Faculty in Focus: Seriousness of Purpose and a Sense of Play

Heather Harvey, Associate Professor and Chair, Department of Art + Art History

Professor Harvey creates site-specific installations and objects that straddle traditional boundaries between painting, drawing, and sculpture. She is interested in hidden infrastructures and invisible ordering mechanisms—things like gravity, quantum physics, and radio waves, but also the human body, memory, and contradictory emotions like aversion and affection. Her many recent works include an exhibition at the Academy Art Museum in Easton, a solo exhibition at Salisbury University, and the essay “Outliers, Fringes, Speculation, and Complicity: On Making and Teaching Complex, Contradictory Art.”

In order to write and communicate well, what do students need to do? What are some principles or characteristics of effective writing and related forms of communication in the arts that you emphasize in your courses?

I am drawn to honesty, directness, and authenticity; saying what you mean. At the same time, powerful writing doesn’t need to be journalistically accurate or materially “true.” Great writing, like great visual art, is often elusive, contradictory, unprovable, absurdist or speculative, yet still with an air of truth. It possesses a distinctive voice or perspective that, even if fabricated or imagined, is so well-considered it can’t possibly be trivial.  

What is something you learned about writing as a student that guides you now as an artist and teacher?

The first draft is almost always terrible. Edit, revisit, revise, reconsider, elaborate, and excise. Distill down to the good stuff. Do this multiple times, on multiple days, and in a multitude of moods. If you do this with seriousness of purpose and a sense of play you will end up not just with better writing but also a deeper sense of self.

What is something that you learned about writing later in your career and wish that you had been taught earlier as a student?

Grammatical rules and syntax aren’t that important or interesting for effective communication. What matters is flow, cadence, and content. Colloquial and vernacular language is perfectly okay and sometimes spectacular regardless of what some might say. It is okay to write intuitively from subjective experience rather than intellectually or analytically, especially if you have something really interesting or particular to say.

From a visual artist’s point of view, say only what is most essential for viewers to know about your work (which certainly isn’t the whole story) and consider tone as much as content. What do you want a receptive viewer to be privy to? Does it need to be spelled out? Winnow your main ideas down to a few sentences, then let your visual work do the rest. Not everyone will understand or like your art. You don’t need to overexplain, and you aren’t obligated to tell others everything.

What writer or scholar (any genre or field) would you recommend as a model of a good writer, and why? As a corollary: Is there an artist you would recommend as a model for thinking, and perhaps rethinking, writing in relation to the arts?

A long-time favorite art writer for me is Susan Sontag. I like how deeply rigorous and intellectual her writing is while at the same time slipping easily into poignant and impassioned arguments. I also appreciate that she contradicts herself in a knowing way in order to complicate her essays and challenge her viewers.

What are you currently working on in your art and scholarship?

I am currently working on an exhibition that deals loosely with ‘the thin space;’ an evocative notion about in-between places and the razor thin divide separating apparent opposites. I first stumbled onto the term as a Celtic Christian concept of the thin veils which separate the living and dead as well as human and divine. It can also refer to specific places that seem to possess a palpable ‘heaviness’ or haunted quality, particularly sacred sites or where something of great significance unfolded.

Every human culture must have some conception of the uncanny; how quickly the familiar can become strange, or become its own opposite or foil. Moments of death and birth are perhaps the most intense, direct examples. Yet there are all kinds of subtle slips and thin divides once you start looking for them: the young becoming old. The ordinary becoming remarkable. The knowable versus the unfathomable. Material versus immaterial. Light vs. shadow. True, not true. Our country is certainly experiencing this unnerving sort of slippage in a profound way right now. Who and what can we trust? What is real and where does truth lie? Who are the good guys? Are we? What have we become? And when did we become it?

Interestingly, given the topic of this interview, I am also starting to write more again. I used to write regularly, particularly arts related writing and reviews, and I always write obsessively in my studio, though largely just for myself. Writing is a needed tool to unfold and elaborate ideas that drive my art. Lately, though, I am starting to write again for an imagined public. This writing is not about art in any direct way. It is more to play with ideas that intrigue and ameliorate, or bother and haunt. It is a loose form of writing, like going for a walk. Which is interesting since I also walk to collect found materials to incorporate into visual artworks. In some ways my writing and art are parallel enterprises: I meander around the world or my mind to see what emerges and presents itself.

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