Artist Interview: Heather Day

Lauren Wolfer, Associate Curator of Special Collections & Archives

I received these interview questions from the Fort Wayne Museum of Art (FWMoA) about a month ago. At the time, I was putting finishing touches on a mural and rehearsing a talk I would give to celebrate the opening of my first solo museum exhibition, Woolgatherers. These moments now feel like they’re a world away.

Then, I couldn’t have imagined how COVID-19 was and would continue to drastically alter our lives and affect communities globally. Now, I’m still trying to make sense of it as it changes day to day.

I can’t ignore the context in which this interview, and the work I will describe, exists. But, for those who are able to, I hope taking a moment to focus on art can offer a sense of relief or rest from what we’re dealing with everyday.

A diptych, this large scale painting includes cool colors and lines scribbled throughout. Reminiscent of the sea or ocean, the lights and darks mix together creating a turbulent feeling of motion.
Heather Day, American, b. 1989. Fever Dream. Mixed media on canvas, 2020. Courtesy of the Artist. Photo courtesy of Heather Day.

1. What inspired your FWMoA exhibition, Woolgatherers?

Woolgatherer’s original meaning is to wander where sheep graze, to gather tufts of wool caught in vegetation. It’s not something that many of us do today. But, I think the term has evolved to imply the act of daydreaming or indulging in absentmindedness.  

I thought it would be interesting to invite museum-goers to participate in a new kind of woolgathering. By that I mean the deliberate act of observing what’s in front of you, without being spun out of focus by the stimuli, anxiety, and immediacy we deal with everyday. Creating a space to take stock of your own thoughts as an observer of those thoughts, rather than the person being swayed by them, is a critical part of our experience, and my work. 

2. This is your first solo museum exhibition. How does this exhibition differ from that of a gallery?

I look at my previous gallery shows as chapters in a book. This exhibition felt like I was completing and closing that book. It gave me the opportunity to look back at the past eight to ten years of my practice from a bird’s eye view and tie up loose ends and structure the work exactly how I wanted.

That’s not to say I’m leaving behind the thoughts and processes from those shows; I’m taking them somewhere new. I’m taking the momentum and the confidence from my first solo museum show into my work. I feel excited and ready for what’s next.

3. What is synesthesia and how does that affect the art that you make?

Synesthesia is when a sensory impression, relating to one sense or part of the body, gets stimulated by another part of the body. It’s basically an overlapping of senses, where one sense is mistaken for another.

I have chromesthesia. That means I associate color with sound, taste, and/or heightened emotion. I think the ability to see and sense color is innate, but we’re not called to use that ability to its fullest extent in everyday life.  

I try to catalog moments where I see and sense synesthetic color, as well as moments where I’m seeing an external color, one that’s actually there. I bring that palate of color back to the studio to unpack and use in my work. It’s often emotional. It’s often personal. But, that’s usually where you find the most meaningful stuff. 

4. You work with a variety of mediums, from monoprints to large scale murals to canvases. How does your artistic process differ across mediums?

I don’t have a favorite. Though, I was classically trained in oil painting. Working on paper and canvas feels intuitive to me. But, I enjoy the challenges of adapting my practice to large scale public murals, or working in augmented / virtual reality.

I’ve found that working with a diverse set of tools and surfaces drives me to break formulas. Working in digital mediums requires a lot of practice. Before I can even consider creating a finished piece, I have to ensure I can adapt to the new environment.

I grew up drawing and painting on paper. But, working on a Cintiq, iPad, or with a VR headset is completely different. It’s been refreshing to work in a digital medium that I’m not classically trained in. It allows me to break the rules, to stretch out, and to not be held back by the habits I have from a classical education. 

A softer painting, this work includes blue and pink washes with white lines. An almost tie-dye effect occurs in the middle, creating texture and soft lines.
Heather Day, American, b. 1989. Slow Bougainvillea #6. Mixed media on canvas, 2020. Museum purchase. Photo courtesy of Heather Day.

