The paintings and photomontages by Greg Pfarr and Friderike Heuer, respectfully, currently hang shuttered in the Runyan and Upstairs Galleries at the Newport Visual Arts Center. It’s a sad and frustrating experience for the artists, the Oregon Coast Council for the Arts (OCCA), and regular gallery volunteers and visitors alike. In response, OCCA has moved the galleries online. To further contextualize the artists, their works and the current situation, the OCCA presents this interview with Pfarr and Heuer, as facilitated by OCCA VAC Director Tom Webb. The OCCA looks forward to reopening the VAC galleries and sharing these two exhibits as soon as is safely possible.
Pfarr’s exhibit, “A Sense of Place in the Pacific Northwest includes the artist’s paintings and etchings of high-alpine glaciers throughout the Cascade Range and Alaska, and can be found here: https://coastarts.org/events/a-sense-of-place-in-the-pacific-northwest-work-by-greg-pfarr/
Heuer’s exhibit, “Postcards from Nineveh,” includes the artist’s photomontages combining historic Dutch paintings of whaling communities along with contemporary environments, and can be found here: https://coastarts.org/events/postcards-from-nineveh-photomontages-by-friderike-heuer/.
The photomontage above, “Grand Central Station,” is from Heuer’s new series, “Fluchtgedanken,” referenced below.
Tom Webb: With all this social isolating, does that give you more time and energy to focus on your creative work or does social interaction help fuel your work as well?
Friderike Heuer (FH): Hope this finds you healthy and only minimally demoralized. I have days that are good, and some that are not, just try to remind myself how privileged we are to have food, shelter and nature to walk in.
Social interaction has not exactly stopped-if anything I get more phone calls and emails from my friends all over the world and family in Germany, because everyone is in so much disbelief as to how the U.S. government and parts of our population are (mis) handling the situation. I also have more work in the house because of the change in situation – the constant wiping, washing, etc. I miss my photo sessions with the various groups for whom I volunteered, but my daily life otherwise has always been pretty much isolated – I hike alone, work on my art alone, write alone. Younger, healthier friends are shopping for us, and my husband is – as always – in charge of the kitchen, I don’t cook.
I had to switch over to a new computer, and it turned out that many of my ancient programs, including Photoshop and Lightroom, did not work with the new Mac. I had to buy new, install and learn new configurations, tools – still am. That has brought me to tears and anger in alternation – everything is changing at once, and the helplessness (re: technology) that is echoing the helplessness (re: the state of the world) – it was almost too much. So I feel that emotional regulation has become harder. I am thin-skinned to begin with and now that is intensified.
My work at this point is certainly influenced by the trauma we are facing, independent of social isolation. All the painted portraits in the new series, “Fluchtgedanken,” are from an interesting guy, George Tooker; I found an old art magazine in a pile in my basement that my husband for some incomprehensible reason saved from his grandfather. It had a spread of Tooker paintings that I photographed, all done mid-20th century. The people in them all had such a zombie look, such empty eyes, that they immediately spoke to our current situation. He was openly gay, first living in Manhattan, then somewhere rural up north, totally engaged in civil rights movement, including march on Selma, and preoccupied with the fate of the working class. He had quite a bit of success with egg tempera paintings in the magical realism style in the 1960s. I embed them in montages that include a lot of linear abstractions to counterbalance the figurative work and link to themes of escape, modes of transportation, etc.
Greg Pfarr (GP): So far the social isolation has not made a big change in terms of what I do. However, I am finding myself doing a lot that has to directly or indirectly with the virus. I am now doing all of the shopping. My wife and had been splitting this job up – I would shop some stores and she would do others. There has been a considerable amount of time preparing, learning, checking on neighbors, etc. Now we are told that it is a good idea to make our own mask and save any n95 mask we may have purchased for possible donation to our local hospital so we will be doing that. I don’t have any underlying conditions, but my wife does, so we are both trying to be very careful.
I believe I will soon be able to spend more time in my studio, and that will help alleviate the depressing news – trying to see enough news to be informed but not too much to the point where it is counter-productive. Social interaction does help fuel my work some, but I am primarily reclusive and live more like a hermit. One of my favorite things to do, which I can no longer do, is to go to my favorite local coffee shop. I look at my sketchbook, review my ideas and get a different perspective on my work than if I look at it in my studio. It is only social for me in that I get to be with a variety of people of different ages and walks of life. I rarely engage in conversations. I have also been more social by posting on Instagram and Linked-In. What helps me in this latest isolation the most is that I am well situated in that I live in an urban/rural environment on a couple of acres and have a big garden. Being outdoors is a big help. I feel for those who are confined to a small apartment in a city.
TW: It’s interesting that one of you focuses on alpine environments and the other on the oceans – two of the most sensitive environments. The environment in some ways is benefiting from all this social isolating – the smog has cleared in Los Angeles. When all this breaks, I’m wondering: will people have a different sense of their relationship to the environment and perhaps even their fellow humanity? Care to guess?
