June 14, 2024
Artists

a conversation with artist Heather Drayzen


Heather Drayzen, The Way Home (exhibition view) at My Pet Ram, 2024

 

By JAN DICKEY June 5, 2024

I sat down on Heather and Joshua Drayzen’s comfy beige sofa a week before Heather’s first solo exhibition was to be held at My Pet Ram on the lower east side of Manhattan. Across from me was a decommissioned fireplace, currently housing a rotund light blue ceramic vessel bearing a relief portrait of one of the Drayzen’s two small dogs. The actual dogs quickly encircled my head and lap on the couch, coming in to cuddle as I attempted to type up my conversation with Heather on a laptop.  

Anyone who has met the Drayzens will immediately tell you that they are sweet, kind people. Heather’s painting practice is basically the physical embodiment of those two personality traits. She paints flattering, warm depictions of her husband Joshua, various relatives, close friends, and the two dogs–Winnie and Winslow–with an affection that transfigures the sentimental and skirts the saccharine through an unflagging earnestness and an art historically informed dedication to color, surface, and composition. The paintings comprising her debut solo exhibition, The Way Home, are her most inspired output to date, as they match her lifelong dedication to documenting her personal life with a more recent fascination over the ephemerality of light. Fleeting patches of light and reflections of the vanishing moments we share with loved ones flicker through the new paintings, as well as the conversation that follows. 

Heather Drayzen, After the Bath, 2023, Oil on linen, 20 x 16 inches
 

Jan: Why did you decide to call this exhibition The Way Home? 

Heather: I was in Texas recently to visit family, and Josh and I took a long drive – several hours in each direction – to see a big Bonnard show at the Kimbell Museum. As you know, I love Bonnard. On the way back we could see the moon for the entire drive and it felt like it was following us home weaving in and out of the clouds. And when it came time to name my first solo exhibition that kept coming back to me, because the paintings are a string of memories that make up my life. They are leading me home.  

J:  Is it the memories that are following you?

H: They are carried with me, like everyone. 

J: Why do you paint the people that are close to you? 

H: It’s what I’ve alway been drawn to do. Documenting my life is something that keeps bringing me to the easel. 

J: Looking at these paintings you make of your loved ones and friends, it seems like you are holding onto these people with an extreme level of preciousness. You’re cherishing those around you more than your average person. Why?

H: I have gone through health experiences that have made me cherish those things more, the time I get to spend with people. I grew up with a single mom in the wake of my dad dying. That framed my perspective on these things very early. I was three when my dad passed away. My family told me stories of my Dad. I would pour through photo albums and try to imagine what life was like when he was in the picture. Formative experience like that, along with my own scrapes with mortality, helped shape the work. And because I’ve been with Josh this long – since 2003 – I’ve always been drawing and painting him. 

J: Josh has been a muse for 21 years.

H: He certainly has. (laughs). The paintings of him can transcend what a photo can do; at least what my photography can do. The time that goes into making the paintings helps transcend them into another space.  

[Josh has just taken a seat at the kitchen table with one of their two Cavalier King Charles Spaniels in his lap, and is proceeding to brush the little dog’s teeth. Heather looks at him with an expression like, “why does have to happen right now?”] 

J: Could this be a painting? 

H: It could totally be a painting if the light was right. I have paintings of him drying them after a bath. (laughs) 

J: Why is the light so important to you?

H: It’s something about the beauty and the ephemerality of it. I love the work of Winifred Nicholson. I have gotten really into prisms, and have them up in all my windows. They make rainbows for max one hour a day. It’s beautiful to watch them fade in and out.

Heather Drayzen, Together, 2024, Oil on linen, 14 x 11 inches
 

J: You have a fixation with time passing. There are two journals on the table beside you that say “One Line a Day: A Five-Year Memory Book” on the cover. The concept of these journals is that you record one line a day for five years, until you need another book. I know one of those books is filled, and the other one you started last year. Your use of those books seems related to your fixation in the paintings with the passing of time. 

