I met Heidi at Stella’s after a few weeks of chasing her down to talk to her about her amazing artwork and defining presence in town. She had just been finishing a mural in the last dreadfully hot days of the summer for Pushers in the Arts District and just begun teaching at ODU for the semester.
In many ways Heidi redefines the idea of what a drawing can be an at the same time she deconstructs and rearranges the idea of what the modern domesticated woman can look like. The juxtaposition of digital media, found photographs of objects for settings, and ballpoint pen renderings of the women in her work create a stage and actress ready to deliver her lines.
Peelen works like a director, placing the characters on this stage in front of us as they gaze past the fourth wall into our eyes.
A native of Virginia, Heidi studied at at Pratt Institute, earning an M.F.A. in Digital Arts, Pratt Institute. She is a musician, comedian and visual artist who works out of the new Glass wheel Studio in the NEON Arts District. I got to know her a little better. Here is our conversation:
AltDaily: Is intent to create an uncertain atmosphere for the women you create? I can never tell where they are or what mood they express.
Heidi Peelen: There is an interest in the dichotomy of the contemporary woman for me, her struggle in determining a role in society. I suppose the perceived uncertainty in my portraits of women is less intentional but more so my attempt to honestly illustrate the identity crisis I recognize in myself as a millennial women participating in social commentary.
The characters in your work are not simply subjects; they defy your gaze. They warn you with their eyes. Don’t try it with me. Several of them also remind me of “ selfies.” How are these self-portraits redefining the modern young woman?
I think I recognize a lot of insecurity in the modern woman, or at least a relatively forced confidence most often exercised via social media. Sometimes I feel a sort of “girlfriend” mentality to try and remind women of my generation in particular, the authority we do have. The independence that belongs only to us, the independence earned as a result of where we exist in the timeline.
Is the internet a mirror? Is the internet changing how women see themselves?
A mirror shows us a reflection of ourselves. We can see what it shows us and we trust this is an accurate impression of what we look like. The internet, however, is more our own creation of what we’d like to see in our “virtual mirrors,” so to speak. We can curate our personas to show exactly what we want people to perceive.
What expectations does culture place on women?
Which culture? The specific cultural expectations I try to challenge in my work/thought process is that of the women’s role coming from a very personal background. I have always felt that I can and only should speak to what I know. I know that at an influential age I watched the traditional gender roles of a woman in the home change drastically according to unforeseen circumstances. Watching my mother shift from a dependent spouse to an entirely independent single mother affected me in a way I didn’t begin recognizing until recently, perhaps because I am the age she was when she went through this transformation. But I’ve only begun to recognize it and harness its intentionality in my creating of imagery.
What role does cigarette smoke play in your art? In some cases it sends a relatively straightforward message and in other cases it is more in the background. But is there a constant message that it is sending?
Some of these questions are causing me to have to really evaluate aspects of myself I’m not sure I’ve entirely dealt with…
Cliché and deserving of no pity, my parents divorced when I was 6 or 7 and it was “messy,” and for the protection of everyone’s reputation, the who-wronged-who’s aren’t important. We were a very churchy family with all the bourgeois amenities down to the yellow Labrador retriever. My father began resenting a life of domesticity (a struggle he and I have always had in common). When he left the home, he took up smoking. He had probably always smoked but just kept it secret. Anyhow, I think my being at such an influential age, the act of smoking began to represent some sort of newfound independence. He had escaped all the conventions I knew to be normal. Maybe there’s something to that.
Are you the same person who left years ago?
Pre-2011 Heidi and I wouldn’t hang out and if we did I’d roll my eyes at her a lot.
How have your personal relationships affected the direction and content of your work?
Oh God, how don’t they?! I think every single thing I’ve produced has been result of processing personal truths. It’s the aftermath of the argument, the emptiness the house has after a door has slammed, that moment you’re left alone to actually solve the problem yourself that I find compelling.
What changes have you seen your work go through?
Conceptually, it has certainly become more unapologetic.
Your range of artwork includes digital media, music performance, traditional drawing methods and digital collage. What work or direction have you developed at your current residency at Glass Wheel Studio? Where are you heading next with your art?
Glass Wheel Studio has been such a positive experience and has challenged me to produce work whether it’s for an upcoming exhibition or a group critique. Because of Cheryl White’s incredible feedback and the group’s as well, I have felt free to explore new processes. Recently I have been working on large ballpoint pen drawings, a grueling yet rewarding experience. I have plans to explore video after our next exhibition.
What purpose does music making and songwriting have in your life?
I have an incessant need to exhaust my emotions and I find that I will use whatever medium necessary.
Can you define what a drawing can be in modern art?
Anything that makes a mark.
Who are the artists that speak to you? What do they say?
Terrence Malick (film), Ragnar Kjartansson (video installation), Ann Hamilton (installation), Matt Eich (photography). Each of these artists has been able to completely hypnotize me with their work and have me coming back for more. I enjoy work that challenges the senses, something that exists off of the gallery wall, and something that could swallow you whole.
To see more of Heidi Peelen’s work, here is her website.
Tonight, November 18, from 8 to 10pm, Glass Wheel Studio will be celebrating it’s first anniversary. See Heidi Peelen’s work in person there as well as a special exhibition highlighting new works from the artists in our 2016 Studio Artist Incubator Program. Meet the artists while enjoying night projections in courtyard, light h’ourderves and a cash bar. This event is free and open to the public. For more info, here is the event on Facebook.