale installations.
Interview with Valerie Hegarty
Written by Andreana Donahue
Hi Valerie. What was your introduction to art and art-making growing up in Vermont?
I was born in Vermont but my family moved when I was three years old to Chelmsford, Massachusetts (near Lowell) so that’s basically where I grew up. I loved to make things as a child, whether drawing, painting, sewing or using found objects to construct something. I thought everyone loved to do this as a kid but I thought when you got older you had to do something more “serious”. My Mom used to sew our clothes and my father was always working on a home improvement project, so there were always scraps of materials laying around to work with. At one point as a kid my Mom brought my sister and I to an art class. I remember drawing lots of rabbits. I loved nature and crafts much more than playing with other kids. One of my favorite times in school was kindergarten because we got to make art all the time. I did well in school and was good in most subjects, but it wasn’t until my sophomore year in college when I took an art foundation class that I felt like I finally understood what people meant when they said they were “passionate” about something. I majored in fine art at a liberal arts school and tried to find a commercial art field to pursue upon graduating. I didn’t know that being a fine artist could be a career. I pursued graphic arts and kind of hated it, then went back to school for illustration and did editorial illustration for a few years. I quit that also and decided I would get a studio and have art be separate from my job so I got a part-time job as a Powerpoint specialist and then made things in my studio with no emphasis on product. I collected objects from the street and worked with mixed media constructions. Eventually I entered some art shows and got interested in going to art school for my masters. It was 10 years after undergrad when I went back to grad school at The Art Institute of Chicago and I loved being in art school. I didn’t really do it to try to enter the fine art world, I just always wanted to go to art school. I started doing installations right out of grad school that got some attention and I’ve been working in New York ever since.
You were raised by first-generation American parents. How have the patriotic objects they chose to display in your childhood home, and living in New England more broadly, contributed to your creative practice?
I grew up near Concord and Lexington so the revolutionary war period was a historic period that was always emphasized in school and we would go on field trips to historic homes. I remember we would make candles and soap at one of the homes. As a kid, I thought these colonial artifacts at our house were real and belonged to our family history. My grandparents came over from Ireland and Italy and settled in Boston. Many homes in the New England area have these faux colonial artifacts as home décor. In grad school I started recreating some of the objects in paper-mache and I made some videos of my family as if we lived in the colonial period. In my practice, the act of copying early American painting was influenced by the artwork that was hanging in my childhood home which were seascape and landscape paintings that my Dad had bought at the hardware store because there was an art studio in the back of the store and one day they were selling off the artist’s paintings. There was also a Homer reproduction in my brother’s room that I always loved. There is an intrigue and allure to these paintings that were used to create a national identity, however problematic.
You’re currently based in Brooklyn. Can you tell us about your studio? What is a typical day like for you?
I live in Prospect Heights, Brookyn and for the past three years I have had a studio at the Elizabeth Foundation for the Arts in Manhattan near Port Authority. I also have been renting shelves at Brickhouse Ceramic Art Center in Long Island City. In the recent past I had been adjunct teaching in New Jersey at Drew University 2 days/week although this year I am just working in my studio. Typically I get there around 10am and stay until 7pm. I do some emailing first, then work on a sculpture/painting for about 4-6 hours and the last hour or two I might work on some creative writing. I don’t like to take the subway to and from Manhattan at rush hour so I arrange my hours accordingly. I have friends in the building so we may take a break together. Some days I go to the ceramic studio and will work from 10-6 in ceramics. We are not allowed to have kilns at EFA so I’ve been working in a separate location and I love Brickhouse and the community there. Yesterday I moved out of Brickhouse so I can focus in my studio on some larger works which I’m using air dryed clay to create and I hope to get a small kiln this summer to work upstate.
Over the course of your career, you’ve employed various approaches to painting, sculpture, and installation using a wide range of media (including paper, cardboard, foam core, acrylic, watercolor, and fabric). What is your criteria for selecting materials? Can you talk about the evolution of your practice over time?
