interview NANCY GORDON
photography HEIDI DAUB

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“Currently, and what I have found over the years, is that the
creative work, the act of painting and writing and
movement, provides a grounding, a joy and is a necessity.”
—HEIDI DAUB, artist

Artist Heidi Daub.
Can I Give You the Sun?
48 x 60 inches, acrylic on canvas/linen
For the Flowers
26 x 40 inches, acrylic on Yupo paper
From the Sun You Come, To the Sun You Go
36 x 48 inches, acrylic on linen
Gather the Good
26 x 20 inches, acrylic on Yupo paper
36 x 36 inches, acrylic on canvas
She’s in the Mountains, She’s in the Woods
9 x 12 inches, mixed media on vellum
Some Small Thing Written
26 x 38 inches, charcoal on 100% cotton rag paper
The Calling
24 x 24 inches, acrylic on canvas
The New City
30 x 40 inches, acrylic on canvas/linen
Those Long Years that Came Before Us
24 x 30 inches, acrylic on canvas

Where were you raised and how has it influenced your painting and writing?

I was raised in the hill and river valley region of Binghamton, New York until age 17. From 3 to 7, my memories are of a hillside apartment we rented. We lived in a lower level walkout and all our windows and daylight came from one side that looked out on a small yard, then sloped to a creek nestled among tall pines and thickets. A wooded hill rose up on the other side of the creek and I believed, as a small child, over the top of that hill was China. The pines and creek figure so deeply into my orientation as a person and an artist. I remember being held on my mother's hip and experiencing the gray light of early spring and thinking the world was ending or maybe just beginning. We moved when I was 7 to a spacious house, just one road over, yet it was part of a suburb. Still a large yard and play area under the borderline pines, but the wildness was gone, the creek and woodland and thicket place. These early environmental memories are the foundation, or I often refer to “the root," of my paintings.

I was also involved in gymnastics in a very big way between 7 and 15, eventually training and competing nationally. Both of my parents were physical education teachers and coaches (in various sports), so athletics was paramount in my family growing up. The mind/body connection, discipline, movement and groove I experienced performing and training in gymnastics is part of who I am and impacts my current everyday life, including my paintings.

Any words of advice that have stayed with you?

An impassioned plea, the spring of graduation from my design teacher at Montserrat, Roger Martin. I was checking in with him about a project, and he looked at me directly, his eyes watering and asked me if I was going to continue painting. I told him, of course, that I meant to.

He said something to the effect, “that the world needed people who could ‘see,’ that this was such important work. Who if not you, will continue this work Heidi?"

I had discovered the paintings of John Marin during my time at Montserrat, too, and his book, John Marin on John Marin is chock full of his paintings and musings concerning movement, authenticity and intimacy in painting. Marin writes, "How to paint the landscape: First you make your bow to the landscape. Then you wait and if and when the landscape bows to you, then, and not until then, can you paint the landscape."

Kahlil Gibran writes, "Work is love made visible."

And Peter London in his book No More Secondhand Art writes, "...the root and full practice of the arts lies in the recognition that art is power, an instrument of communion between the self and all that is important, all that is sacred."

Journaling and painting go hand-in-hand for you. Tell us about this relationship.

I was introduced to painting and journaling as a junior in high school. I had always enjoyed art classes, but up until that time had not painted on a canvas, or been left alone with a blank canvas, to determine what I wanted to say. Simultaneously in my literature class we had a journaling notebook, with an entry due weekly, about anything that was of interest. Around this same time, I was learning guitar and also writing my own "poem" songs. Involved in story or the act of creating, I was able to quiet everything around me. It was as though these processes were a door that led me into my interior life.

I have kept a consecutive journal since the fall of my freshmen year at Montserrat 1978, over 40 years now. They are filled with musings, sketches, ideas, rants, grocery lists, house renovation lists, sketches, poems, short stories…

The journaling, for me, captures a moment, a thought, an idea. The very process of writing (handwriting) helps me organize my thoughts, focus. Particularly when I was in the throes of childrearing, and one-room dwellings, it became "a room of my own" and a vortex to the visual work. The painting also provided a "privacy" for myself, even with small children, and I was somehow able to draw into that creative space without losing track of what they were doing. Like having two different antennae perhaps? Writing, or what I extract from it, feels like another color in my toolbox.

