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Home FEATURES Interview w/ Heidi Norton

Interview w/ Heidi Norton

Written by Alexis Mackenzie   
Friday, 09 March 2012 10:00

I discovered the work of Chicago-based artist Heidi Norton via EBERSMOORE, and became an instant fan of her unique installation-based approach to photography and sculpture. Norton frequently uses living plants as a sculptural element, encasing them in layers of colored wax in conjunction alongside other studio ephemera. I sent her a few questions about her processes and approach via email, and here is what she had to say.

Interview by Alexis Mackenzie

"Circle Template for Glass Sculpture" (2011). Archival pigment print, 19 3/4 x 15 7/8 inches.

Many of the materials you use in your work rely on, or are significantly affected by, their relationship to humans. Such as wax, which is naturally occurring but rarely observed in a natural state; houseplants, which rely on their owners to keep them alive and healthy, and man-made products built from natural materials (books, pallets), etc. Is there a specific aspect of these relationships you are addressing?

I think I am more interested in man's relationship to these materials versus man's interventions with them. The symbiotic relationship--a reciprocal relationship-- is what intrigues me. For example, the bee's reliance on man to help maintain their hives and the product man receives from this maintenance. My parents were beekeepers and I often assisted them as a child, learning this relationship from a young age. In order to reap the benefits of domestic plants, you must care for them. In Controlled Environments, there is an installation of shelves that are exact recreations of my windows of my studio. Here you can see plants in varying stages of life. Beside plants, there are objects, detritus, and remnants; collections that either reference these relationships or are products thereof.

"Controlled Environments" installation view. Mark Wolfe Contemporary Art, 2012.

Last summer I was given a queen bee cage, which looks more like a coffin for a queen bee. When making a beehive, one must introduce the queen bee, as she has not been raised with the collection of worker bees. One side of her cage/coffin has been drilled out and filled with "bee candy". As the worker bees are exposed to her pheromones, they chew through her bee candy plug. Once the plug is chewed through, she can escape and live in harmony with the other bees.

Another example of this was over the summer while making work that is currently on view in Chicago at Johalla Projects, Reasons to Cut into the Earth; I had trapped a butterfly in the hot wax that I was pouring into holes that I had dug as molds. I felt guilty that the butterfly died in my art, but liked the way it became the trophy of the piece. The next morning I had found that a community of ants had eaten out the inside of the butterfly. With that my guilt subsided--one organism contributed to the life of another.

In your dealings with houseplants, it is almost as though you are testing the limits to which the plants will allow themselves to be pushed before dying; personally, I used to have a history of dying plants, due to my constant failure to nurture them; but I love plants, keep buying them, and it is somewhat of an ongoing personal challenge to keep them undead. In a way, your cruelties to the plants seem almost like an expression of caring, stemming from a desire to lavish attention on them and preserve them in some way; or conversely, it represents a completely decorative regard and detachment from the plants' need to breathe air and light to survive. Are you usually "good" with plants? What processes did this approach to incorporating plant life stem from?

Yes, I love plants. My apartment has a sunroom and is filled with live and lush ones. And it is weird how I refuse to ever use any of "those" plants in my work. When I first began using plants, as material in my work, there was a process of detachment that I had to become accustomed to. If I buy the plants from my local mom-and-pop's shop I have a harder time exposing them to a possible death. If I buy them from Home Depot, I convince myself that I am "saving" them from a corporate life by incorporating them into an art piece. I sound crazy, telling you how my psyche works in justify the life and death of the plants, but I think it's important. This work is much more about the cyclical elements of nature, than it is about maintaining a life. The goal is always to keep the plant alive, the butterfly alive, the queen bee alive, but ultimately all of their lives fall to something bigger. I am interested in taking these live things and introducing them to materials that simultaneously preserve, simulate life, and/or kill them. When the work passes through all of the stages within this cycle, then it is successful.

"Dead Palm Burnt by the Sun" (2011). Archival pigment print, 32 x 25 inches.

"Reasons to Cut into the Earth" triptych, 2012.

Do you feel that your treatment of living organisms could be viewed as a commentary on man's exploitation of natural resources and/or disrespect for the environment, as a demonstration of nature's resilience, or are the plants more representative of something less explicit than that? Is it more simply about the personal relationship to objects within the home/studio, and creative subjects?

I don't see it as political work, although I am not opposed to people viewing it that way. It is much more about a quiet moment for me than something large, though I do think that domestic houseplants could represent man's exploitation/disrespect for the environment just as much as an endangered animal. Plants are exterior creatures; they belong in nature--outside where there are plentiful amounts of water and sun. They only become "domestic" when they are placed inside.

In regards to the personal relationship-- when this art object exchanges hands, I'm no longer in control of it. There is a certain amount of anxiety that I experience when it enters into arts' hands. I am passing an object with a living organism onto someone else and it is now up to them to "maintain" the art—its aesthetics, intent and evolution is now in their hands. My work comes with care instructions and disclaimers, "there are no refunds for dead plants."

"Studio Shelf Still Life" (2011). Archival pigment print, 19 3/4 x 15 7/8 inches.

"Studio Pallet (with dead stem & wax)" (2011). Archival pigment print, 19 3/4 x 15 7/8 inches.

Your photographs have a strong sense of documentation, of specific temporal situations wherein the light, the objects, their state of being, etc. are just so, just then. What would you say you are documenting, beyond these specifics?

The images are as much about the stillness and moment as they are about recording and referencing a passing of time. You are right, the intent is very much executed through traces and paths of light, plants' life and death- their state of being, drips of materials- wax, paint. But ultimately these are "still lives" and that is interesting to me in their connection to painting via history, but also in that they look like paintings (vs. a photograph).

A lot of my images are also about a visceral movement, or at least confusing the eye. Is the plant alive or dead, where do the objects exist in space, what's in front of the objects, what's a plant and what's a stencil, is it a photograph or a painting? That disruption, like the death or decay of the plant as a disruption, is what adds tension.

"Controlled Environments" installation view. Mark Wolfe Contemporary Art, 2012.

Untitled, wax and mixed media, 12x18x6 in, 2011

"Black Smoke Monster with Snake Plants" (2011). Glass, resin, plant, mixed media, 36x58x16 inches.

"After the Fires of a Little Sun", 2011

How do your different working methods inform one another? Do you find it easy to transition from sculpture to photography?

Yes, because with my work the "freezing" or "fixing" of an image is similar to the same ideas of preserving or pressing plants to glass or embedding plants into wax. Light is the determining factor in both cases. These two mediums activate one another. The image also has the ability to provide viewer with a frozen state- a glimpse of the past.

What are you working on at the moment? Do you have any plans or ideas for new directions?

Presently, I am working on preparing a solo exhibition as part of the BMO Harris Bank Chicago Works series at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago. It opens August 7th, 2012. Guess what it will involve? Plants!

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