Kinstler Conversation with Andrea Joyce Heimer

 By Nina Wolpow

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Nina Wolpow: In your work you have a lot of people, a lot of animals, and then people turning into animals. Tell me about them. 

Andrea Joyce Heimer: The paintings in general are overloaded with figures. Usually people, and then like you mentioned, some animals. For me, most of the paintings are about loneliness, so although there are physically a lot of people present, if you look at their faces they’re kind of disengaged from one another. The more people I can cram into a painting, the more lonely the narrative is. And then animals—I love animals, they’ve always been important to me, but in my paintings I use them more as symbols than anything else. 

NW: What about here, in your painting "In The Summer We Started Drinking During The Hot Of The Day And By Night Time We Were Monsters”?

AJH: I was trying to show an event unfolding over the course of the day. I tried to do that with the different floors of the house. The bottom is people having a pizza party, starting to drink and have a good time. The middle floor, they’re half-people, half-animals or monsters at that point: they’re starting to drink too much. Then if you look at the outside, the exterior, that’s the middle of the day. And then by the time you get to the attic they’re full-on monsters. It’s night time. So I’ll use them in that way, where they’re kind of transformative beings.  And then sometimes I just have them in there because they’re cute and I like to paint them.

NW: Do you see the transformation of people to monsters as they drink as an evolution or a devolution? Should we be looking at this as scary and bad or exciting and good?

AJH: That’s a good question. I love that. It can be both. In that particular painting, I was meaning for it to be negative, but it is sometimes the other way. Now that you mention it, when I did that painting my friend was coming to hang out for a couple of weeks, and when she saw that painting and its title, she was really excited. She said “Tonight we’re going to drink to monster!” I thought I had just painted this pretty depressing painting, but she took it as a rallying cry.

NW: It’s like the “wild rumpus” in Where the Wild Things Are—it’s fantastical and exciting to escape ourselves, but also a little scary. 

AJH: I would say that’s accurate. I’ve done a lot of paintings about drinking and there’s always some kind of voyeuristic feel, where you’re watching these people turn into something or watching them move away from themselves. In general they are kind of raucous and fun-looking. They’re always in a party environment.

NW: What do you think it’s going to be like to see this painting re-envisioned as a puzzle—something you can physically take apart and put back together?

AJH: I’m really excited about that. It’s funny—the way I paint is very layered, so people have described my process of painting as both collage and like putting a puzzle together. So it’s odd that now it’s no longer a metaphor. It’s actually going to be a puzzle.

NW: A self-fulfilling prophecy. Do you have any tips for puzzlers on how to put the painting together? 

AJH:  I think what would be fun is if you try to put it together without looking at it. This isn’t really a tip so much as a challenge. So it becomes a thing where you’re feeling the individual pieces. Would that not work?

NW: You mean put it together without looking at the pieces or without looking at the original image?

AJH: Without looking at the pieces. 

NW: That would be really hard. I have no idea.

AJH: Like a fun party game where everyone’s blindfolded. 

NW: I imagine that as an artist, someone who lays forms out the way you do, you have to have great spatial perception. 

AJH: I don’t! My spatial dynamics are all f*cked up, to be honest, which is maybe why my paintings look the way they do. I went to the eye doctor not that long ago and I got this test where you put these glasses on and they show you a series of little thumbnails to test your depth perception. They said, “Describe each thing as you see it,” because it’s supposed to appear 3D. I described the first three thumbnails, and then there were like 20 more, but the first three were the only ones I could see in 3D. Everything else looked flat to me, so I stopped. And they said, “Keep going.” And I said, “That’s all.” They were like, “Really?!”. I’ve always suspected that I had weird depth perception, but that really confirmed it.

NW: One of the signature qualities of your work is its flatness.

AJH: [Laughing] It turns out it’s just my eyeballs!

NW: Is the flatness in which your paintings are rendered actually how you visualize space?

AJH: To be honest, kind of. It’s not that I think my paintings look realistic. Way in the beginning when I was trying to learn how to paint, I was trying to do realistic paintings, just portraits and things. They were so bad. Spatial dynamics—foreground, middle ground, background—it just doesn’t make sense in my head.  The way that I arrange things is intentional, but it’s also that I kind of can’t do it any other way. 

NW: Tell me about your drawings. They’re new for you. Have you learned anything by virtue of doing these drawings that you’re going to carry over into your paintings? Will drawing be a continued practice?