5. Was there a specific moment where you decided to pursue art as a full-time career? 

When I was growing up, I saw art as something I did as a means to understand the world around me. I didn’t know it was something I could do for a living. Later on, I received my BFA in painting and art history from the Maryland Institute College of Art. But, even after I graduated, I was skeptical that I could pursue art in earnest, without a back up plan. It wasn’t until my early to mid 20s, while balancing multiple jobs and a studio practice, where I thought, “Maybe I can really do this.” Then, I saw the seeds of potential in building strong relationships with galleries and collectors. I knew I had to balance time painting and refining my process with strategy as well. That was key in making a living as an artist.   After making that leap, making art my profession has demanded more time, hard work, and strategy than I could have ever imagined. But, if I had to do it all over again, I would.

6. You’ve had a lot of success in your career. What is it like being an artist on the rise?

Thanks. I’ve been humbled by the opportunity to exhibit my work at the Fort Wayne Museum of Art. Being an artist today requires a lot of hours in the studio making the work, and also a level of strategy making sure the work is seen. It’s almost unheard of for an artist to simply be discovered from their basement. Being an artist today requires constant outreach and interaction with artists in my community and beyond. But, it’s something that happens naturally. I’m a part of a community of artists and galleries who are always striving to push their work forward. That motivates me to keep painting and refining my process.

7. How has the age of social media impacted you? What are the pros and cons of having a large online following?

Social media is a powerful tool for discovering artists. But, if you consider that artist without context, or purely in the context of their social media profile, you’re missing out on an authentic view of their work. 

I think the larger conversation is around how connected we are globally, and how we have so many ways to interact with or consume information and influence. I have influences at the tip of my fingertips, instantly available.

I’m looking at what artists around the world are creating thousands of miles from my studio in San Francisco, what major institutions are publishing, how art history is developing in the context of the Internet, and participating in my local artist community. 

My work is informed by all of these experiences — digital or physical, local or foreign — and distilled in a very private process that is insulated from social media. I’m careful to never get too close to any one reference point, or veer too far towards one pillar of influence. 

8. How has your work evolved and where do you see it going in the future? Are there any upcoming projects you’re excited about?

With the outbreak of COVID-19, I feel compelled to rethink my expectations about how people are consuming or looking at art.

Painting is a deeply physical process. When I drag my brush across a canvas, or lift a canvas to flood a specific area with color, I’m informed by the feeling of the movement as well as the result of that movement.

When you visit a gallery or museum in person, you can see the results of that physical work frozen in time. You can see the grit of a pencil’s shading. You can see where paint saturates the surface of a canvas, or is absorbed in its grain. In person, the observer of the art is able to mine some of the meditative experiences the artist enjoyed while composing it. If you’re looking at an image of a work on your phone, you don’t have the same depth of experience.

I’m working to bridge the gap between interacting with art in-person and interacting with art virtually. I’d like to find a way to show the process of a piece coming together on a virtual medium.

The artist Heather Day stands in her studio surrounded by artworks she created for her first solo museum exhibition at the Fort Wayne Museum of Art.
Heather Day at work in her studio, San Francisco, CA. Photo courtesy of Heather Day.

9. What are you hoping visitors get from seeing your art?

When I’m able to empty my mind and focus on a piece of art, I find myself recharged afterwards. For example, when I recently saw No.15, 1969 by Rothko in-person at the SFMOMA, I spent time taking it in. The relationship between colors evolved the more time I took to focus on the piece. I saw details I would have missed had I been distracted or hurried.

I hope visitors can take a moment to pause and take in Woolgatherers. Maybe they’ll find something new in a piece, or maybe they’ll take that act of focused observation home with them.  Perhaps they’ll notice the way light refracts as it splits through a vase on their kitchen counter, or find the glow of its shadow has a note of ultraviolet blue. I believe finding an appreciation for the details, even in the everyday, builds a stronger internal and mental foundation. I hope my work can be a catalyst for that. 

Special thanks to Lauren Wolfer for curating this exhibit and keeping an open mind. Thanks to FWMoA for exhibiting my work and acquiring two paintings for your permanent collection. Woolgatherers is on view until May 31, 2020.

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