FH: The options for what happens when this will be behind us – should we see that – are so varied that I hesitate to guess. There are some effects on nature that we can see already now; here is an interesting link that describes how the lack of noise pollution is helping the oceans https://www.theatlantic.com/science/archive/2020/04/coronavirus-pandemic-earth-pollution-noise/609316/.
Everyone I read agrees that it is a drop in the bucket, and can and will be reversed when the world starts producing again. A lot will depend on whether people see this as a warning for larger crises like climate change, and are eager and able to put more effort into change. A lot will depend on who will be in charge of this and other countries – disruptions like the one we are experiencing have in the course of history often led to more authoritarian regimes, who would care less for nature, or sometimes revolutionary change, which would bring about a green New Deal. The economic collapse that is already visible will certainly put the focus of the many, many affected people on survival, rather than joining some ecological movements.
GP: I can see it going either way. I agree with Friderike in that there is a history of chaos producing authoritarian governments – most obviously the rise of fascism in the 20th century. Now one can see right-wing authoritarian regimes in many countries and our own democracy in peril. If I had to guess, I am more optimistic on the side of democracy for our country. After the current failure of not having leadership, plus terrible mis-management in controlling the current virus, I think big government is going to become more popular and the health-care movement and other social causes do have a lot of momentum. The fight for the soul of our country is ongoing.
I am aware of the environmental benefits of the current situation. Less pollution is an obvious one. I can’t see for myself how much better the air is in Las Angeles, but from where I live I look east over the Cascade Range, and I see only one or two contrails. Before the virus, I would typically see 12 or 13 contrails over the mountains in the morning sky. The only other time I saw this was right after 9-11. The amount of effort it is going to take to combat global warming is going to be enormous. Will we be up to it after this crisis? In my paintings of glaciers, I hope to show people the beauty, the power and the impact that we are having on the world’s climate. The ice in some of these glaciers is hundreds and even thousands of years old, yet our impact is that we are melting them. I hope to make people value them. With glaciers, one can actually see in a concrete way what is happening. Glaciers also benefit the plants, animals and people when they shape the land. They create highly mineralized soil, which I believe is at the bottom of the food chain for life. They once covered 30% of the surface of the earth. In southern Ohio where I grew up the last ice sheet that was there 12000 years ago was a mile thick. The land there is still rising since the weight of the glacier is gone. The Ohio river was created when the glacier stopped and retreated. The Ohio river describes the edge of the glacier when it stopped.
Friderike, you do beautiful, compelling and evocative work. We may be more similar in our goals than first meets the eye. Your strategies and use of media are different, but we both share an interest in nature and protecting the environment.
I also have had computer irritations. Fortunately, that happened several months ago and is not a problem now. I don’t need to deal with both the virus and the technology at the same time! I have a Mac. It was frustrating to convert all of my apps from 32 bit to 64 bit. That is when I had to give up my old free elements Photoshop. It would not work as a 32 bit app. I also had to get a new scanner, since my older Canon scanner could not be updated with the 64 bit app.
TW: How does it feel to have your work shuttered by a virus? And does any of the COVID-19 situation relate to your work or sensibilities behind your work?
FH: Disappointed, is the answer to the first part of the question. The timing would have been such a perfect match between whale watching enthusiast flocking to the coast and my work concerned with the environmental issues around overfishing and climate change. I feel worse for so many others, though, who have perhaps never exhibited before and are now shut down, or who rely for their income solely on sales from their work, sales which I presume will be non-existent. Not for lack of access, but because we are all so frightened about a recession/depression and long-term economic downturn that few would invest in art now, at least that’s my hunch.
Regarding the second part, I do see some points about the pandemic relating to my work. The relationship between humans and nature is tenuous to begin with; if we abuse our natural resources, put stressors on the environment, disregard warnings by scientific experts, and let money issues rule the level of our preparedness, then there will be consequences. None of what is happening right now was not foreseen, even the Pentagon described the scenario in a 2017 paper. The causes lie in poverty, in large populations encroaching on natural habitats, and in our hubris that we thought we are exempt from a catastrophe like the one that is unfolding. The parallels to climate crisis are obvious to me and were part of what motivated the Nineveh series in the first place.
GP: I can’t imagine feeling good about having my work shuttered by a virus. I do feel good about the effort that the visual art center is making to do the best they can to make the work visible through social media and the online coastal arts website. I do believe, of course, that the best way for people to see my work is to see it in real life. It is difficult for people to see the difference between my paintings and my prints, for example, when looking at photographs of them. In real life, the media used are more obvious and relevant.
