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Revisiting Heather Day in the Studio

August 2016 

We sat down with artist Heather Day, who has had an incredibly exciting year of exhibitions, new projects and collaborations. Read our interview with Heather and learn about her recent works, what helps make her tick, and the person behind her beautiful paintings and sculptures.  

Tell us a little bit about these new works you’ve been creating.

During my artist residency in Joshua Tree, CA. I spent two weeks painting and exploring the desert. The extreme heat and arid textures affected my work and sparked, "Objects In My Pocket," the first paintings of a series that plays with shapes as representation of architecture and everyday objects and compares them to abstract motions in nature. 

I created a second series titled, “Stacks At Home,” after returning home from the residency in Joshua Tree. By then, I was back in my studio in Oakland, surrounded by the deep blues of the Bay area. I was painting prolifically at this time and became fascinated by the shapes formed from stacks of canvas in the studio, which ultimately inspired me to paint this series.

Last gallery show you went to?

I was in New York a few weeks ago for a sculpture installation in Central Park with Athen B. Gallery and spent the majority of my time there interacting with people and painting on-site. Although I didn’t have much free time, I made an effort to spend a day at the MoMA - a building that gets the gears turning in my head about how art and space intersect. It’s interesting how we use space as a medium to express our thoughts, especially when the space holding art, is also art.

Have the cities you’ve lived in influenced your practice? If so, tell us a bit about that, and what elements in particular steered you in certain directions.

Absolutely, being able to live and work in San Francisco has unquestionably influenced my work. From the atmosphere of my neighborhood to being surrounded by the ocean, textures and color, especially shades of blue, have infiltrated my work, both on a conscious and subconscious level. My art is largely centered on expressing emotions, thoughts, and stories encountered during my travels; I’m currently primarily focused on nature and how it feels so alien to be both a human animal connected to the environment and a human being that dwells in a city.

photo credit: @heatherdayart 

What is one artist living or dead you feel a great connection to? Someone whose work has inspired your own practice and what you’re creating these days?

Both Dutch-American painter Willem de Kooning and his contemporary Jackson Pollock have been unquestionable inspirations.  Influenced by post-WWII America, their work was more than abstract expressionism, it was also about the physical energy and strength needed to create. While I was at the MoMA a few weeks ago, I stopped in front of one of Pollock’s paintings and just felt starstruck. I see exertion and sheer movement when I see his works- which I can relate to not only as an abstract artist, but also as an artist who uses the body as a creative tool.

A huge part of my process involves physical strength. I’ll pick up the canvas and let gravity push the water around. I walk and stretch and pour. Paint and water get everywhere, and clean up requires a mop and rag.

Best gift you’ve ever received?

When I was in high school my mom gave me a De Kooning book that my art teacher recommended - marking the beginning of my art book collection. Art books, in a way, become art themselves. They are collections of beautiful works that become portals of exploration into the lives and opuses of artists. They’re also interior design elements that welcome and celebrate creative development. I love to see them around my home and my friends homes representing a portal into our lives.

What is your favorite quote?

My favorite quote depends on my mood, but I recently read a quote by Frank Lloyd Wright that said, “The longer I live, the more beautiful life becomes.” I love that. I think I’m getting better at having different perspectives as an artist and a human. I’m looking more closely, but also remembering to take a step back.

What country do you want to visit?

Iceland. Hopefully soon! I’m curious about the the interplay between the colors and textures of nature and the people of such a geologically and geographically unique place. I think Iceland would inspire me in many different directions.

Can you describe an experience you felt most nervous?

Public speaking challenges me. I’ve spoken publicly twice in the past five months, and I think I’m improving.  I recently gave a talk at the Gensler Architecture firm in San Francisco and felt nervous until about halfway through; I found myself warming up and feeling more comfortable after that point. By the end, there were many questions, and seeing how deeply engaged my audience was gave me another boost of confidence. It also made me wonder if talks should start off with questions. Why not get to know your audience before speaking to hone in on what’s important? It would also give me a second to calm my nerves!

What makes you laugh no matter what? 

I have a solid group of friends in San Francisco that I can always count on for a pick-me-up. My friends are Tina Fey meets Chris Rock witty, and it’s hilarious. When we’re together, I’m always laughing.

What's one accomplishment you're most proud of? 

I just moved into my own live/work space in San Francisco. Before that, I had a studio in Oakland and an apartment with three roommates in San Francisco. The first morning I woke up in the new space I thought, “This is wonderful. I will never take this for granted.” I’ve been working towards this independence for a long time, and it feels good when hard work pays off.

photo credit: @heatherdayart

What's the bravest thing you've ever done?

Last year I drove from San Francisco to Washington D.C. and back on a solo camping and painting trip to create a new body of work inspired by observing nature. I found traveling alone to be both terrifying and liberating; it challenged my motivations and my sense of independence. Each night, when I tucked myself into my tent I wondered, “Why do I keep putting myself in these situations?” It was dark, and there was nothing but forest sounds to keep me company.

These sounds affected me deeply. As I tuned in and listened, my imagination took over. I began to wonder what texture or color they represented. What kind of energy did I want to translate from my hand to the paper? In the morning, inspired by these questions, I drew and painted my interpretations onto paper. It was clear that I had made a the right decision in taking the solo trip.

