Faceless Artist №3
I interviewed artist Heidi Marie Wien in her own studio in November 2015.
What is it about painting that has made you stick with it all this time?
I painted before my time at the Art Academy in Oslo. At the Academy we were encouraged to try different genres and techniques, so I worked in sculpture, installation as well as photography. But what I like about painting and what keeps me working on it, is that painting is always available to you. You can paint whenever you want and it is a continual process. I have not been able to maintain that continuity when I work with sculpture or installation. Painting has its own continuity.
Is it because you work in the studio and finish the paintings there or is it something else?
Yes, it’s always available for me when I want to work on it.
Because you stay in that mental state, or do you always think in terms of being a painter?
Yes I think I do. In other works I’ve done, like installations or projects with a time limit.
Project based works, more than a continuous process in the studio.
I like that contrast. Painting and project based work complement each other in a really good way. I like painting, but I also like to do other things.
When you work on other projects, do you feel that you carry much from your experience of painting into those projects? Are you still thinking as a painter when working on other projects? For example, sculpture or site specific work. You also work with site specific painting or is it something completely different going on?
No, painting stays with me even when I work on three-dimensional art. And sculptures have surfaces that directly relate to painting. It’s very limited, the perspective or shape of my sculptures. Also the format. I really like the square. It’s reoccurring in my paintings and my sculptures. The references I have in my paintings are also part of my sculptures. Not only that of course.
Do you think it has something to do with a connection to the materials in painting? That it has something to do with that connection, more than it has for a more planned type of art. Other media can be equally tactile, but painting still has unique position. What do you think?
I think it’s still very relevant. I mean that’s what painting consists of. The meeting between paint and canvas or panel. I have to think about that for a minute.
Do you think it reflects some of the qualities you as a person have or that there is some other reason for you to choose painting?
Good question. In other types of art you often have to work out in the field so to speak. Fieldwork. I’m not suited to be out in the field all the time. I need a continuous process in the studio. Being in the studio is very important to me.
Because you are in a closed sphere where you feel protected?
Because I’m protected and there I can focus on the very specific activity of painting. To me, painting can contain all kinds of things. It doesn’t really have any limitations even though it has its clear boundaries.
That is part of painting’s potential, that isolation. It’s also a weakness if you think of it in relation to other genres, music for instance. That isolation in the studio can be really giving, but at the same time you can envy people in a band who share both the challenges and their successes. That enthusiasm can be so enhanced if there are 4 or 5 members in the band.
That is exactly how I feel. When I work together with Kine Lillestøm for example. We do have that band feel about us. You can say that I have my different work needs covered. Isolation on one side where I can work in the studio uninterrupted and am able to immerse myself into the work. And then you have the other side where Kine and I work with site specific art out in the field. You can work directly on the site and make a lot of the choices there. It is really intensive. We do the deciding together and we two have totally different ways of working. We’re sort of this two-headed troll when we’re working together. Ha ha. There is also a different set of challenges that goes with that. I also need to make choices on my own. That’s how I work in the studio when I’m by myself. I really like both ways of working with art. It suits my personality to cooperate. But at the same time it’s important to keep them separate from each other. Both in choices of motif and in relation to the content. In the working process it’s two very different ways of working.
I guess working with other people forces you to make quick decisions on location, in a different way than you would in the studio. Sometimes things can be over planned before execution. There are multitude of factors that can slow down your process when you work on your own. To the point where the work just stops. But being with other people in a stressful deadline situation can really be an antidote for those negative habits you can develop in the studio.
I feel sometimes that it’s an extreme sport. When the deadline is really stressing you out and you can’t agree on some crucial points and at the same time the work really needs to be completed. Things like composition or other basic things are super important. And you have to decide by tonight. And then you have this debate. Which option is best? You have to agree because both artists are represented through the work. So it’s a really big challenge. You have these changing emotions in relation to your own work. Working alone in the studio. From being depressed about the work to feeling unstoppable. All these emotions arrive in a really short time span when you’re working on an exhibition that opens in two weeks or four days. That is all the time you have in the space before the show opens. It’s extremely intensive. From this wave of emotions and the faith you have in the project, to how it actually turns out. In the studio everything is very controlled in a way. You dream, evaluate and put it away only to take it back out later. Sometimes a painting can be in storage for 2 years before I bring it back. And when you work on it again it might be from a totally different perspective and with a new motif on top of the old one. While working on location you have a different type of pressure on you, which makes it very reassuring to be two people in it together.
