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Meet Elevate Artist Heather Clark Hilliard

The Elevate program at 21c presents temporary exhibitions of work by artists living and working in the communities surrounding each 21c Museum Hotel location. Elevate provides hotel guests with unique access to the work of notable regional artists, while featuring their work in the context of 21c’s world-class contemporary art collection.

Last month, 21c Oklahoma City Museum Manager, Michaela Slavid, caught up with Elevate artist Heather Clark Hilliard to learn more about her artistic process of archiving her life, her interest in themes of memory and personal experience, and her physical interaction with each medium.

The following is an excerpt of their conversation.

Michaela Slavid: Can you tell me a bit about how the Archives project ties into this idea of archiving your life?

Heather Clark Hilliard: Archives, I have just one thing to say…Scroll #10 and Archives, so live peace, Scroll #11, together form a large installation that is made with old journals of mine from 1988-92. The project came out of one of those moments in culling and cleaning out where I was like ‘what do you do with something like this? Something that is so incredibly personal but also, you know, 20 years have passed, do I really need to keep them? If something happens to me, does anybody else really need to be reading these?’

MS: I don’t know, what kind of secrets are buried in there?!

HCH: I used to journal quite a bit, and it was sort of the element of my hands on the material that made me want to do something else with it. It was also a really symbolic act of realization, I don’t need to carry this part of my life anymore, I can now recognize it and it’s been assimilated into me and will always be a part of me. So I tore out all the pages – I tore them up and then I rolled them up and left the maybe 3-inch-long pieces of rolled paper, and that’s the point where it transformed and got really fun. Once they were transformed into these little pieces, there would be one or two or three words that were visible, but even these were all mixed up, out of context. They’re just phrases, like “memory lasts,” or “a bear and a comet,” or “a thousand variations.” At that point, I saw something that was so personal but was actually completely universal, because anybody could take those few words and fill in their own life experiences. It’s not just about me and my personal woes, it was more just about this struggle or this beauty that we all share.

MS: The human experience, not necessarily yours.

HCH: Yeah! So it’s important that the viewer can actually walk through the installation, be in the center of it, walk around it, read it, and take away what they need to.

Archives, I have just one thing to say…Scroll #10, paper from hand-written journals from 1988-92, torn, rolled, stitched, approx. 9 x 10 x 4 feet (dimensions variable).

MS: It becomes a landscape, in your words, this landscape of phrases in which someone can stand and feel at home even though they’re all someone else’s words originally.

HCH: Right. And as an artist I’ve always been curious, what are people able to take away from it or how would they finish that or use that in a sentence?

MS: When you’ve installed this before you’ve always had the vinyl component, but its particular order has been flexible. Could you talk about your decision to include vinyl words on the floors, walls, and windows?

HCH: In this iteration, because of the walls and the shape of the gallery itself, it worked to have the words from the floor basically up to the ceiling, so you’re seeing more all at one time. It’s also the first time I was able to put vinyl on the glass and on the floor – something I’ve always wanted to do. It’s interesting to see how you notice all the words differently.

Archives, so live peace, Scroll #11, vinyl lettering on wall, site specific (dimensions variable).

MS: Yes; the idea of creating an archive, which is rendered inaccessible in some ways, but also so much more accessible. It’s a complete reversal of the idea of a journal.

HCH: And that time in my life was particularly tumultuous, so this is a really beautiful transformation. Being able to look at something from lots of different angles lets you just kind of bring peace to it and let it go.

MS: Another personal series you’ve made is the Collected Color series; in some ways, these are maybe the most personal works that you have made because I know some of them are actually not for sale, and will never be for sale. They don’t exist in a commercial realm.

HCH: And they are archives in a sense. When my husband and I were married, that first summer we decided to go on a long trip in our VW camper van. We were going to be gone about 3 weeks and I was like ‘oh my god what am I going to do, I’m not going to be able to work in a studio, blah blah blah!’ So I came up with this idea for a project to do while we were on the road. That first trip we were going from Oklahoma, on to the Blue Ridge Parkway, and up the East coast to Maine and then winding our way back home. So we packed 40 quart sized mason jars and 40 squares of cloth for this project. I’m not sure my husband knew who he had married at that point!

MS: But he found out quickly!