I never studied sculpture formally, so when I started working more sculpturally I used materials I was familiar with like foamcore and paper-mache. I tend to use craft-based materials for this reason, they are cheap and easier to manipulate for me. They can be subversive I think since they can be gendered and thus to make social or political work out of craft materials adds to the content. When I made a project for the Highline that had to be outdoors for one year I worked with a fabricator who created the work from fiberglass and apoxy clay and it was introduction to more durable materials. I started working in ceramics four years ago and it was the first very technical material I have ever used and was quite frustrating for that reason. It has a slow learning curve but now I am hooked.
What attracted you to working with clay in recent years? Are there results you’ve been able to achieve through ceramics that previously eluded you?
I felt like I wanted to use a material that was more substantial than paper-mache and I also had ideas for a series of sculptures that would be like table top centerpieces involving fruits and vegetables that were being affected by current practices and environmental issues. Ceramics seemed to make sense for this since we already see table top ceramics of fruit and vegetables that people buy for centerpieces at home décor stores. So that is how I came to take my first ceramic class, but now the material is starting to infiltrate itself into all my work. It also is a different way of working as the pieces need to be hollow and any disintegration or transformation in the work has to be part of the initial piece so I think it forces me to be more imaginative. You often replicate specific objects or environments, typically in a state of ruin or decay.
How substantial is the research and planning phase of these projects?
The research isn’t always linear, sometimes I have an idea and then there is a back and forth between the making and the research that can alter the outcome. A good example is when I wanted to make a painting of an exploded watermelon and I was thinking about it in formal terms, as an abstract painting with a reference to humor (like the comedian Gallagher that used to smash watermelons or David Letterman that filmed throwing them off buildings) and the messy bodily aspect of the watermelon might recall an exploded body in war imagery. I started Googling “exploded watermelons” to get some visuals and ran across a series of articles about watermelons that were exploding in Mexico and China in 2012 that were sprayed with the wrong growth hormone. So I tried to make a painting of a watermelon based on a Raphael Peale painting with the insides becoming sculptural like they were growing out of the painting. This form started to look like a tongue and so I went with that form, thinking it was a good bodily reference to combine with the watermelon, like the watermelon was sticking out its tongue and taunting the viewer.
Your solo exhibitions have frequently featured large-scale sculptural installations that are highly detailed and labor intensive. How would you characterize your work ethic? Can you elaborate on your overall process?
I have a strong work ethic in general, but my works can be labor intensive because I am a process-driven artist much of the time. I love working with material and experimenting in general. I think my overall process is a combination of playfulness and focus.
How does your ongoing interest in Vanitas and the American art-historical canon inform meaning in your work?
I am interested in exploring contemporary issues such as anxiety around climate change and I use art historical references as a way to approach these subjects.
Can you talk about the recurring representations of floral still lifes, both painted and sculptural, in recent work? Do tulips have a specific significance for you?
I’ve been interested in the still life genre as a way to talk about environmental destruction and it’s impact on a domestic level. On a personal level I am exploring issues about aging, mortality, and impermanence which are concerns that are infused historically in still lives. I used tulips in many pieces recently as a reference to Dutch still life painting that often contained tulips.
As an artist who has extensively referenced American history, politics, and nationalism, in what ways has your work or perspective shifted since the 2016 election?
There hasn’t necessarily been a shift but all the issues that were disturbing before the election continue to be ramped up. Throughout your work you navigate both personal and collective memory.
What motivates you to insinuate yourself as a “creator, archaeologist, and historian?” How does the work operate in the present?
I’m interested in memory in both personal and collective terms. I think in the process of recreation, the memory becomes revived and brought into the present moment where perhaps something new can be uncovered or experienced.
At times you’ve exhibited work that could be mistaken for an existing aspect of the space or might go entirely unnoticed. What do you find compelling about this idea?