AJH: I started drawing right at the beginning of the pandemic. I had planned to take a month off of work, because I’d been working really hard, and then I couldn’t go anywhere. I was really anxious and freaked out. I didn’t have any painting supplies left, because I’d used it all, but I did have drawing stuff around. Just to keep myself busy, I started doing a drawing a day of my little people just hanging out, not doing anything, just waiting like everybody else was. I wasn’t planning to show them to anybody. At first I just allowed them to be really messy and chaotic and once I was done with the project—I did 50 of them—people really responded well to them. They had more personality. And I was having more fun. That’s the one good thing that came out of this for me, was that drawing habit. Like who knew? I never would’ve done that. 

NW: We so often see drawings presented as preliminary, as a planning stage for the vaulted painting. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Drawings can be independent.

AJH: Yes. For my paintings about all I do planning-wise is make this tiny, shitty thumbnail with literal stick figures, and then I cut it out and tape it to the wall, just so that I know where the main parts are. That’s all the planning that I want to do. For me the fun is the scariness that accompanies it. Like “I don’t know if this is gonna work.” So I would never be a person who would really want to meticulously plan out something via drawing and then try to replicate it. That sounds hellish to me. No offense to anyone who works that way. 

NW: I read that you spend up to eight hours drawing or painting every day. For those of us who have trouble focusing for eight minutes: how do you get yourself to get that deep in the work?

AJH: Very often I take on too many projects, so I always have more to do than what I have time for. I’m not saying that’s a good thing. I just take on too much so I have no choice but to paint for that long. The other thing is I’m f*cking lazy. I paint sitting down at a table, and once I’m all settled down, it’s hard for me to want to get up. I’ll get up to pee and drink coffee and charge my phone, but other than that I’m not moving. I don’t know if that’s laziness or focus. But the ritualized monotony of the process of painting gives me something productive to focus on that’s not self-destructive. It just keeps me busy in a way that nothing else has that I’ve tried, so in that way that makes it easy for me to sit and do that for eight hours, because I know the alternative is me tearing my hair out and freaking out about things.

NW: I read that painting was a recommendation to you.

AJH: It was a really flippant remark. My therapist was just like, “You seem to like art, you should try painting or drawing some of these stories that you’re dealing with.” I ended up doing it and it was the only thing that made me feel better at that time.

NW: In your childhood, art was a practice you shared with your adoptive mother and grandmother, right?

AJH: My mom and my grandmother were crafters. That was kind of the only creative thing that they did, so I did that with them. It was pre-made ceramics—little Christmas things—painting those and firing those.

NW: You’ve talked about feeling like you didn’t have a sense of belonging when you were growing up. I’m wondering if doing these projects with your mom and grandmother helped alleviate that?

AJH: Of all the people in my family I was the closest to my grandmother. When she would come to town, the three of us would sit together and make things, and it was the only time when I felt like we bonded really, or that I had anything in common with my adopted mom. I definitely have fond memories of that. As a result, a lot of the processes I use in painting are more craft oriented. 

NW: The narrative quality of your work is pretty defined. I wouldn’t go so far as to say your paintings are easy to interpret, but the story world of them is accessible, which is reinforced by your very narrative titles. Is that intentional?

AJH: For sure. I felt very alienated and sad growing up. It was kind of traumatic. I didn’t ever get any help for learning that I was adopted. I didn’t deal with it until I was in my early twenties. Not every painting is necessarily about being adopted, but they’re all connected to some aspect of loneliness. There’s something about painting the paintings with titles that said exactly what I wanted to say, whatever sad thing I was sad about, and then sticking those in a room and having strangers come up and look at the paintings, and read my words—I used to write the titles alongside the paintings on the wall—there’s something about the viewer hearing that, hearing my sadness or the things that really bothered me that no one cared about before, that no one helped me with, something about the intimacy of a viewer doing that for me, listening to me for a second. I’m so grateful for that experience, it alleviates something in me that nothing else could get rid of. That experience of the grace of that anonymous person doing that for me is so incredible to me. Because of that, because that was so important to me, I keep doing the titles. You get what I mean, right? 

NW: One hundred percent. What you said makes complete sense. I have one final, kind of hokey question. Since this is a puzzle company, I’m wondering what, if anything, is puzzling you today?

AJH: Well I have the general puzzles that I keep in my back pocket, which I would categorize as puzzles of the universe. All the basics like: Are ghosts real? Do UFOs exist and when do I get to see one? Is Bigfoot a thing? Those three, and who killed JonBenét? Even though I think it was her brother. Those are the four mysteries of our lifetime. Whether everybody else wants to acknowledge them or not, those are the four mysteries. So those things are always under the surface. But I think the true puzzle of today is knowing that I have nine more drawings to make and that I have zero ideas to make them, so I’m puzzled as to where these next nine ideas are going to come from. Because my well is dry. 

NW: Do you have faith that they’ll come when it’s their time?

AJH: I do not have faith that they will, yet they always do.