Blending art and science, multidisciplinary artist Heather Beardsley borrows her visual language from zoologists. The Virginia Beach-based artist works across a variety of mediums—found photographs, fiber, and sculpture—to explore the relationship between humankind and nature from a global perspective.
In 2017 Beardsley visited Chernobyl in northern Ukraine, the site of a disastrous 1986 nuclear accident. Using an old, found photo of nearby Pripyat, now a ghost town, Beardsley hand embroidered the image with the wild plants and flowers she spied overtaking the city during her visit. She would eventually add works inspired by later travels: Budapest, Vienna, Beijing, and Las Vegas are among the cities the artist has decorated with embroidered plants and flowers. “In a time when cities are growing at an unprecedented rate, nuclear tensions are at a post-Cold War high, and we are feeling the effects of climate change more every year, these pieces pose questions about what the future holds,” Beardsley says of her Strange Plants project.
Though her work concerns itself with serious issues, Beardsley playfully deconstructs high-brow scientific conventions with crafty displays worthy of an afterschool science fair. Her approach infuses the work with a sense of wide-eyed wonder usually reserved for scientifically-minded children on their first trip to the field museum. Even Beardsley’s embroidered found photos carry a lighthearted appeal. There’s an aura of quiet jubilation, palpable in the unbridled surge of wild plants throughout otherwise empty cities. She has since expanded the series, using found linens that evoke a sense of home and domesticity in apocalyptic scenes.
“The resulting works are ambiguous: a drastic shift has occurred, but nature has fought back and perhaps a new balance has been reached,” Beardsley notes in her artist statement. Then the artist ponders a question that will undoubtedly haunt us over the coming decades: “We are left to wonder about this change in dynamic; what preceded it, and can it be prevented?”
In Today’s Q+Art Interview…
Heather Beardsley discusses the adventurous work of Louise Bourgeois, developing a standardized wage scale for artists, and the best way to research grants, residencies, and awards.
Which books, art-related or otherwise, belong on every artist’s shelf?
Heather Beardsley: I think that answer very much depends on the artist, but I know The $12 Million Stuffed Shark gave me a lot of valuable insight into the financial side of the art world that is usually taboo to talk about. The role blue chip galleries, auction houses, and wealthy collectors play in determining which artists end up being shown in major museums or taught in art school is significant and should be understood and discussed more.
If you could have dinner with any artist, living or dead, who would it be?
HB: Louise Bourgeois for sure. I work in a lot of different media, and sometimes I worry that it’s a problem not to have one easily-identifiable, signature style. Then I revisit Louise Bourgeois’s work. I love that she gave herself the freedom to follow wherever inspiration took her, from giant metal spiders, to piecework, and bodily installations. My hope is to be as fearless as she was throughout my career and never stop taking risks.
What are you trying to express with your art?
HB: A fascination with nature is present in all of my work; the more I learn about ecosystems and strange organisms the more in awe I am of the world around me. I want to help instill that feeling in other people when they look at my work, which can hopefully carry over into conversations about conservation and better environmental practices.
Would you work for free in exchange for exposure?
HB: I have in the past, but I’ve become much more selective about it in the last couple of years. I support the efforts of groups like W.A.G.E. in New York that are working to promote a standardized pay scale for artists, and I have become more assertive about asking for honorariums or artist fees when appropriate.
What person has most influenced your work?
HB: It’s not a person, but honestly I think Instagram has influenced my work more than anything else the past few years. It has allowed me to connect with artists all over the world that share very niche material and/or conceptual interests in common with me. I tend to find more work that inspires me there than more traditional art communities I’ve been a part of, like art school and residencies, because I follow accounts that are so specific to my media and conceptual concerns.
What is your favorite guilty pleasure?
HB: Watching organization videos on YouTube, especially ones with tiny houses or micro apartments. I don’t know why watching other people put their things in order is so satisfying, but it grounds me when I feel overwhelmed or anxious.
What do you consider your greatest artistic achievement?
HB: I think the fact that I’ve stuck with it and am still making work after all these years. I struggle with a lot of negative self-talk, where I’ll catch myself minimizing my achievements to myself and others, and I need to stop doing that. It’s not easy to get up everyday and make art, and I’ve seen a lot of people fall off or quit because it becomes too much.
What is the best advice you’ve ever received?
HB: Karolina Sobecka, one of my advisors my first year of grad school, told me when I find mid-career or established artists that are making the kinds of projects I would like to do, I should look at their CVs to see what they were doing one, five, 10 years out of school. I still do this, and researching the residencies, grants, and awards I see has made me aware of a lot of great opportunities I wouldn’t have known about otherwise. It also helps me to be more intentional about what opportunities I pursue, thinking about what direction I want to go with my work long-term rather than doing things just for a line on my CV.
Is a formal arts education worth the money?
HB: It’s hard to say any private art colleges are worth the price, especially for the majority of people that have to take out massive loans to pay. At the same time, I know that the mentorship I received still informs how I think and talk about my art today, and I saw rapid growth in those two years of grad school. It’s hard to put a dollar amount on how much those experiences have contributed to my career so far, maybe ask me again in 10 years?
What is one thing you would like to change about the art world?
HB: I would like to see more transparency about money from artists, galleries and institutions. I think normalizing artists’ being paid for their work will require honesty about how much of their income comes directly from their art vs. teaching or other day jobs. This can help us build more solidarity and empower us to negotiate with institutions for fair compensation.
Would you rather be a historically significant or commercially successful artist?
HB: I think those things aren’t as separate as many of us would like to think. Often the people on the boards of art institutions are collectors that want to see artists they own in exhibitions and museum collections, so while I would rather be historically significant, I think it’s hard to get there without some degree of commercial success as well.
What are you listening to in the studio right now?
HB: I’m listening to a lot of podcasts to learn French, my favorites are Little Talk in Slow French and The Naked French Podcast. I have a three-month fellowship in France next year, and I’m a big multitasker.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity. All photos published with permission of the artist.
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