A Seat At Her Table

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Like a kitchen table, in the late 70's, surrounded by women engaged in full on banter, tossing around every topic from Gloria Gaynor to the ERA. Like old-school kombucha brewed in the back cabin of a quiet commune of busy second wave feminists. Like a blanket quilted so the forgotten can stitch their histories and cover their children in a lineage they only remember in fragments. This is how it is to sit with Heidi Howard. Our interview swings from Allen Ginsberg to Alice Neel, from family to lovers, from Queens, Manhattan, and the Bronx, then back to Amsterdam where I sit with the painter insider the studio she shares with her partner Esteban Cabeza de Baca.

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What are you reading?

Hillary Clinton - the book she wrote after the election What Happened. I have really mixed feelings about her, but I don't want to be one of those people that fall into the media trap. I do believe the coverage of her was not what it could have been. So if she has something to say, I want to read it.

Were you a Bernie supporter during the primaries or somebody else?

Yeah, I was also a Bernie supporter, but when I saw Obama, I thought he could be president. I was canvassing at that time and studying politics and really supported the idea of his candidacy. With Bernie Sanders, I agree with his ideas, he just never charmed me. 

One of my mom's best friends, Paula Rabinowitz, gave a talk at the Modernism Today conference in Amsterdam, where she proposed that we need to be moving away from the idea of a paternalistic state (a state that defends itself), to a maternalistic state (a state that cares for its citizens, a state that is less secretive, that is more open and collaborative). The need to make this change is obvious to me. We see all these young people speaking out now who want to implement gun control, to provide clean water, to work on stopping global warming, such basic things, but the path there seems so unclear.

Right after the election [of Donald Trump], I kept hearing this Allen Ginsberg poem in my mind. Do you know the poem America? It's like, 'America I have given you all and now I'm nothing'...and then it's like, 'America two dollars and twenty-seven cents, January seventeenth, nineteen-fifty-something, I can't stand my own mind. America when will we end the human war? Like go fuck yourself with that atom bomb. I don't feel good stop bothering me. America when will you be angelic? When will you take off your clothes? When will you look at yourself through the grave? When will you be worthy of your million Trotskyites?'

I'm just remembering parts. But it's talking about the Russians. It's so right now. 'America the plum blossoms are falling. I haven't read the newspapers in months.' I kept thinking about that. There's this feeling where you want to look outside at things that are beautiful and not engage with the news. Just make something with your hands...maybe cook, I really like cooking. After I paint portraits of people, I cook a meal for them in exchange for their having sat for me.

Let's talk about your painting process.

Like anything sacred, it's not spelled out in steps. It's more like bringing my mind to a place where nothing else is happening. I don't want to have a million other things going on in my head when I'm making a painting. And sometimes people tell me super personal things. It can feel a little like a therapy session. You want to make this space where the person is comfortable.

how do you make that space?

It's like when you go out to dinner with friends. You're there to just listen to each other and that's it. In New York everyone is so busy. You don't get to sit and have great conversations all the time. You have to set it up. So it's similar to the way I'd set up a dinner with a friend. I try to get at something essential when I'm painting. People have different ways of posing for photos. Like some people have a photo face, but then some people open up. I want things to crescendo to this point of openness. I want it to reach this point of magical existence - where there's something about the timing of my laying down the paint and the colors and somehow reaching the feeling of how it is spending time with that person. There's way too much emphasis on performativity. I mean, we have a TV star for president. It can be fun and amazing to perform and that's a part of what art is, letting people dream. I don't know if you have to rectify those things, but both of those things live in the paintings.

how do you encourage someone to take off their instagram face?

It's different for every person. Everybody comes to the studio, I feel like, with their own agenda. They come dressed a certain way or come with a certain expectation. So it's not like me bringing something out of them that they don't already know about. It's not me having a set framework and imposing it on someone, it's a lot more collaborative than that. It hasn't happened in a long time where someone has been like, "I don't want anything to do with this painting."

has there been a painting that you yourself did not want to put out?

That happens all the time. I went through a spree of throwing away paintings when I was reading The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up

You threw away your paintings?You didn't give them away?

Yeah, well that's kind of complicated. If you give a painting to someone they can put it at auction. So I've lent some paintings to people. But then there are some I make and think these should not be out in the world. But that doesn't mean that I didn't learn something from the process. It's just that in the end, it didn't come out.

So you ask yourself, "Does this painting bring me joy?"

Every painting is an experiment. Sometimes maybe there's too much stuff going on with me that day, or going on with my sitter, and we can't get things lined up to the point where the painting turns out well. And my surfaces are always visible. I want most of the marks that make a painting to be seen. So if it doesn't turn out well, I can't just cover it up. Unless I want the act of covering up to be a part of the painting, I'll need to start on a fresh surface.