Currently, and what I have found over the years, is that the creative work, the act of painting and writing and movement, provides a grounding, a joy and is a necessity.

Do you journal and paint every day?

I write and journal daily, but do not paint daily. Journaling acts as a confirmation or reiteration of my life process, whereas painting is a pulling forth, like a poem or story; it is a craft.

Sometimes once that thread is pulled in the painting process, the days are full of production. Other times studio time is sitting and just being with works in process. This feels like small windows of gestation before the next output. In the best of times painting is a four to five day a week endeavor, and it varies week to week with whatever else is going on in my life. I do not wait to be inspired to work. The gratitude I have for the opportunity to do the work is itself an inspiration.

You also write poetry and have published two books of your poems. Does each painting have a poem…or does each poem have a painting?

Every painting does not have a poem and every poem does not have a painting.

The collection “Eve of A New Round”—a group of 29 paintings and 29 poems—is an exception to that. These paintings and poems did come in conjunction with each other.

Generally, when I work, a poem or a phrase or line can be the impetus for a painting, and most often, more than one painting. I do not try to make a painting and poem go together, this is a process that evolves if it is to be. The second compilation, “Pieces of Prayer” included paintings and poems from several series of works, some in direct conjunction with the poem and others where a group of paintings came in response to the poem.

You and your family have lived in Maine since 1984. How has Maine influenced your work?

My husband, (teacher, musician, carpenter) and I moved to Blue Hill, Maine, in the spring of 1984. We met through music in Gloucester, Massachusetts, where the ocean captured our hearts, he originally from the Midwest and I from upstate New York. Maine became an exploration of coastline, a place where we could put down roots, afford a house or land. The work of Marsden Hartley, and John Marin's Cape Split called to me. The raw, wild, rural terrain; the light that held a whiteness and clarity. We have stayed in Blue Hill, but for a one-year stint in the next town over, Surry, though have inhabited various dwellings.

Our three daughters were born and raised here. We've renovated three houses and built three from the ground up, clearing trees, hauling brush, harvesting granite, building with stone. Most often we were the only crew. We've lived with no electricity, phone or running water, (though at different times) a wood cookstove for cooking, outhouses. I journaled and painted throughout this time. Often my painting wall was on a large board propped outside, or on a wall of a small, one-room cabin, or in our bedroom, before I had a separate designated studio space in 1997.

The influence of the ocean and natural forms I experience daily are found in my work. My spiritual affinity with the natural world has grown deeper here. My personal, familial history, community, this edge of the Atlantic Ocean, this land of granite, evergreen and all variety of emerald mosses, mammal, bird and insect life have become the warp, the framework of my life, and therefore my painting.

As an artist, who has influenced you most?

I cannot pinpoint a most! I am profoundly influenced by the matrix of the natural environment and all entities other than human without which we wouldn't exist. All creatives—painters, poets, composers, musicians, dancers, novelists, playwrights, actors, designers, architects, fine craftspeople. My mother and father and sister, my family tree. My husband and community. Three daughters, and now grandchildren, our relationship; other children of the world. Indigenous peoples, their history and knowledge. Spontaneity, movement, serendipity, spirituality.

Stillness and listening are the hallmarks of your creative process. How do you access the stillness? Please choose two or three paintings and tell us how this process develops into the final paintings.

I access stillness by close attention of the present moment without judgment. Often, I reach this state by simply writing, objectively, about what I see, hear, smell, feel around me, inside or outside. Sometimes the quality of stillness may just come to me as I go about my day. Many times, I lie down on the floor in my studio before starting a painting or in the midst of one, tuning into my breath and quieting my mind. Upon rising, I always see the painting clearer, and sense the opening or form or color that is needed. Other times stillness is accessed by attention or feel of the application of paint, with brushes or hands, pushing the paint until an image evolves, listening, sensing. I am attempting to hold space, to listen for what wants to be called forth on the paper or canvas.