H: Yeah, I think it’s related. In the books, I can only capture one or two lines. And each painting is one specific moment. It takes a heck of a lot more time to make a painting than it takes to journal. (laughs) I didn’t journal growing up, and I wish I had. Now I’m in my seventh year and I think it’s interesting to see what I did seven years ago on the same day. It’s not a big shift but you see things happen very slowly over the years, all in one column, because the same date for each year is all grouped together on a single page. I can see myself going to more and more shows, building up an art community. 

J: How does that slow evolution feel to you?

H: It feels good. It shows that I am able to make changes in my life. There’s’ a lot of things that are out of my control. But, with some intention I am able to steer the ship. All the paintings in The Way Home are from what happened from last May to this May. I wanted it to be just this one year.  

J: Why one year? 

H: Last May was really hard, and by September I knew this show would be in May 2024. It felt right.  

J: In the paintings, do you see that slow steering of the ship? 

H: I didn’t go through a second health crisis, so I do see life going back to normal – whatever that means. 

J: I think you glorify the normal with your work. You seem to look at normal as something transcendent, spiritual, or even ecstatic. 

H: There’s an inner life that sometimes painting can convey. But it’s definitely not ecstasy. I’ll notice a beautiful light. It’s a quiet thing. It’s not a huge emotion. 

J: So you’re looking for moments that are not hugely emotional? 

H: I’m just paying attention. It can be very emotional. For example, in the hospital last spring Josh was drawing and we held hands for a moment. And I thought this could be a painting and that took me out of that intense experience for a moment. 

J: Being a documentarian of your own life helps you disconnect from the intensity of life.  

H: I wouldn’t say all the time, but in moments. I just love painting, so it’s nice to think about making a painting.  

Jan:  You use photographs as reference for your work. I think about photography, and especially photo albums of our own lives, as being nostalgic. But they are also a way of curating our own past. 

H: A curator makes choices. I can only make so many paintings. I have to isolate the ones I want to paint the most, or the ones that have the most power. Then I will crop it or alter it. I’ve lately been playing with going another step and putting the painting on the wall, letting the light hit the painting, and then painting that light into it. The painting from the photograph as a moment, and then the moment happening to the painting – both having a vibration. But mostly I just like that bringing in this additional light creates an atmosphere in the work.

Heather Drayzen, Black Cherry, 2024, Oil on linen, 18 x 14 inches
 

J: Why is the atmosphere so important to you? Why make the paintings hazy?

H: Getting to an unnamable feeling. The atmosphere alludes to a passage of time. If you look at all these works, they are over the span of my lifetime. And I hope to continue to make them. To keep painting these moments and to see what they look like when I’m 80. I want to see all these paintings lined up eventually.  

J: You’re producing a film. 

H: I love the Richard Linklater films: The Before Trilogy & Boyhood. There’s also that Up Series where they follow a group of kids from to 50’s or 60s on. It’s really moving to me. I like seeing life unfold.  

J: We can’t attend this conversation without talking about your two dogs: Winnie and Winslow. You are the quintessential dog parents, and the dogs pop up regularly in your work.  

H: They’re our babies. We’re artists, and we have full time jobs. I’m excited to come home to a happy dog. Cavaliers are the love sponge of dogs. You don’t get a Cavelier if you don’t want one attached to you at all times. I think the term is “velcro dog.” 

J: So we arrived back at attachment and preciousness. The little dogs cherish you and Josh and you certainly cherish them.  

H: They’re comforting, they’re loving, and they’re always happy to see you. These dogs are the best. It’s nice having something other than yourself to care for. But they give us a lot more than we give them. We are lucky to have them. There are not as many dogs in this show though. I’d like that to be noted because in my last show there were A LOT. (laughs) I’m pushing myself, Jan.  

The Way Home is on view May 3 – June 2 at My Pet Ram, 48 Hester Street, New York, NY. WM

 



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