My family and I are delighted to announce that Sally Heppner of Portland, Oregon, is the recipient of this year’s Leigh Hyams Studio Residency. Her application is so moving, I am publishing it (with her permission) in full below.
Leigh Hyams Studio Residency Application for May 2015
Submitted by Sally Heppner
How I’m connected with Leigh
Journal Entry from Sunday, June 8, 2008: She said to be ready to hate my work. She said to be ready to cry. She said to stop being nice. She said others have started looking for plane tickets back after a week. Apparently she is going to kick me in the butt. Big time.
This is exactly what I want.
And that’s exactly what happened.
I heard Leigh speak in March, 2008 in Portland, Oregon. The minute I heard her speak, I knew there was something within her that was luminous. At that time her paintings were loose, drippy, luscious botanicals. They drew me in and wouldn’t let me go. She said her painting was about “this incredible joy of being alive.” I knew then I wanted to be near her and learn from her.
She worked me hard. I painted for two and a half weeks in the little garden shed, painting from exquisite dreams I discovered I had only while in Mexico. I changed and my work transformed. Leigh had the ability to help unlock me, to loosen the tight intellectual constraints learned while earning my recent fine arts degree, and I began to paint from the center of my soul.
When I came home, I built out a wall in my little apartment like the wall in Leigh’s studio so I could continue to paint freely, and I did until two and a half years ago when my world turned upside down.
On August 10th 2012, my 24-year-old son, Michael, died in his sleep. We don’t know why, he just went. He was a luminous soul, like Leigh, an artist to the core of his being. His medium was music; when he played the saxophone I was mesmerized. Now I hear him in the sound of the geese overhead as they head to the nearby park, the harmonies of water as a river wends its way through boulders, the whisper of glacial wind blowing down from a mountain at dusk.
When Michael died, I felt him with me, guiding me through my grief. I felt an intense surge of creativity and love. But my painting heart became locked up. I’m still not sure why.
The following summer I realized if anybody could help me unlock this frozen painting heart, it would be Leigh. I would go to San Miguel and study with her again. When I searched and found she had died a few months previous, I was filled with new grief—for you, Gina, for those who would never get a chance to soak up Leigh’s spirit, and for myself because I would not have her to guide me again with her rigorous, exuberant, honest teaching.
I’ve continued to paint through my grief but it’s not the same. I’ve been painting about my search. What happens after we die? Where is Michael now? I’ve also been painting pure expression, like Leigh taught me, but only occasionally. I have lost my heart.
I still need Leigh. I need to feel her joyous spirit; her dedication to drawing; her passion for paint; her love of life. Though her body is not here, I believe her spirit is, and I know that while working in her space she will be near.
When I worked with Leigh previously, I was driven. I couldn’t stop painting. I felt like I was dancing with paint in the little garden shed and I didn’t want to leave. I kept learning from Leigh right up until the end. The last day as I prepared to leave, though exhausted, I decided I had one more painting in me. I started a diptych from a small, loose drawing I’d made at the hot springs the day before. As I worked, Leigh would come in and sit down, discussing the difference between value and intensity, suggesting just a bit more punch, or intensity, in the lower left corner of one. I was so very grateful for every hour spent with Leigh. She helped me open up and see from my soul. As I left San Miguel in the wee hours of the morning I closed my eyes. What did I see? Splotches of lush color juxtaposed against each other. My mind was playing with intensity, value and hue. Lush oranges were playing against the pinks, greens and yellows of Mexico. They were dripping and goopy and slopped-on in my mind. I was continuing to paint, continuing what Leigh had imparted.
What would I do for a month in Leigh’s studio?
To prepare myself, I will re-read the journal I wrote while working with her in 2008. I will also re-read her book, How Painting Holds Me on The Earth: Writings of a Maverick Painter and Teacher, which I continue to turn to when I need a good dose of Leigh. (She was writing her book while mentoring me and I had the privilege of helping her edit a few chapters. She also included portions of my journal in her postscript section on mentoring.)
The first morning in Leigh’s studio and garden I will sit and absorb. I remember her often sitting and reading in her garden. I want to hear what new things she has to tell me. I never got enough of her teaching.
Next I will go out and find that luscious Mexican paint Leigh introduced me to. I will buy colors I like and colors I hate, just as Leigh suggested when we went to the little tienda on my first day with her. I will come back to the studio and tack up several large sheets of paper, nothing precious, and begin to paint. I will find those places within myself that I need to let go of and just paint.
Journal entry from Tuesday, June 10th, 2008: She said to think about painting joy later and think about shouting right now. It may not be beautiful or pleasing or anything I have been taught to do. My gut may paint ahead of my intellect. That will catch up later.
I need the time and the place to shout. I will revive what Leigh taught me; how she prodded me and pushed me to my limits. Since Michael died, I have painted when I can but haven’t set aside the time to inquire deeply. When I do have time, I have been reading everything I can get my eyes on and painting my questions about death. We don’t deal with these questions in our society very well. Mexicans seem to accept death much more fluidly than we. I had the opportunity to be in Mexico for Dia de Los Muertos in 2008 and experienced the celebration of loved ones remembered and returning to their families. What better place than Leigh’s studio in Mexico, where the veil between death and life is not drawn so tightly, to continue my inquiry? I will converse with paint in Leigh’s studio every day, then, in the evenings I will write of my experience. I learn by writing; it helps to clarify my thoughts and recall what I’ve learned.
As I was cleaning out my own small studio at the beginning of this New Year, I wanted to set aside painting about grief and paint life again. But when I think about it, I realize I am not done with grief. Leigh’s statement that her painting is about the incredible joy of being alive has never left me. It’s why I was drawn to her paintings and her exuberant spirit in the first place. My work tends to be about life and the joy I find when outside but I know I need the space and time to go deep into death and grieving before I can paint life again. I suspect there is much to learn about death and life and the interconnectedness of the two.
About my work
In addition to my inquiry about grief, my work is about human interaction with nature. How humans respond to the environment surrounding them intrigues me. We are happiest and healthiest when in touch with where we come from; we have an inarticulate need to be an integral part of the natural universe. The more I turn over rocks to see lives below them and the more I absorb the beauty of what surrounds us, the more I feel a sense of wonder about what it means to be part of this unfathomable whole. Lately, though, when outside and when painting, I find my thoughts turning to life, death, and the nature of our being. I have so many questions.
I have lost my painting heart and I want to find it again. I used to find joy in the way art would open me up to the natural world—I would pay attention to shape, absorb color, bury my eyes in the texture of paint, and express deep emotion. When painting, I have a conversation with my work; sometimes a painting will tell me it is done but not yet ready to be understood. Leigh taught me that too. Looking at a particular painting months later, I begin to understand. I love the continued discovery.
I don’t want to let these things go. Now, glimmers of the power of art and nature emerge occasionally but the rigors of making ends meet clutter my mind and affect my art practice. I need the time away to focus, a fresh start, to revisit what Leigh taught me and push my painting to the limits. I am ready. Leigh said in her book, “For me, the act of drawing or painting a landscape fulfills some inarticulate need to be an integral part of the universe – to meld with the natural world, or, somehow, through painting, to touch the life force for an instant.” This quote exemplifies the mysterious and powerful interconnectedness of art and the natural world. Setting aside a month to paint and examine the connections between art, nature, life, and death in Leigh’s studio in Mexico would allow me to come away with a deeper understanding of this beautiful existence we’re living, a renewed pursuit of painting, and a good dose of Leigh’s spirit, so I may share with those around me this incredible joy of being alive.