I was working on a series called “Pieces of Prayer” and wanting to express my joy and gratitude for the life-giving ocean waters, as well as my grief for how we continue to desecrate these waters. The painting started with a whiteness and then I was finding or pulling these strands of color out of that vague space, history, what has come before, fragments. The poem Rising Sea just came to me in the midst of the painting. The painting itself is called From The Sun You Come, To The Sun You Go, the circular quality of life. A second painting evolved from this same poem, though several years later. The piece was part of a series titled “To Begin Again,” which was in response to an album of music created by a friend. He was hoping to pair the tune  titles/notes to particular paintings for the album's booklet. This started as an experiment; maybe I'd play around with this for a week or so with small works on paper. But the two-week experiment turned into a six-month series. Large works evolved from the small pieces, all the while the album played in the studio. In the midst of one of the larger paintings, the last lines of Rising Sea popped into my head, and thus became the title: In Those Long Years That Came Before Us.

I think many artists are in a state of stillness and listening when they create, being open to whatever wants to come through, in form, movement, color or tone; and have its say.

Have you always had the ability to find stillness? Do you meditate?

I seem to have been able to find this stillness from a young age, and I certainly experienced this in my gymnastics training, too. I don't formally meditate, though I think perhaps the very act of painting is a sort of meditation for me. Walking also feels meditative. The rhythm of my body, and observation without judgment.

For you, what dictates the size of a painting?

Size has generally been dictated by dimensions of my work space/wall space, the economics of materials and framing, logistics of frames, and the space to frame (as I do my own framing) and certain gallery restrictions. I am a member of a local 10 x 8 group, eight artists producing 10 pieces 10 x 8 inches for sale at holiday time. This is generally the only time of year I work this small.

If I faced no restrictions with economics or details of framing, I would paint 3 x 4 foot and up on paper or linen, as I love the physical movement the larger size allows. Presently I'm working on a few 4 x 5 foot canvases and also yupo paper, which receives the paint in a very slippery, gestural way, so different from the absorptive quality of a 100% cotton paper. I love all types of paper, and a variety of substrates. I prefer linen over canvas, but it's more expensive. I have a few smaller copper and aluminum panels that I am looking forward to trying.

Your newest series, “The Everyday” has a soothing optimism. What does the series mean to you?

I started this new series in January 2020, about a month or so before I became aware of the pandemic. I wrote the following as an introduction to a recent solo show, December 2020.

“During these strange and unprecedented days, everything feels on edge. At times overwhelmed with world news and extraordinary challenges facing family and friends, the very act of painting and writing has served as a lifeline. The root influences informing my paintings, namely the ingenious cycles of the natural world and our relationship within it, remain as profound as ever. The new green of this past spring, and return of the sun, offered a solace for me, particularly as so many of us were daily facing grief. And now as we head into the darkest days of the year, I am called to remember the inner light that we all carry.

The starts to many of these paintings were at times gestural and spare and alternately dense and layered. Most went through multiple 'finished' renditions before the final image. Flowers started coming through in the end, seemingly wanting to be the last to speak, and I initially wanted to disregard their power, as if flowers and light presenting themselves through my hands and marks, in this time, was not enough. Yet when I allowed myself to center, I realized, this is the real work. To trust the resurgence of hope, that finds its way through the layers that have come before."

Do you ever go back and add another painting to a series? How do your painting series evolve?

I generally don't go back and add work to an existing series (with “Black and White” being an exception). For me, the series are chronological, and any reference of a current painting to a work in a previous series I look upon as a natural and necessary evolution of the work. Though I have been known to select certain finished paintings from past series that are not working for me, and paint over them, where they would then be incorporated in the present body of work.

Will you be adding more work to “The Every Day”?

I think so, it is the current series. I can't predict when a series will be done—it is usually evident in a longish pause in working or a subtle or not so subtle shift in direction or intent.

Tell us about the work in “The Calling” and why you chose this name.

"The Calling" evolved out of a week-long artist residency in February 2018 at The Alcyon Center on MDI. It was a transformative week as I had never spent a solitary week entirely focused on my work without interruptions of correspondence, family, community obligations, commitments or other income producing work. I finished a first draft of my debut novel and had many painting starts that evolved into the "The Calling" series. I started the paintings with writing a series of haikus, which led to gestural immediate sketches of paintings. My first granddaughter was about to be born. The cycle of life, and this time I had been given, felt profound. I had been working on a poem earlier that autumn, that was about an encounter in the woods with a sleeping fawn, as we were gathering stone for a garden wall, and there were a few pieces produced from that time until the residency that fell under a possible series name of “Sylvan.” When I got back from the residency, I started working on larger pieces, finishing some of the starts and my granddaughter Sylvie was born.

