Smithsonian-famous vs. Instagram-famous painters or the New York Symphony vs. Soundcloud in your car—how has technology influenced artistic expression and our ideas on art? Last year Maryland conceptual artist Heather M, 39, launched The Femme Project to explore such questions through the lens of sexuality, femininity and identity.
Her show Sexting at Artomatic in Frederick last month portrayed Heather’s body as a canvas transforming sensual self-portraits on Instagram into a gallery exhibit of charcoal drawings. Her focus on online images for use in brick and mortar exhibits and online galleries raises questions on how social media changes our social and sexual identities. Do online platforms play into narcissism or simply allow us to find deeper human connections?
Women who share images of their body empower themselves, says Heather and “as women, [sexting] enables us to be a bit more bold and creative and take charge of what we want to do sexually. But it is also a pornified culture. And there is no handbook on how we should engage socially online. We’re still trying to figure that out in that space.”
Compared to her personal social media pages exposing images of her body, Heather has received far fewer tasteless comments on her Femme Project online galleries. She attributes this to positioning these images as art rather than personal photos.
Each of Heather’s current projects, Sexting, #respecthersex, and an upcoming piece capturing images of women’s lips, broadcast explosive messages about sex, connection, and equality. Through the use of innovative mixed media to bring her concepts to life, Heather’s community of collaborative painters and photographers expands from Baltimore to DC to Northern Virginia. “Conceptual art is like a cloud. You’re coming up with a concept and you may pull other people in to help you execute it. You never become an expert craftsperson in one area but the possibility of working with so many different mediums is exciting.”
This summer, her focus is a reinvestment on honing her craft with a focus on painting, photography, and gel image transfers onto wood and canvas. “It’s time to experiment in my studio and get dirty again,” she says.
How do you deal with harsh criticism? Have you ever had a surprising comment? Where?
With the explicit nature of my work and artistic themes, I have come to expect, or at least anticipate, criticism. As with any critique in art and life, I try to take the comments in stride and turn the negativity into constructive dialogue. This helps keep me motivated to strive for change through art. For me, most criticism manifests itself online through social media, and while no single comment has completely surprised me, I do hope to reach my audience and elicit a response – positive or negative. I can say that negative comments and criticism are, in a way, validation that I am doing something right. If someone tries to marginalize or even shame my work, it proves my point and reinforces the message. Women have a long way to go toward real equality and the fact that people might be trying to tear my work or me down is proof that I am doing something right. The moment everyone agrees with me I have either achieved my goal or I am no longer effective in delivering my message.
Do you have any rituals?
I don’t consider myself much of a ritualistic person, but the morning does provide a time to start fresh and achieve a balance that sets the tone for the day. Instagram, working out and coffee typically start my day, serving to inspire and invigorate the spirit, body and mind. A little caffeine never hurts.
What are you thinking about in the studio?
I adore my studio time. The hours in the studio can be challenging as much as they are sacred. Because of that, it’s a space in which I let my mind free itself, focusing not on singular thoughts but allowing feelings, energy, impressions, forms and contrasts present themselves in the work. Working through those challenges is as much about thinking as it is about facilitating the creative flow.
How do you know when you are done?
While any one project could be considered a continual work in progress, I believe there is a moment when working on a project where it feels complete. There is nothing more to say at that moment, no other line to draw or stroke of paint to apply. It’s a very subjective feeling but one that emerges when I think the work is ready to send out into the world.
Who are your three favorite artists?
Early on, I was inspired by the vibrant colors, grotesque beauty and surreal nature of Dali’s style. His artistry and eccentricity left an impression on me lasting through teenage years to adulthood. I recall the first time I saw Dali’s painting The Sacrament of the Last Supper on display at the National Gallery of Art…I had an undeniable moment of connection.
Wallace’s current work on issues of gender, sexuality and dissonance resonated with me as I began work on The Femme Project. Her visual design aesthetic and strong feminine voice is a motivating force.
I discovered Schoettle’s street art work on a recent visit to NYC. Her collage work using her alter ego PhoebeNewYork is, at times, poignant, while also finding room to be clever and funny—a perspective that shines a bold light on secret desires and subconscious thoughts. I really enjoy her work and her role as a female artist in the current street art scene.
Your greatest success and worst failure?
It is my hope that my greatest success and worst failure are still ahead of me. Me as the full time artist is relative new reality that I am still growing accustomed to. I would have to say that showing my work for the first time was the greatest leap of faith and ultimately a personal success. To quit before I even get started and abandon what I truly love would be my worst failure.
What part of NoVA do you visit for inspiration?
Being a Maryland native, I have the pleasure of being surrounded by some of the best sources of artistic inspiration in the country; places like the Baltimore Museum of Art and Gallery 788, the Fridge in DC and upcoming gallery spaces like Olly Olly in Fairfax are provocative and refreshing. When I make it over the bridge to NoVA, I enjoy hiking the Blue Ridge and the Shenandoahs and never underestimate the inspirational power of a good trek through gorgeous mountain scenery.
Have you ever regretted selling a piece and why?
To date, no, I haven’t regretted selling a piece.