Intro & Interview by Shanon Weltman
Eco-conscious Artist Heather Clements is cutting millions of tiny shapes out of paper and making a name for herself down in Panama City. She is a master at the art of cut paper illustrations, and her style is certainly a cut above the rest (pun intended). Her language of visual and conceptual elements in nature, as well as her tight technical abilities gives her art a breath of life. Slow your roll, slip on some flip flops, and get into the mindset of this talented Floridian.
SHANON WELTMAN: Who and what are your artistic and life inspirations?
HEATHER CLEMENTS: Some old artistic inspirations would be Egon Schiele and Chuck Close, William Kentridge, Andy Goldsworthy. Kind of picking from some technical inspirations and some conceptual inspirations.
SW: What about inspirations unrelated to art? You talk a lot about how much you love nature on your website. Talk about that a little bit.
HC: My own backyard is an inspiration. People don’t often realize the whole world that goes on just within a bush in their backyard or something. Sometimes I just watch the lizards play [Laughs], as silly as that might sound. It’s amazing! You watch a small creature long enough you start to get to know them and understand why it does certain things that might seem odd at first, but then it just comes together. Y’know, the lizards with the red flap that comes out of their neck, what is that all about?
SW: [Laughs] Mmhmm
HC: And then you see a little lady lizard come up, and you’re like ‘oh okay, mating call, gotcha.’ [Laughs] So yeah, I definitely did a bit of a lizard ramble.
SW: I don’t see a lot of lizards in your art. [Laughs] I see a lot of trees, nature, foliage.
HC: I feel that the foliage kind of speaks more of nature in general. Sometimes I feel like using specific animals is a little bit too specific and people start to think ‘what’s the symbolism of a lizard, what’s the symbolism of a bird?’ When I want it to be general nature. I have thought about putting specific animals back in my work, it’s just kind of something to think about for me.
SW: So with symbolism aside, what is your favorite imagery to work with?
HC: People, I like drawing people and lighting and doing interesting things with shadows. That’s always appealed to me.
SW: If you were to do a few animals, what animals would they be?
HC: Well actually, I’ve done some, back when I did a series I called my “Ecocide” series, and ecocide means the destruction of the environment. So, I had these beautiful women with elements of nature that they had just kind of ripped out of their natural surroundings to make themselves look pretty. Parts of the vine would start to wither and die and in each piece there was a dead animal. I had dead birds, a dead snake, a dead dragonfly… things like that. More common things that most of us experience in more everyday life. Then there was a point where I decided that I didn’t want to be negative anymore. I didn’t want to be shoving something down everyone’s throat, ‘This is how you’re all doing it wrong!’ I wanted to shift to what could be done right. How we can be living, and to show how beautiful and great that can be. I think a message stated in the positive can be so much more impactful and received better than a message received in the negative.
SW: That’s a nice point. What is this new charcoal series about? Is it what you just talked about? Can you expand on that?
HC: It’s more just exploring the inner connection between humans and nature and embracing the elements of nature that’s coming with them. Like the ones with the shadows that I have a couple of, the shadows from the trees are really imprinted on the body and they kind of go along with the curves of the body and they start to become one with the body. I think that it’s more that exploring some sort of symbiosis between ourselves and our surroundings, so we’re not so separate from our surroundings. We’re not separate from nature, we are nature.
SW: Are all of the shadows from observation? Are they from imagination?
HC: From photograph references, yeah.
SW: How big is that piece?
HC: This one is 24” x 30”.
SW: How long does it take you to work on a drawing like that?
HC: I’ve actually slowed down in my drawing process lately, although I’m in general a pretty fast worker. This one I think I tallied at about 16-17 hours.
SW: Switching gears for a second to your other work, your paper cuts, how long does one of those take? They’re all different in intricacies, I’m sure you have more than one answer.
HC: The paper cuts definitely take a bit longer than just a drawing. That was kind of the benefit when people saw the paper cuts. People don’t always understand how long a drawing or a painting takes, but with the paper cuts it was so clear, so transparent. Every single one of the shapes that you see was hand cut out, so the process was a little bit more evident. People could definitely tell the time put into the paper cuts. I did some large paper cuts that took 30 some hours, and then y’know 16” x 20” ones would take maybe 15-20 hours. So, they definitely took a good chunk of time.
SW: What did you learn through that process? I’ve seen other artists do that same technique and really honestly, in just my opinion, you’re one of the best ones out there right now. I see a lot of, ‘They know the technique but they’re not really saying much’. I don’t see any clunkiness in your work, it looks like you’ve figured out the right kind of paper, how dull the x-acto gets or whatever before too long… it just really looks like y’know what you’re doing.
HC: Yeah, I mean, I went through times when I would use 140 lb watercolor paper, which is thick stuff, and I would cut through that with x-acto knives and have to replace my blade often. That was something I definitely had to get used to. It’s okay to throw away a blade and get a new one, because the cut really suffers if you don’t change blades often. Sometimes I would use black silhouette paper which was extremely thin in contrast, and so you have to adjust how you cut based on the kind of paper that you do have. I had some practice for my paper cuts before I started, from a commission that I did which actually got me into working with paper. A commission from the Visual Arts Center of Northwest Florida to make over 300 paper flowers.