In terms of the COVID 19 and how it relates to the sensibilities behind my work, I believe there is a connection. My interest in wilderness as expressed in my paintings and etchings is a spiritual interest. Part of my spiritual experience in that kind of nature is the experience of my smallness and insignificance in the larger scheme of things and the realization that our control over nature is an illusion. This feeling for me is humbling yet also liberating. It makes me think about our place in nature. COVID 19 is a reminder that we are not always in control, no matter how sophisticated our medical technology. Over time our control has become more and more powerful. What seems most important to me is to realize that we are all connected, and that our real strength is in how we can work together to help each other defeat the virus despite our differences. On a personal note, this virus makes another connection to me and my mother, who was also a creative person – a pianist. Our COVID 19 virus is now compared to the 1918 virus pandemic. My mother survived the 1918 virus (also known as the Spanish flu) when she was only three years old. She was fortunate to be a child since children could more likely survive it. That virus targeted young men more than other age groups. Many of these young men were the same young men who had survived fighting in the first world war. So these times connect me to my mother in a way that I had not expected. As Mark Twain said, “History does not repeat itself but it does rhyme.”
TW: What is a common response or question about your work?
FH: Common questions concern how I produce something that people often think of as paintings, on the computer. I’ll try to explain that I use only things I photograph and mix and match them in an Adobe Creative Suite program, using painting tools, and technical gadgets that photoshop provides. I am entirely self-taught in this regard, so I think I am not really using all the tools in the toolbox, but I somehow manage to express what I want. Common responses are: “Why do you always do political stuff?”, “Why do you not have 10 pages of artist statement that explains each montage?”, and “Why is your work always unsettling?” My answers: I try to describe and speak to the world we live in, and as an immigrant, much of my work has focused on refugees and displacement. As a parent, I fear for the future of the next generations, and so I am engaging environmental issues. None of these topics are rosy. But I don’t intend to scare or disturb, I just hope to make people think about the issues.
GP: A common response to my work is that it is beautiful. I have come to accept that more over time as a positive comment. What I really strive for is to include the viewer, to invite them into a way of seeing that may be beautiful but is also about the powerful relationships and vitality that I see in wilderness. Hopefully I want people to care more about these places and to protect them.
TW: Tell me about your other creative pursuits/interests, or earlier pursuits?
GP: My other pursuits and interests would be gardening and astronomy. Gardening gives me a relationship to the earth that is very meaningful and empowering. Gardening is also an art, so there is that kind of creativity involved where you are trying to figure how certain things happen the way they do and how you might figure out the better way to do things. It requires paying attention and using intuition and sometimes guessing for solutions.
My other significant interest is astronomy. I built my own telescope–a 10” Newtonian (that is a 10” diameter mirror) with a focal length of 64”. When I look at the night sky it is a reminder that we are a small part of the cosmos, and it is a humbling experience knowing that we are a small part of something much bigger. Somehow I find it more fulfilling knowing that the universe is much larger than we knew just 15-20 years ago. There is also a sense of exploration and discovery when I focus on an object in the sky that I had not seen before and watch it resolve into something marvelous and unpredictable. I sometimes draw at the eyepiece of my telescope, which really trains me to see more than just looking at something.
FH: I am a late-comer to producing art, after diverse other paths in life. I consider making the montages the real act of creation, but of course I run around photographing all the time to collect the materials that go into the work. One of my greatest joys is photographing birds. I don’t have the extraordinary equipment that many birders use, a 300-mm lens is the heaviest I can carry when I hike, on an old Nikon, but I just love being out and about and finding song birds, or raptors or really anything that flies and makes noise! I also write a daily blog about art, music and politics, always with my photographs, which requires some creative energy. (www.heuermontage.com)
TW: What’s next on your creative path?
FH: I am working on a new series directly linked to my current status of being locked down as someone belonging to a high-risk group. Fluchtgedanken (thoughts of flight) uses older montages that focused on means of transportation, planes, ships, bikes, trains, etc. and connects them to figures in a constrained environment.
GP: What is next in my creative path? I am not done with the mountain and glacier experience. My wife and I were on a small boat that did wilderness exploration in Glacier Bay National Park this last August. I made studies and took photos, so I am still working on that experience. I may also do some work on aerial views of Greenland from when we flew over it on the way back from London in 1999 and again when we flew back from Paris in 2018. I have a number of stunning photographs to work from.
TW: Finally, who are your artistic inspirations or influences?
GP: There are a wide variety of artists, historical time periods and so on. If I am to make this simpler, I would say that I work in a painterly tradition that starts with William Turner and goes up through the impressionist and post-impressionist period to the field painters and abstract expressionist of modern and contemporary times. I also have an interest in historical Chinese painting from the Sung, Yuan and Tang dynasties. The Chinese tradition of landscape painting is centuries old. Our western landscape tradition is not very old compared to theirs. The origins of landscape painting in the west start as a reaction to industrialization. Although one can find landscapes in the backgrounds of many earlier western paintings, they are not the primary subject and serve only as backdrops to human activities and stories.
FH: Since I grew up in Germany, they are euro-centric: Max Ernst as a surrealist painter, Hannah Höch as a collage artist, Paula Becker-Modersohn as a female role model to develop your independent style and Kaethe Kollwitz as a political artist.