Baldessari burned his early paintings. How did you destroy yours?

I just threw them out. One of my neighbors took a painting out of the trash and I was kind of okay with it until I found out she voted for Trump. I usually take them off the stretcher so they're not just ready to hang up on a wall.

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How did you arrive at painting?

Your parents - Liz Phillips and earl howard- both work in time-based media. Your mother, a sound artist. your father, a composer.

I thought it was funny how when you sent me that question, you used the phrase "under artist parents." I do feel like it can be really intense to have parents who are artists. Their minds are just a hundred percent, maybe not a hundred, but their life's focus is their work. And everybody's competing for the space to do work. I always thought I wanted to marry a doctor or scientist, someone with a stable job that was not involved in the art world. They could just sort of go to work and then be stable and supportive. But then when I met Esto, it just seemed like our lives fit together. It's easy to spend time with him. There's definitely a lot of things we fight about but we also really enjoy a lot of the same things. 

My ex-boyfriend, I was with him for seven years. One of the reasons we broke up is he started making art and I really hated what he was doing. We never agreed when we were talking about art.

What did he do before?

He worked at a law firm. He's still in the same field. But he was making all these drawings that were kind of illustrations and selling them online. He doesn't believe in...I guess the authority of the art world is a strange way of putting it, because I'm also skeptical of the authority of the art world, but...I don't know. I spent a lot of time working on my art, researching other artists, and I didn't feel like he had the same commitment to artistic practice. He was one of those people who just wanted to see something and be like, "I like that, I'll put that on the wall."

That attitude really, it was like this pin that just kept getting driven in further and further - a difference that could not be resolved. One strong aspect of my relationship now is that I really respect Esto's work. We don't always agree on the quality of art, but there are enough points of convergence that we really just enjoy spending time together.

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I like when you paint Esteban.

Did I show you the nude paintings of him?

You showed me one in the studio the last time we met.

There aren't a lot of paintings by women of men [in their birthday suits], so I wanted to contribute something to that discussion. Alice Neel and Sylvia Sleigh both painted art critic John Perreault, but still there's this huge gap in art history of male nudes.

Is he always open to the idea or does it take some convincing?

He's always wanted to paint me. And I've always said, 'No.' There are enough images of women...and I'm not really interested in participating. We get into these conversations where he's like, "You can do it, I can do it."

Yeah, no. There's a difference.

It doesn't seem like a conversation we should need to have. That's part of the time we're living in. Things are so backwards with sexism and racism and all these conversations need to be had over and over again. Even with people you love or respect that are supposed to be theoretically on the same page.

It's a continuous conversation. It will be, I think, for a long time. It doesn't go away completely. It cycles back somehow. 

Yeah, it's hard. There's so many things we were conditioned to do from childhood. So we can say we're turning things around, but actually, things turn around very slowly. We try to share everything evenly and still we split responsibilities in a gender-stereotypical way. He carries stuff...I organize our emails. I cook and he does the dishes. He built a dining room table.

That's sexy.

You garden, right? Can you teach me about plants?

Yeah! Our old apartment was really dusty and we didn't have any money so the cheapest thing to do was make pots and grow plants in the pots to clean the air. It seeped into our artistic practices. I don't think life and art are really separate. We both believe that. It became even more clear since we arrived here in Holland. Our whole way of living is a part of our artistic practice.

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Making pots and what else?

Everything. What we're eating, what we're consuming, what we're reading, who we're talking to or spending our time with, what institutions we choose to align ourselves with or work at, where we live, how we travel. Moving made all these things more apparent. Living in New York, we had a dense community. I didn't realize it then. It wasn't so conscious. The distance has allowed me to see the network of amazing people with whom I had established friendships over the years. The studio can be very solitary, but artists also work together by living in close proximity - the conversations and everyday interactions all contribute to the work.

You mentioned not having money...

Paying rent while living in NYC seemed impossible. Every year after we graduated from Columbia, Esteban had a free studio, first through the Sharpe-Walentas Foundation, then through the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council, which made living in [the city] possible, but barely. There were other boosts too - sales from galleries and collectors. We both had many part-time jobs. I miss New York's energy, being a part of a giant chaotic man-made thing that is raging forward. I don't miss worrying about how I will make rent every month. I'm not sure how to reconcile these two facts and how their energy affects my practice.

I try not to think too much about money. When I graduated, I was quickly offered opportunities by gallerists. Often when you work with galleries, the salability of the work becomes a part of the discussion. A pretty important gallerist asked, "Can't these paintings not have titles at all? When they become these individuals, they're gonna be much harder to sell." I have also noticed that my paintings of more traditionally beautiful women sell a lot more quickly.