I am interested in the space that art is presented and the constructed idea of the white cube as a neutral space. I like playing with the space as a way to have the viewer question what is the art. American Berserk at Burning in Water included a glazed ceramic series of anthropomorphized watermelons; these surreal works were inspired by footage of watermelons that spontaneously exploded after being sprayed with an incorrect growth hormone. How does your work address our agricultural industries and current environmental crisis?
The fruits and vegetables ceramic works are referencing different contemporary practices around food, like artificially ripening food with gases and creating genetic mutations. Like much of your work, this watermelon series is marked by an undercurrent of dark humor. How does this humor function for you? What is its connection to loss?
I know this guy that always says, “Don’t give up until it gets funny.” Humor is my way of coping with the incomprehensible and having some agency in the face of what seems like hopeless situations. American Berserk was partially influenced by concepts underpinning Philip Roth’s American Pastoral.
Can you talk about other works of literature or writers that are important to you? What have you been reading lately?
I like writers that capture the dark side of human nature along with its beauty, like Raymond Carver, Carson McCullers, Katherine Anne Porter, Flannery O’Conner, John Steinbeck, Amy Hempel. I also love magic realist writers and stories about monsters, like Jose Saramago, Edgar Allen Poe and Mary Shelley. Lately I’ve been reading Lydia Davis’ short stories.
I know you’ve been writing since you were a teenager and your first published short story will be in the New England Review this year. Do these narratives share any thematic similarities with your visual work?
Sometimes. I like to write stories that may tangentially relate to an art theme or sometimes I write a story about an artwork I made just as an exercise to see where it goes and if it’ll give me some new ideas. I also like to write lightly fictionalized experiences from my own life that are both funny and difficult. I only started sending out some work this past year and the story that is due to be published is titled “Cats vs. Cancer” and is about my experience of getting a cancer diagnosis the same week I rescued a feral kitten and the mayhem that ensued. Who are some contemporary artists you’re excited about right now? I always find this a difficult question. I could sit and think about it all day and write 100s of names, I don’t have a top 10 list or anything. Since I don’t have all day to answer this, I will say off the top of my head: Genesis Belanger, Kate Klingbeil, Arlene Shechet, Ebony Patterson, Maia Cruz de Palileo, Diana Al Hadid, Simone Leigh, Shinique Smith.
Over the years you’ve attended many artist residencies including Yaddo, MacDowell, and the Bronx Museum. How do you usually approach your time at residencies?
Have any of these experiences distinctly impacted your artistic and professional development? I usually approach residencies as a place to immerse, explore and experiment. Also there is the influence of the community and cross-fertilization with the inter-disciplinary practices of writers and composers that is always the most exciting. My last residency at MacDowell was the impetus to take a ceramic class. I went to the residency with the intention of creating paintings and I ended up making a large series of watercolors of fruits and vegetables. I then thought the ideas made more sense as sculpture and when I get back to NYC I signed up for a ceramic class and have been continuing ever since.
What are you currently working on in the studio? Do you have any upcoming exhibitions, residencies, projects, or other news you’d like to share?
I currently have work in a group show at The Pelham Art Center called “Hyperaccumulators” (three ceramic works and a paper pulp work) and I will have a ceramic work in a group show at Essex Flowers called “Inland Empire”. I also have two works in the group show at Saatchi Gallery in London called “Black Mirror: Art as Social Satire” and one work in the traveling group show “Nature’s Nation: American Art and Environment” that is now opening at The Peabody Essex Museum in MA and will travel to Crystal Bridges in AR this summer. Mostly I’m looking forward to continuing with the work that is evolving out of my last show “Bloom & Gloom” that was at Burning in Water in Dec –Jan 2019. I am excited about the new work I am making in the studio with apoxy clay and air-dry clay. It’s allowing me to get bigger than I was technically able to do in ceramics. Stay tuned! You can follow me on instagram @valeriejhegarty for updates.
To find out more about Valerie and her work, check out her website.