Studio Visit, Heidi Leitzke
Lancaster, PA. May, 2018
Heidi Leitzke’s whimsical work moves freely between painting, illustration, and fibers, without need for distinction. Leitzke is a Pennsylvania based artist and current gallery director at Millersville University. She has previously held positions as gallery director at the Pennsylvania College of Art and Design and the Public Art Manager for Lancaster City. I have known Heidi for many years from my time in Pennsylvania and in May of 2018, I visited her home studio in Lancaster. We chatted about her work transitioning into becoming fibers – based, a home studio practice, and balancing life and art.
WHERE DID YOU GROW UP?
The short answer is Wisconsin, but the long answer is that I lived in a lot of Midwestern states. I was born around Chicago and then lived in Indiana, Nebraska, Minnesota, Ohio, and then settled in Wisconsin. My family lived in Milwaukee, WI when I was in upper elementary and middle-school and moved to Sheboygan, WI, for my high school years. I went to undergrad at Anderson University which is a small, Liberal Arts college near Indianapolis. At the time, when I was looking at colleges, I went to visit and saw they had a Glass Blowing department, which is very exciting to watch. My rationale, at age 18 was that if the department had a Glass Blowing program, it must be good. Choosing a college is a hard, big choice to make when you’re that young, but it ended up being a really great place for me, so it worked out. I landed on the East Coast, in Lancaster, kind of following that nomadic life pattern of my childhood. After college in Indiana, I lived in Washington, D.C. and then my husband got a job as a sabbatical replacement at Hollins University, so we were in Roanoke, VA for a year. Then I went to grad school in NC. And then we were trying to decide where to settle and we ended up in Lancaster.
HOW LONG HAVE YOU BEEN IN YOUR CURRENT STUDIO?
Since we moved into this house in 2006, I’ve had this third floor studio, but for the first four years it was mostly a drawing/works on paper studio and I did large paintings over at the Keppel building in downtown Lancaster. But since 2010, it’s been my primary studio in part because we had to move out of that other studio and it was the same year my son was born. So it was actually perfect timing because then I had a studio at home where everything was–it wasn’t divided between two studios, so I could work easily during nap times and after he went to bed.
CAN YOU TALK ABOUT YOUR MATERIALS SHIFT FROM PAINTING TO A MORE FIBERS BASED PRACTICE?
I grew up in a home that was very do it yourself. We embraced the mentality that if you wanted something nice but couldn’t afford it, you had to figure out how to make it yourself. My family also has a strong craft tradition–woodworking and sewing. I learned all the basics of sewing as a small child, so I’ve always loved making objects and things. However at the end of college I gravitated towards painting. By the end of grad school, I spent most of my time on large-scale oil paintings.
Then after my son was born, I would come up to my studio to work on these oil paintings during his naptime. I would wear gloves, but no matter how clean I would try to stay, he would wake up and I would need to go care for him, but I’d be covered in toxic paint. So it just wasn’t really working. Also, I didn’t have the long stretches of studio time that I was used to. I kind of struggled for about six months with different approaches with how to make Art now that I was a mom. Eventually, I turned back to this format of hand-held embroidery, the basics of which I had learned as a child, and found a way of making art that was really perfect for this moment in my life. Painting with thread is clean, non-toxic, intimate, and there was something about that hand-held nature that made it more accessible and enjoyable.
As a new mom, I wasn’t getting a lot of sleep, but I still had a strong desire to make things. I couldn’t remember what I was doing all the time. When I would set my piece down, the needle would stay exactly where I left it, as a mental cue of what I was working on and reminding me where to start again the next time I had a few minutes to work. So my thread paintings really began as an experiment. This way of working also allowed me to revisit imagery that I had previously drawn or painted, but didn’t feel like I had really mined all of the power. I could revisit images and kind of rework them in a new material. My first thread paintings were based on earlier drawings and paintings.
WHAT ARE THE UNDERLYING THEMES IN YOUR WORK? WHAT ARE YOU TRYING TO ACHIEVE?
There’s a lot of layers to that question, but I would say the unifying theme that’s always interested me is observation of nature and imagination. I am not interested in creating an exact likeness of a real place but rather capturing the spirit of aliveness that’s in nature. I think that interest is rooted in early experiences of being outdoors and exploring, and also I really love the book The Secret Garden–which I read for the first time as a child. The story of the Secret Garden symbolizes the healing powers of nature. The magic and wonder of springtime has always been really strong for me.
I hope that when people look at the work, they’ll see a place that seems kind of familiar and haunting and beautiful, but they can’t say exactly where it is. But something about it resonates with them, or they’re curious to know more, or it might be a place that they’d like to explore. Also, kind of going back to the idea of a secret garden, there’s this question of things that are hidden versus what’s revealed–things being inside and outside, things being above ground and below ground. I think of nature as metaphor for human emotions and experiences.
HOW DO YOU KEEP MOVING FORWARD IN YOUR STUDIO PRACTICE? WHAT DOES IT MEAN TO MAKE MEANINGFUL WORK?