I want to be making work for the public, not something for rich people to hang on their walls.  There were and are some wonderful collectors who are absolutely instrumental in the creation of great works of art. Though, I'm really excited about this upcoming project I'm doing with my mom at the Queens Museum, because it's for public space.

let's talk about the Queens Museum project.

A friend asked me to do a collaborative show with my mom. I thought it was such a bad idea. Me and my mom still fight a lot, but not like we did when I was a teenager.

You fight about life or you fight about work?

We just fight like mothers and daughters. She always fought with her mom too. We had a long talk about this, but she thought it was a good idea to do the show. She wanted to use my paintings, tune them up to see what they would sound like as speakers. She was using chairs that belonged to my grandmother in an installation on Governors Island. I'd gotten really into making these pots and she used pots in her work a bunch. We called our piece Relative Fields in a Garden. When we brought it to my friends at the gallery, it ended up being kind of hard to sell, because it turned into an installation rather than individual collaborative pieces. 

So I was like, 'Why don't we propose this project to the Queens Museum?' My mom's garden is in Queens. I grew up in Queens. I went to the Queens Museum so much as a kid. Anyway, they loved the project. Every year the museum commissions a piece for a giant forty foot high and one hundred foot long wall - so we're doing that. I get to paint a mural in August. It will stay up for one year.

What are you putting on that wall?

My mural will image a garden in transition through the four seasons from spring to winter - moving west to east. I'll incorporate a self-portrait and a portrait of my mom in her garden, based on a painting I made of her in 2014. The fall will be a representation of my grandmother, painted in her favorite shades of orange, pink, and brown. Sounds from our garden in Queens, recorded and mixed by my mother, will play out of speakers or objects - like hanging bamboo and metal chairs from my grandparents.

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That's incredible!

Since your parents are both artists, did you always know you too would become one?

My parents kept saying, "Do anything else. If you don't feel suicidal about it - get a job!" My mom didn't want me to experience the fickleness of the art world. She had a really strong career when she was younger. By the time she was nineteen, she had syndicated press across the country. She was friends with Nam June Paik and John Cage, collaborated with Merce Cunningham. She showed at the Whitney Museum, Capp Street in San Francisco. She did performance at the Stedelijk museum here - which they can't seem to find a record of. She was one of the first artists to make these interactive sound installations, the woman who was written out of art history...she's one of those.

Also my mom's old roommate, Maryanne Amacher, passed away in 2009, with very little recognition or financial support. Now The New York Times and everybody are featuring her work. It's weird. I think about my most important role models, Frida Kahlo, Francesca Woodman, Alice Neel, Louise Bourgeois, women who waited for their work to be recognized until they were dead or close to it and that scares me. Not only women, it happened to Van Gogh too!

With my mother's or Maryanne's work there is a careful tuning of the sound and space. It is very difficult to replicate this work without the artist present. I hope some museums take an interest and begin archiving some of the monumental pieces my mother made while she is still here to show them how to do it properly.

What else have you learned from mom and dad?

Both of my parents knew what they wanted to do in their early twenties, knew what they wanted to contribute and were working with a really important group of artists. So they taught me this post-modern thing that's like, "If you're going to be an artist you need to have your own unique thing to say. You can't just be like, 'I like painting.'"

When Esteban was young and loved painting, his parents were just like, "That's great!" They treat him like their little genius. Sometimes, I'm really jealous of that possible relationship with parents.

Also my extended family was pretty against the way my parents lived as artists. They were like, "Get a good job, have a nice house." And those things seemed really important to me until I went to college. It was my intention to become an English professor, then do art on the side. I did a year abroad in Italy and had this watercolor class, the only art class I could take. I remember the teacher was a pretty strange lady. Her name was Marsha Steinberg. She gave everybody a "B" on the midterm, no matter what. I was mad, I worked hard on that midterm, not that I said anything to her about it.

Then for the final project she said, "Everybody needs to listen now." She looked at me, "You! You have natural born talent. I don't know what you're studying. I don't know what your parents told you, but you should be an artist." And that was really nice because I wanted somebody to tell me.

You also teach from time to time. what's important to pass on to younger artists?

For me, making art is about having a dialogue with art history. It's also really important to get feedback from people who are on the same page and see what you're doing. You want to leave the work open, which means you're not always making your greatest painting. There's this really ugly part that comes before you make the great paintings. Also, when you're making something that's new, it's not going to look like something seen before. People are going to question that. They're going to say, "Hey! This isn't as good as these things I've already seen that I know are good." So it's really up to you to say what those right choices are towards getting into something meaningful. I tell young artists that being an artist is a radical act. Don't be afraid of the world. If you are excited by something go after it. Build a community who will support you in thinking as wildly as possible. 

 

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Interview & Photographs by Malika Ali Harding | Paintings by Heidi Howard

The views expressed are those of the respective interviewees and are not necessarily shared by Story Rebels or its founders.

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