A Call to Action: Kelli Scott Kelley on Julie Heffernan
The hairs on the back of my neck stood on end when I learned that Julie Heffernan’s LSU Museum of Art exhibit would be titled When the Water Rises. Just a few short months ago, an unprecedented 1000-year flood ravaged Baton Rouge.
Everyone living here was affected, either personally or through family, friends, or co-workers. Several of my immediate family’s homes and businesses were destroyed, including my sister’s home, with flood waters reaching their ceilings. One of the exhibition’s featured works, Self-Portrait as Hiveminder, seems an especially eerie reference to our recent disaster. The giant heap of truncated trees in Heffernan’s painting is reminiscent of the mounds of household debris in front of my sister’s home and repeated endlessly across our community in the days and months following the flood. The bare-breasted heroine, the apparent caretaker of the heap, wielding a chainsaw, keeping the hive afloat, reminds me of a photo of my sister and I, side by side, in our boots and masks, brandishing sledge hammers, together tearing her house apart.
In 2000, I returned to southern Louisiana, to my hometown, with baby and husband in tow, to be closer to family and to teach painting at Louisiana State University. Not long after, a series of calamitous events began to unfold, starting in 2001 with 9/11. Then, Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans in 2005, followed by a direct hit by Hurricane Gustav here in Baton Rouge; and shortly after that, the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. All three events crippled the Louisiana community. Contemplating my responsibility as an artist working with metaphorical narrative, I started to address political and social issues through my art works.
I first discovered and fell in love with Julie Heffernan’s work around 2005. I am always on the lookout for artistic ancestors and relatives, especially women, so when I came across Heffernan’s complex narratives with fantastical imagery and often featuring a central female figure, I felt I had found a kindred spirit. As a painting professor and an artist who paints allegorical narratives, I was especially interested in her ability to use traditional, male-dominated, master painting techniques to make what I see as powerful feminist works. In her Baroque-like oil canvases, self-assured nude or partially nude women confront the viewer, staring down the male gaze. Heffernan seems to embrace hybridity, mixing genres—narrative, portraiture, landscape, still life, and history painting. Her otherworldly figures seem to combine and fuse with flora and fauna, all brought together with her lush palette and brushwork in extraordinarily epic compositions. In her more recent sumptuous yet dystopian paintings, heroines take up tools such as chainsaws and needles and thread, acting as eco-warriors determined to save the planet.
Julie Heffernan’s apocalyptic and sublime monumental paintings depict figures bravely working to repair and clean up the earth. For me, her allegorical images are emissaries of hope and beauty. They are a call to action, inspiring me to raise my paint brush, to address and confront our alarming political climate, and to create images of truth in this post-truth era.
This essay appears in the exhibition catalogue, When the Water Rises: Recent Paintings by Julie Heffernan, to accompany a exhibition of Heffernan’s work organized by the LSU Museum of Art with LSU School of Art and LSU College of Art + Design. When the Water Rises will travel to several venues through early 2019. More information can be found at: http://www.lsumoa.org/julie-heffernan/
Kelli Scott Kelley is a professor of painting at Louisiana State University. Kelley received her MFA from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. She authored a book featuring her narrative artwork, entitled Accalia and the Swamp Monster, in 2014. Her work as been exhibited both nationally and internationally is featured in the permanent collections of the LSU Museum of Art, Tyler Museum of Art, and the Eugenia Summer Gallery.