SW: That’s a lot…
HC: Yeah, if I never see another paper flower in my life… [Laughs]. I think that got out of the way all of the beginner paper cutter things to get through. I had a good understanding of the medium when I started doing my personal work with it.
SW: Is the piece in back of you a cut piece?
HC: Yeah, this is paper cut… I did a few of these drawing paper cut combinations…
SW: The one with the hair, how many cuts is that — a guess?
HC: I made an estimation shortly after cutting that one and I think it’s over a thousand. I think. I saw a little section and counted and kind of estimated it. I made a little dragonfly once, and sometimes artists, we’re just like, suicidally insane with the things we take on. I made this dragonfly that was 5” x 7” and the wings alone had 600 squares in them.
SW: Each one? Or all together? It’s impressive either way!
HC: [Laughs] I think all together. The little itty bitty tiniest little squares I could cut out. That was from 140 lb watercolor paper, that would make my hand turn into this crampy claw by the end of the day, cutting into that thick paper.
SW: [Laughs] Just one last question about the paper. Some people can’t draw without seeing a reference in front of them and other people can just see a whole image and just draw on a blank sheet of paper. Which of those two people are you when it comes to the cuts? Do you have to draw first or do you just see it and you just cut?
HC: Oh god, I definitely draw it first. [Laughs] Yeah, especially with paper cuts, you make a mistake and you’re screwed. You can’t undo a cut y’know? Sometimes you can incorporate it and change your design a little bit, but the good thing about paper cutting is the cut looks cleaner on the opposite side that you cut the paper. So all the drawing gets to be on the back, and then the other side the cuts are cleaner and you don’t have any pencil or anything.
SW: Ah, that’s kind of like fabric. You can draw with chalk and then you use the other side… okay.
HC: Yeah, so the other side’s a mess, y’know? [Laughs]
SW: That makes sense. I was wondering how you were going in and erasing without ripping the paper.
HC: [Laughs] Yeah it’s all on the back.
SW: Do you have any advice for working as an artist in the real world? For any interested art students or soon to be graduated.
HC: Take yourself seriously, y’know? If you’re kind of trying to tip-toe into it, it’s not going to work. You have to understand that if you want to make a living as an artist, you do also have to be a business person. You have to be a finance person, a PR person, you have to do all of that. So take yourself seriously, be willing to put yourself out there. Don’t be afraid to say ‘Hey I’m an artist and this is my stuff’. Also, meet a lot of people, get involved in your local arts community in as many ways as you can. All of that stuff helps.
SW: Kind of a follow up to that… I grew up in FL and I know nothing of Panama City.
HC: [Laughs] I never heard of it before I was going to move here either.
SW: You were talking so much about how much you love your backyard though, I was wondering, are you there because of family? Is there some other appeal? Do you love the art scene there? It seems like you’re always involved in these contest or shows. Leading from what you just said, you’re very involved where you are…
HC: I moved here right after graduating from MICA. I looked for a job in Baltimore, but of course I couldn’t find one, and I definitely didn’t want to move home either.
SW: Where’s home?
HC: Northern Virginia. Not that there’s anything wrong with home, home is great. I just didn’t want to do that. My friend actually got a job down here, I said ‘that’s by the beach, that’s cool, I should move there too’, she was like ‘You should!’ and sent me all this information on the area. I emailed some galleries looking for a job and heard back from one of them, not about with a job, but they said they could give me a solo show, and that it would show in a couple of other places. I was like, ‘alright, I’ve got more going on down there than anywhere else’. So I came down here with my old high school friend and with Carrie. So then, I had lived here for just a few months and that same gallery owner was going to be giving up the gallery and long story short, I ended up taking over the gallery. So I owned that for a couple years, that was one of the most amazing experiences of my life. It was so amazing, it was the hub for the culture of the area and I had always thought if the gallery above ever closes I am out of this town [Laughs], but then I met my now husband, so that’s really why I stayed. But really the area does a have lot to offer. There is a nice, warm little arts community and there’s the beach and there’s a lot of amazing parks in the area. The natural environment of the area is completely unique and gorgeous, you have to love the weather.
SW: One last question, who is your favorite fictional sidekick?
HC: Crap. Favorite fictional sidekick… hmm… can it be something that I make up?
SW: [Laughs] Like in this moment, right now?
HC: [Laughs] Yeah, that is putting too much pressure. I’m drawing a blank, the only sidekick I can think of is Robin.
SW: Let’s make a graph real quick in the air. Do you read or watch movies more?
HC: I watch more movies. [Laughs]
SW: So, we’re in the movie realm. [Laughs] Do you like cartoons or more real life movies?
HC: I like unique animation and also real life movies.
SW: Well, of the Disney universe who would your favorite sidekick be?
HC: Ahhhh, let’s see… I really liked “Emperor’s New Groove” but I don’t know if Pacha would be a favorite?
SW: He’s a pretty good overlooked sidekick actually, he’s very responsible and a Dad…
HC: I know, I want someone slightly more entertaining… [Laughs]
HC: [Laughs] Hmm… you ever see “Triplets of Belleville”? The Triplets they would be like a sidekick. The Triplets themselves… Can I pick 3?
SW: [Laughs] I think that counts, yeah, great.
HC: The Triplets of Belleville are really awesome sidekicks.