Interview with Heather Millar

Hello Heather! Tell us a little about yourself. How did you become artist?


I think like most career artists, I started very young with the typical things kids like to do. My parents recognized my desire to draw and paint early on and were keen to let me explore this avenue as much as possible. I was very fortunate to be able to participate in community art programs and even some private painting classes in my teens. I’ll never forget my very first “real” painting in my first community art program... a half-rotten banana was the subject and we were to paint in strictly in black ink watercolour. It was the first object I’d ever successfully made look realistic. I’d say this planted the seed of creativity and once I began Alberta College of Art and Design it took off like wildfire. Ironically in art school I never majored in painting, but rather glassblowing. There was a world of electives to explore and I think I took them all: ceramics, jewelry, textiles, printmaking, drawing, sculpture. It was a four-year carnival of creativity and I needed to get my hands on everything. Looking back, once I was out of art school and actually began painting seriously, I can say the cumulative experience of learning other art trades has only fortified my painting technique.


Your works are made in the style of pop art. Why did you choose this particular direction?


After many years of drifting through different subjects to paint, as well as different mediums, I began to narrow down what is was that I was trying to identify with.
Naturally I’m attracted to bold, rich colour, surface reflections and nostalgic childhood items. In addition, I also love the simplicity of an object presented on a stark background, forcing the viewer to engage and accept what has been presented to them in the most uncomplicated of ways. It was a direction of art style that came organically to me over my years of working, and one I will always identify with.

Your works have their own style. How did your style evolved over time?


I am primarily self taught in painting, having taken the odd class in my teens, but choosing to major in glassblowing in art college rather than painting. In the beginning of my painting career it was a lot of trial and error and many moments of “good enough” until I couldn’t deny that “good enough” wasn’t truly good enough. That’s when the real work began. Because I’m a visual artist and work from reference, I realized it all started with how I interpret the image I’m using as reference. It’s all about chunks of shadow and light, soft or hard angles, bursts colour, a jumble of chaos made to fit as how a puzzle piece fits in to create a full image. I joke that I’m just a paint pusher and indeed that’s what it is. It’s about painting what you see, not what you think you see, and enjoying the mark-making and unexpected surprises that show up during the process. My painting style has gone from loose and clumsy to super tight and controlled and finally to a meeting of the two extremes. I try to create work that is fairly realistic while still embracing elements like brushstrokes and intentional mark-making. The goal is to create an art piece where the viewer never tires of looking at it, where the eye can travel around the canvas and find interesting elements throughout the painting.


You were born in the 70s. Do you think it influenced the choice of the direction of pop art in painting and the style of your works?


The 70’s and 80’s definitely influenced my direction of work. I think folks of my generation realize those really were the golden years for us and the main reason I strive to encourage the viewer to relive those nostalgic times. It was still a time of firsts, where the world was discovering new technologies, foods, entertainment, etc. I love getting my hands on those nostalgic objects and giving them a space of reverence on canvas. Today’s world moves fast and I think the pop art movement gave us a chance to really appreciate that the simplest objects can also be seen as art.


You were engaged in glass blowing during your studies at ACAD and made it your specialty for all your years of study there. Glassblowers face significant dangers in the workplace. What attracted you to this activity? How did this experience affect you as an artist?


I was young when I started art college, still just 17 and discovering a new city and new environment. I think my logic at the time was that I’d never get another chance to learn glassblowing, so take this opportunity now and get back to painting whenever. Glass was such an untamed, seductive element and in the past, primarily a male-dominated industry. I felt like I had something to prove to myself and did well enough to earn a glass scholarship award in my final year, as well as have my work shown in Munich at the Talente ’98 exhibition. In the past I’ve had moments of regret that I didn’t take any formal training in painting, but often times the student develops a style that mimics the teacher’s and in essence has robbed themselves of ever developing their own style of work. As I’ve gotten older I’ve become so grateful for my art school glass experience and am so happy I was able to carve out my own painting style without the influence of formal training.

Is there any message in your works? What thoughts should they evoke in the viewer’s mind?


Typically my motivation when creating work is wanting to create a space for the viewer to engage with the image but also be able to fill in the rest of the story through their own imagination. I think the epitome of this is my Listen Closely piece seen on the set of Suits, a US television series that has been syndicated worldwide. Originally it was from a collection of work I created for a show called “Secret Conversations” in 2009. It featured 8 larger than life toy couples engaged in various stages of conversation. The goal was for the observer to fill in the blanks by influence of their own childhood memories. My end goal is to allow the viewer to regress to those nostalgic days of childhood wonder and imagination, even just for a moment.


Your works are represented in many galleries. How do the audience perceive your works?


Because I have several different bodies of work that I continually evolve, I am able to not only keep my collectors engaged, but myself as well. For a long time I felt the pressure (self-induced) to create one body of work based on one subject, which ultimately led to burnout. Fortunately this forced me to break my own boundaries and explore new subjects such as wildlife and figurative work, something I had no experience painting. As I continued along these new paths I discovered that my galleries and collectors were thrilled with the evolution and it was the encouragement I needed to keep moving forward. Now I realize how vitally important it is to push my own limits and get out of my comfort zone. For me, switching between subjects is what gives me energy and I believe it’s the only way I can continue to grow.


Tell us about the creative plans in the future?


Not being an original islander, we joke that Prince Edward Island is the land that time forgot as it still has a certain kind of vintage charm seen in the old buildings and signage across the province. I’ve spent the last couple years photographing some of the old landmark signs and have been quietly planning a new body of work featuring them. Otherwise at the moment it’s business as usual. I was recently invited to join a new gallery so will be creating a small body of work for that as well as my regular scheduled programming for my other galleries.

Text Lyubov Melnickowa @lumenicka