You’re just 50% responsible?
At least you’re two that go down together.
When you’re in the studio, how do you start a painting?
It often start with some sort of experience or things I notice in my close surroundings. Things that make me stop for a moment. I use a lot of pictures, usually taken with my phone early in the process.
Is that more like a starting point for you rather than being something in itself?
I would never exhibit those pictures or sketches. For me it’s something I do to start the project.
The motif, is that something you liberate yourself from once you started painting?
Free myself from the actual photograph?
I would have to say yes and no. I often go back to it to pick up some details. But it’s not really relevant any longer. I’m not interested in working towards a photo or Photorealism. It is a starting point. My motifs often have this sculptural trait. That is something you see often in my choice of motif. Sometimes I create sculptures in my studio for the paintings. Often the motifs have some sculptural qualities that I can use in the paintings. But at some point I have to step away from the original photo before it takes over the work. I do not want to stop myself from being a painter to copy some photographic material. For me it’s important that the painting follows its own rhythm and logic.
When you are painting, sometimes you can get lost in the work, and at that time intuition can take over and pull the painting in a radical new direction. I feel at those times it is important to have the confidence and courage to act on that impulse.
It’s really important. I also think it’s important, when you work on location, to give yourself time to put things away for a while. It’s all about seeing the qualities when they are there and not just painting over them. That is one of the important reasons to work on several paintings at the same time. That you have a rhythm and dynamic, a routine really. That you have room for that. To put work away, then take it back out. And I work a lot on the floor so it also has to do with drying periods and other practical reasons. It’s very useful for me that I can be really quick. I can get an impulse to go over the paintings with a hairdryer. Ha ha.
You work with acrylics right?
Yes and actually that dries really fast, but I work in thick layers and that gives me some time to reflect on what I’m doing. Perhaps oil would be better to give me that extra time to evaluate?
Maybe, but if you like the finish of acrylics I don’t think you need to change.
Guess not. I used to work with a combination of acrylics and oil. I would start with acrylics and then work with oil on top of that. That enabled me to work fast and then spend time on the details. Some things were difficult to achieve with just acrylics.
Exactly. When you work with several works at the same time it would be nice to have a bigger space.
Much more space.
It can also limit your ability to work efficiently.
If you could have five canvases up that where ready to go.
What we talked about earlier, that you can build some solutions that will make it possible. A temporary storage area for your work. So you can put it away. The problem though is that my work often need to dry laying down on the floor.
Like when Picasso was working on his paintings. When the paintings are up and in your line of sight you are able to continue working on them in your head.
It’s impossible to do when they’re in storage. So if you could have 5 to 10 pictures up in a row. You would be able look at them and continue to work on them in your head. Over time you would be able to work much more efficiently.
It is also very nice to turn paintings around when you don’t want to look at them anymore. When we had the studio in City Hall in Oslo, I had that possibility. Because the studio was a 100m2 in size. It was amazing. I could work towards a big exhibition and keep all 20 pictures up at the same time. That also enables you to see new connections between the different paintings.
You shared that studio with Kine?
Yes , we got it together. When I had to leave the really nice studio in City Hall I had to work from my kitchen for a little while.
It was special. Ha ha. I worked between the kitchen counter and the sink in a sort of booth. I had to work in very small formats.
It was a very laughable situation. Big contrasts, but it didn’t work out in the long run.
It does not work in the long run. I mean with kids and such.
I guess you need to take yourself more seriously than that. I did not have kids at that point. But my boyfriend that I was living with wasn’t happy. Ha ha. We had a studio and a shower in the kitchen. Ha ha.
I used to have a shower in the kitchen when I was living in Grünerløkka.
A shower and a studio?
No, my studio was in my living room.
It is obvious that you’re very affected by the studio you have and the space that is available to you. You can really benefit from it, that’s why it’s so important.
I used to think that if you had a nice enough studio that it would be its own engine and would drive the work forward. But that’s not the case.