I have an innate desire to make, a deeply personal need to make things and a sense of feeling right with the world when I’m actively making in the studio. I have a hard time doing the same thing over and over again. I feel like each new piece is a step forward in a sequence. I don’t start ten things at once and build them up simultaneously. I make one thing and then what I learn from that piece work feeds into the ideas, in a refined, deeper dive, for the next piece. There’s sequential growing, however there is a repetition of themes that I’ve always been curious about. I’ve made work very recently that reminds of me of ideas I was exploring in undergrad. I keep going back to that idea of wanting to fill the world around me with beauty.
For me, there is a desire to create places that I would like to be. Places I don’t get to visit on a daily basis. So I create an alternate reality. Making art fills a need in my life, and at different points in my life, I have had different needs. For example, I’m an artist, mom, run a gallery at a University, teach classes to large bodies of students, I’m married–all of life, it’s hard to balance all of that, so last weekend I spent a lot of time messing about with a little mobile because there was just something really satisfying about trying to bring a sense of aesthetic balance to this playful little mobile. I can’t figure out how to balance my whole life, but I can create this unique feeling of balance in this object.
I love to experiment. One of my professors in grad school, who is now a dear friend, is a painter named Judy Glantzman. She always talked about how we as artists have work that is our main work–for me it was big oil paintings and if they weren’t big, then it didn’t really matter–but then you have these other things that you do for fun and for me that was jewelry making or embroidery or doodles. She challenged us to recognize the value of those other things. She opened the door of possibility for me to see whatever we would call “other” as having equal value to the artworks that are more easily recognizable as significant. Her permission and encouragement gave me the freedom to be much more experimental and to acknowledge that, for example, something made with thread could actually be the main thing. That kind of allowed me to think that if I have an idea, I should just try it, rather than to assume it won’t work. It’s okay to spend time messing around with a mobile or making a collage out of stickers. It may not lead anywhere, but it might.
HOW DO YOU THINK ABOUT DIVIDING YOUR TIME, AS AN ARTIST, PROFESSOR, HOME LIFE, ETC?
As with most things in life, there is an ebb and flow. The tide comes up and pushes you to take care of things. And then it goes out and you have a little bit more time to think about other areas of your life. So it’s sort of a matter of what is the most pressing at the time. Having balance is the ideal, but not always attainable. This reality has shifted my way of working. I’m much more willing to work on something for just a few minutes, whereas when I was in grad school or just out of grad school, I felt like I had to have all day. If I didn’t have eight hours–what’s the point?
My ability to make art over the past seven or eight years is closely tied to the fact that I’ve been able to reconfigure my processes, figure out new ways to work and be flexible. I also try to be realistic, and not be too hard on myself when the house is a mess. My house usually looks like a Giant came, picked it up, shook it, then set it back down again.
DO YOU HAVE ANY HOBBIES OR INTERESTS OUTSIDE OF YOUR STUDIO PRACTICE?
My life is mostly art. I do love being outside, riding my bike and going to the ocean. I get to explore with Henry, my 7 year old son, and it is great to re-see the world from a child’s perspective.
Within the last month or so, maybe because it was so cold this spring, I’ve been really drawn to this hot pink, red color. Can color be a hobby? I feel like I need it everywhere, like on my fingernails. I made a little embroidery experiment using these hot reds and oranges and pinks in a woven grid. I’ve been looking at Paul Klee a lot and love his work. It’s really formal but rooted in simple shapes, geometries, childlike imagery. It takes a while and progresses slowly, new studio ideas bubble up from these experiments.
Part of my job, which is really exciting, is curating exhibitions for the Eckert Art Gallery at Millersville. The upcoming season will be my first year of curated exhibitions. I am looking forward to presenting the work of a self-taught “outsider” artist from York, PA who created magical worlds in his paintings. This work’s never been shown before. I’ll be doing a lot of research to figure out how to conserve and present these paintings, it’s outside my area of expertise but it will be interesting to explore those new realms.
DO YOU HAVE ANY PROJECTS OR EXHIBITIONS COMING UP THAT YOU’D LIKE TO PROMOTE?
Four Pillars, Full Circle opens at Gross McCleaf Gallery in Philly on June 1, and I have a new piece in this show. The exhibition is in celebration of Mount Gretna School of Art, which my husband started and directs. In the Fall, I’ll have a show called States of Reverie, with Tai Lipan at Millersville University. As a new faculty member I was asked to show. Rather than just have a solo exhibition, I thought it would be nice to have that conversation with a friend I haven’t shown with before. She makes these really intricate paintings that are layers of cut woo. We’re both rooted in traditions of painting, but we’re exploring materials in different ways, so I think the show will be a really nice conversation.
I always loved cyanotype or sun-prints. I’ve learned how to mix my own chemicals, so I can get very creative with the process. This summer I’m going to teach a cyanotype workshop at Mount Gretna School of Art on July 7th, anyone can register to attend. www.mgsoa.org I think it will be a lot of fun.