HCH: As we were driving I would literally be like “oh that was a really good patch of goldenrod on the side of the road” and my husband would turn around and stop and I would collect just a small bit of goldenrod flowers and stuff them in the jar with the cloth and put them on the roof of the car. I filled 40 jars doing that for the whole entire trip. I documented where the water source came from, what highway we were on, and what the plant was. I tell you, those jars, they’re oozing and they’re fermenting for that whole time in the sun on the car, and they do smell.  When we got home I processed all the jars in a hot water bath. The result was this beautiful collection of colors that were literally documenting our trip. While I don’t remember all of them, there are some that are so distinctive that I remember to this day, you know, we were in California, on the coast, when I collected that plant. When I look at them I see a timeline of our trip…The only hint that the viewer has that there’s that geographic connection and that there was a specific documentation process would be in the title, like Collected Color I East Bound (Oklahoma to Maine).

Collected Color X Cotton Collection, cotton sateen, and broadcloth, wild dye plant species collected in Norman, OK, custom maple frames, 34.5 x 38 x 1.5 inches.

MS: Another work on view now at 21c is made of more natural fibers and collected specimens: Trail of Stones, made of river rocks that had been cut in half and sort of partially covered by this raw material – wool.

HCH: I love sheep, I love wool, and I wish we could wear it longer always. But in Oklahoma, not so lucky! Wooly Rocks was the project where I began working the material in this way, wrapping 400 river rocks in wool yarn. This was a precursor of the Trail of Stones which is on display at 21c. It’s a wall installation where the rocks are cut; the river rocks in Wooly Rocks are whole. The cut rocks in Trail of Stones were actually left over from when I was experimenting with a tile saw cutter for another project; I had cut the river rocks into slices, for this other project, and had ended up with these ends. So, wanting to use them, I covered them with wool fibers, and these became the Trail of Stones installation; about 350 river rock ends covered in wool. The wool kind of trails off of them at the end of each piece, and so even though they’re not moving there seems to be this vibration to them all together on the wall.

 Trail of Stones, river rocks and wool, site specific wall installation.

MS: There’s a really animalistic little quality to them! I mean, I want one as a pet. You want to pet them and watch them.

HCH: Right, there’s something that makes you wonder, are they maybe moving? The title Trail of Stones was me kind of thinking about these markers in our life, these trails that we follow. I was thinking about cairns, stacks of rocks in really beautiful formations that we use as markers on the trail. Then I watched this documentary film called Sweetgrass about a sheep run in Montana. There are several points with really amazing vistas and you see these sheep migrating across. They are these little tiny specs but it really got me thinking about this connection between land and animal. That’s a theme that you’ll see in my work, this combination of animal/vegetable/mineral. So Trail of Stones was these sheep on a hillside, and can also be stones as markers, can be any of these paths and how we all kind of migrate through our lives. And then we might end up on another path, and then another path.

MS: I love hearing that information because they are river rocks; and I think the way that herds of animals, especially sheep, move, is like a river; shifting and undulating. They don’t simply charge, they’re not humans staying in formation or running for a specific purpose, they’re even not like geese flying in formation, they’re constantly shifting and going faster and moving around, flowing around each other, and I think that’s much like a river.

HCH: Their formations are navigating the physical landscape that they’re on, but also maintaining a herd, being in that herd. They don’t want to be solo, so they’ve kind of got these dual things going on and that’s really interesting.

MS: Yes, especially sheep typically don’t need to be herded, but rather only to be steered. They want to stay together, and they know how to move together. Which is also exactly how you install Trail of Stones; the stones, you said, speak to you.

HCH: Yes, this is the second time I’ve installed it, and that’s one of the beauties of it, it is different each time it’s installed and it can’t be replicated.

 Trail of Stones, river rocks and wool, site specific wall installation.

About Heather Clark Hillard

Multi-disciplinary visual artist, Heather Clark Hilliard, works from her home studio in Norman, Oklahoma. Her studio practice explores the concepts intertwined with botanical dyes, textile and fiber processes and environmental influences. Hilliard’s wall reliefs and site-responsive installations have been featured in regional solo exhibitions including 108 Contemporary, Oklahoma City University’s School of Art and MainSite Contemporary Art. National group exhibits include Amarillo Museum of Art’s Biennial 600: Sculpture and Kent State University Museum. In 2014 Hilliard was nominated for the Joan Mitchell Painters and Sculptors Grant Program and in 2016 was awarded a Concept Focus Artist Project Grant and artist residencies at Wildacres (NC) and Lanesboro Arts (MN). Her work has been published in Art Focus Magazine and Surface Design Journal. More of her work can be seen at heatherclarkhilliard.com

Photos courtesy of Josh Vaughn.