No it’s not. You can’t put all the blame there. Ha ha.
Ha ha. It needs to be something from within that drives you.
It’s extra sad to sit in a glorious 100m2 studio with empty walls with no ideas or desire to create something.
How to find the time to work, especially if you have a family. As an art student you might not even have a boyfriend/girlfriend and almost no one had kids. You had the time to give yourself to your work. I remember some students liked to work at all hours. You could find them working after midnight at the academy.
I miss it so much.
It’s nice to be able to work when you want to.
I noticed it, this summer and autumn holiday. My boyfriend went away for a week with the children. I could just work, not thinking about other things. I could go to bed late if I wanted to. Your life ends up consisting of these routines that sort of trap you. Some of the madness, part of what makes you as an artist is being ignored. Being a square is not what being an artist is about. You get forced into it and that doesn’t sit well with your inner artist. It doesn’t inspire you.
You’re not really forced into it.
At least it’s hard to get out of. I guess I got myself into it. But when I have an opportunity to break out of it I really enjoy it.
I guess that it is the negative aspect of living a life filled with routines and obligations. The upside I guess is that your mental health can benefit. You can avoid the, “Munch syndrome”, because you can’t let yourself slip too much. If I just focused on myself and my art and at the same time kept irregular hours, that would be bad. That could make you melodramatic about your art and your artistic career. That might not be so healthy either.
You wouldn’t have had a family and probably not a girlfriend either.
I guess that is a consideration you have to make. It’s not all bad being more earth bound, but your inner artist will suffer.
Yes you do. You have to allow yourself to break the pattern.
You have to!
It is really important. I’m much more conscious about it now. When your day to day life seems to catch up with you. Over time you develop routines and that are mostly positive. Your day to day routines are steadying and you possibly use your time more efficiently. I don’t know if that last part is true, but that’s what everybody says. Ha ha. I had hoped to get more out of my time.
I was not efficient when I was by myself, that’s for sure. That is something I do remember. I don’t quite know how it is now, but I clearly remember that. You also have more pressure to be effective now. It’s hard to say. I guess both situations suck equally. Ha ha.
Ha ha. I remember when I had a studio in City Hall and Per Jonas Lindstrøm also had a studio there. He told me that he had four kids and lived this hectic family life. This was before I had kids. I always found what he was working on fascinating. He told me that he used to make good art when he was in this melancholy state, but now he didn’t have time to be melancholy anymore. Well he had time but it wasn’t the same. Family life is also full of joy and you have… it’s hectic and you don’t have much time for reflection.
It’s easy to get side-tracked. By three o’clock it’s time to pick up the kids and at that point you’re already mentally thinking about that and not your art. I find it difficult to get back into the right mental state. Unless I really have to. If I’m forced to finish a text by the next day or something of that nature.
The Swedish band Broder Daniel, Håkan Hellstrøm’s old band, had this one band member. They were quite a decadent band with no money whatsoever. And this guy always annoyed the other band members by being “tjatig down to earth (naggingly down to earth)”. Depressing the whole band.
Family life can be like that. Grounding you too much for your own good.
Yes, it sort of is. I mean, you can work at night for two days straight, but eventually it will catch up with you.
It can be hard, with family and all.
It’s not perfect. I think many in our situation find that out.
It’s not perfect for artists without kids either. It seems hard, especially if you are our age, when the majority of people have kids. Worse for the women than the men I guess.
You have found a meaning in life, sort of, with family.
I think artists without kids can sometimes feel a disconnect to society in general. Especially if their career is going badly. That can be pretty stressful.
Yes, it is stressful, isn’t it?
Yes, because if you sacrifice financial stability and the prospect of having a family, it really needs to work out.
Yes, that can put you in a tight spot. I see that a lot of people give up. It’s just too hard. People want to be happy and art is not always the road to happiness. I think many return to it though. Perhaps after some years of doing something else and thinking about it for a while.
Jan Sæther, a professor at the Art Academy had a good anecdote about that. It was from his time living in California. He told me a number of artists had been lost to meditation there. This must have been back in the 70’s or 80’s. Some of the artists that started meditating had lost the drive to create art. A surprising byproduct of meditation I think.