What’s the first thing you do when you begin formulating an idea for a painting?

I tend to avoid thinking in terms of formulas when it comes to my process. If a repeating pattern forms, I take a step back and reconsider. I feel that art shouldn’t be about shortcuts or cookie-cutter products, and I frequently ask myself if I’m pushing concepts or themes far enough.

Lately, my ideas have formed while traveling. I record recipes for particular colors and compositions in my sketchbooks or on large sheets of paper I can travel with. When I’m back in the studio, sometimes I revisit what I created, or I start fresh on a large canvas and try to build on the new vocabulary of color and mark making from the trip.  

What work took you the longest to complete?

This is a hard question to answer. I view all of my works like pages in a book. Each series is like a chapter or maybe even a novel. Many people find this surprising, but all my paintings act as sketches. Each forms the basis for new paintings. I take what I learn from one and move to the next piece. Nothing is ever planned or premeditated. The story builds as I travel and learn through painting. While one piece may have taken a week, I most likely painted ten paintings previously, just to get to the right place to create the next page. In theory, all of my paintings are pages; some take longer to write than others.

Tell us about some of your favorite artists.

I’m currently interested in the work of Katharina Grosse, Sam Gilliam, Portia Zvavahera, Richard Tuttle, and Helen Frankenthaler. I also recently started reading poetry by Dorothea Tanning, who’s also known for her surrealist paintings from the 1950’s.

What’s one habit you wish you could break?

I’m really hard on myself. When I’m not working, I feel as though I’m not being productive. That being said, I know that downtime is equally important! I’m still figuring out how to balance.

Who was your favorite teacher in art school?

Timothy App. He’s such an intimidating and cool guy that was good friends with Helen Frankenthaler. App has an intuitive sense of composition and can break down the concept of a painting quite simply to find its root. He taught me how to talk about art from a critical point without being offensive.

What does creativity mean to you? 

Quite honestly, it’s one of my least favorite words. Perhaps Pinterest ruined it, but I think it can be overused or taken for granted. I think we need another word added to the English language that encompasses “inspire, pursue, create.”

What's one thing you still have from your childhood? 

My easel. My parents gifted it to my sister when I was in second grade. It was passed to me when her interest in art waned.

What's one thing you've always wanted to try but you've been too scared to do?

Scuba diving. I’m obsessed with the ocean and love everything blue, but I’m not comfortable with the idea of relying on an oxygen tank for breathing.

What else are you working on right now?

Currently,  I am working on a fine dining concept, called “Studio Table,” that unites art and cuisine. It began as a way to lessen the high costs of living and working as an artist in San Francisco, but then quickly evolved into a much larger project with a goal of bringing people together to share ideas.

Once a month fourteen guests are personally invited to come together in my live/work studio space for a five-course dinner prepared by renowned chef, Ben Roche. Each dinner is centered on a different, thought-provoking theme. The dinners will challenge the expectations of social gatherings and connect ideas and people.

Regarding your method of making, is it a case of the material or method dictating the idea of the other way around?

I suppose both material and method dictate my process of creating, depending on what message I want to translate into a piece of art. I like to keep experimenting and continuing to explore what challenges me and how far I can push myself.

Is art making therapeutic for you?

Yes, art is therapeutic. It’s a form of expression that doesn’t require verbal communication. Art gives me sense of confidence and security. Another way art is therapeutic is how it makes you a part of a community of artists who support you. You’re never alone.

What motivates you?

As a child art came easily to me. It was a way I could make sense of the world, and it was equally as important as any vital organ. Becoming an artist as an adult was organic and natural. Therefore, when when people ask me what motivates me to make art, I feel a little bewildered and I end up asking them, “Well, what motivates you to breathe?”

What’s your studio philosophy?

My studio philosophy is simply to get started, to make the first mark that begins the journey.

I begin paintings with a quick mark. A blank canvas is very intimidating, so the faster I can make a mark and get moving, the smoother things go. From there, every mark is a reaction to the previous. Sometimes, I scrape paint across the canvas, or pour buckets of water and watch what happens. It’s all an experiment in manipulation.


Tools or mediums you’re dying to experiment with?

I am interested in pursuing more sculptural art, even going as far as architecture.  I’m really interested in how art can be integrated into everyday life. I believe one of those ways is through architecture. A collaboration with an architect would be a dream-come-true for me. I would love to push the envelope on how we view space, line, and texture on a large scale.

Any advice to aspiring artists?

I would say to keep moving, keeping trying, and be brave. I would also say not to put too much pressure on your art to feed you. When your art is ready to support you full time, then you’ll know. But, until then, let art be the best part-time job you ever had.

What’s next?

I’m going to continue exploring the themes in my current work. Nature, self-expression, and the idea that most things are completely out of our hands are sources of vulnerability that inspire me. As an artist I’ve found a deep parallel between being vulnerable and the creative process. There has to be a little fear and a little security. The process of creation is a vulnerable one, and feeling vulnerable allows creation. I find myself perpetually seeking balance on the canvas—from uncontrollable moments of making rapid marks or pouring paint to logistical controlled marks. I’m ready to see what’s next.

 Explore Heather's Collection