I also started painting with my hands, which has continued into this present series. One of the first pieces done almost entirely with my hands and fingers became the namesake of the series. The phrase “The Calling” came into my head while I was painting, and it stuck.

The idea of using hands to paint rather than brushes feels more akin to holding and drawing with charcoal. The felt sense is immediate, intimate. There is a desire to not smooth the rough edges, to leave the marks as they come, not tame or conform them. Though some pieces want an incorporation of definition and brushed surface amidst the deliberate loose and gestural application.

Favorite time of day or night to paint?

Presently my most productive time to paint is anytime between 11am-6pm, though I generally don't paint after dark as I prefer the natural light. I often sit and continue to just look at pieces after dark, and I often write into the evening, or first thing in the morning.

Do you listen to music while you work?

This has varied throughout my career. Sometimes I'll choose music, sometimes silence.

Years ago, I used to listen religiously to our local radio station WERU between 11am-2pm while painting, which was when my kids were in school, and a prime condensed working time.

The 2017 series “To Begin Again” was created entirely with my friend's instrumental guitar album humming in the background. A few pieces I did this past spring were done while listening over and over to young musician/composer friend Ross Gallagher's instrumental 2014 album Utopian Dreams, Dystopian Visions, which seemed so fitting for the changes we were experiencing in this past year.

What do you love about the simplicity of black and white and “pushing charcoal around,” as you mentioned?

Working in black and white is a grounding process for me. Whether paint or charcoal or a mixed media, there is a welcome simplicity in the minimal. Often between series, or after a pause, I work in black and white and it tends to lead me where I want to go next. A roadmap of sorts. So yes, I keep adding to this body of work.

Drawing with charcoal is one of my favorite media as the hand to the paper is so immediate and tonal variations achieved with a kneaded erasure feel like a form of color to me.

What do you love most about your studio space?

The warmth and the ability to spread out! The space available to show visitors multiple works without feeling cramped.

Who are your favorite artists? Creatives, inspirations?

Numerous! These and more... Art from the 3- to 6-year-old set, Botticelli, Vermeer, Rembrandt, Ryder, Turner, Klee, Kandinsky, Matisse, Marin, Gaugin, Hofmann, Imber, Kimura, J. Mitchell, H. Frankenthaler. Photographers D. Lange, K. Kurita, Cartier-Bresson, A. Adams. Sculptors Goldsworthy, L. Becu, Moore, Lyford. Writers, Annie Dillard, Gary Snyder, Terry Tempest Williams, Mary Oliver, Thomas Merton. Contemporary dance, jazz, old-timey fiddle music. Horses running, whales sounding, deer in the woods.

What do you hope you will give people with your paintings?

My friend Kathryn Booth, director of the Alcyon Center, wrote the following of my paintings, and if this indeed is true for even a few people, I will feel as if I have done good work.

"Daub invites us to soar with her to forgotten and sacred lands: Earth, Heart, Sorrow, Presence, Heaven. The paintings ask us to be present to surprises around the bend-narrow paths leading to paradisal fields, trees becoming temples, leaves floating in mystery. All hint at the inner world we have left behind—and before her paintings our own interior life starts to mummer and awaken."

And this from Karl Paulnack, former dean of the School of Music, Ithaca College:

“If there is a future wave of wellness on this planet, of harmony, of peace, of an end to war, of mutual understanding, of equality, fairness, I don’t expect it will come from a government, a military force or a corporation, I no longer even expect it to come from the religions of the world, which together seem to have brought us as much war as they have peace. If there is a future of peace for humankind, if there is an understanding of how these invisible internal things should fit together, I expect it will come from the artists, because that’s what we do…the artists are the ones who might be able to help us with our internal invisible lives.”

Represented in Maine by Artemis Gallery and Gallery B.

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Favorite ...
What is your number one 2021 resolution?
Maybe more than any refined resolution, I just want to carry courage with me in 2021 and the awareness of when I need the deep breath of letting go.

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