That says something about the role art plays in life. That it relates to, as Jonas told me, how happy you are or if you’re content. You can get that happiness through meditation instead of art. I think that can make it very difficult to create, if you’re too content. I don’t feel that way myself.
I noticed that in a different way also. If I talk about a project, because as you know I talk a lot. If I talk about a project, in the middle of its making, that can drain the energy right out of the project.
You also see the concept behind the work. I think you will drain it of meaning by completing the work.
Do you mean completing it by talking about it?
Yes, every time you talk about a work. If there is something very specific you want to make. Then the person you are talking to is imagining the work at the same time you are imagining it. So the work is recreated many times. You can end up being sick of your project before it is completed. And lose the necessary motivation to finish it. When I paint I don’t really feel the need to talk about it before some specific problem arises. At that point it is good to sit down and talk about it with another artist. I do miss the academy where you were constantly confronted with what you were doing. It was tiresome and not always a giving thing though. It generated a lot of doubt about my work.
I guess it depends on who you talk to. Some could be confronting in a very positive way. Which is a very good thing.
At the same time your working process has a lot of ups and downs. You didn’t get to work in peace. That is very good now, the ability to work uninterrupted. I like that too.
What I miss from that time is the high level of mental activity that all that input gave you. You get that from an art education and all the social activities connected to that education.
Certainly, and a lot of new references. It’s much easier to get new ideas during the development of new work. It takes a lot more to do it by yourself.
You need to be more independent.
You need to be more independent and get all the information you need on your own. You don’t get it for free like you used to. Artists who drop by unannounced to tell you about their work and new references that they are ecstatic about. There is a lot to work with and focus on for the students that want to do that.
It’s like having a good friend with an excellent taste in music. He will supply you with a never ending stream of music without any effort on your part.
I miss that. And you don’t have the time to visit as many exhibitions like you used to. It takes a little more effort.
To stay updated.
Going to more exhibitions is something you can work on.
It’s perfectly doable.
Is there something else you want to bring in at the end of this interview?
I did an exhibition at Veitvet in Oslo with Sinikka Olsen. It was one of those sculpture walks where a bunch of artists was invited. It was a one day show with a series of old outdoor sculptures. When the contractor, Selvaag, built all of those buildings up there, he bought hundreds of sculptures and many of them he placed next to the buildings.
Did he buy any from you?
No, this was just after WW2 in the fifties when the buildings were built.
It was a way to solve the housing problems we had after the war. He bought especially many sculptures from an artist called Skule Waksvik, who you might know about.
He was a sculptor who made bronze sculptures of animals. You’ve probably seen some of his work growing up. You’ve probably sat on one of his horse sculptures or sculptures of a rooster when you were little.
We were supposed to stage this… It was this sculpture walk where each of the artists had to choose a sculpture to stage in some way or make a comment about the surrounding area. And then Sinikka would give a tour to visitors and talk about the sculptures. I made a work that commented on one of Waksvik’s sculptures titled Rooster from around 1960. I wrapped the sculpture in white paper. It was a one day project and I did the wrapping right before the tour. The paper was really thin, so it almost looked like it was made of plaster and had a totally different feel to it. I called the work Regift.
The reason for this was that Skule Waksvik was a huge artist back in his time and then he was taken on by Selvaag. I think he bought hundreds of sculptures from him. So that is a big part of why Norwegian sculpture was mostly represented by the naturalistic motif and not modernist art. Because he was one of the biggest collectors in the country.
One of the biggest collectors focused only on that type of art.
I think many people think about his work when thinking about outdoor sculpture from that time.
I think we have one of his sculptures where I grew up.
You probably do. At Gjøvik we have one of his horses which everyone has sat on and taken a picture of. So this project deals with what a gift really represents. A gift is never just a gift. I wrapped and gave it a new appearance. I think projects like that are a lot of fun. Doing a work in a short space of time. Commenting on something or doing something else. It doesn’t need be durable, and that gives you total freedom in your choice of material. It doesn’t need to last. You have the bronze sculpture underneath and then I made a new layer on top of that with a light material. I like to do that type work. It’s very different from when I paint. I hope I can do more projects like that. Little projects, outdoor.
A good change from your painting.
Heidi Marie Wien’s: Homepage