San Francisco-born artist Mary Heilmann, 76, creates strikingly bold abstract paintings, ceramics and furniture. Now based in New York and Long Island, Heilmann studied ceramics and sculpture at the University of California in the late Sixties. Much of her work explores the surf scene and Beat culture of that era. She was the subject of a major show at Hauser and Wirth, London in 2012. A new show at London's Whitechapel Gallery, Mary Heilmann: Looking at Pictures, spans five decades of her career and features paintings, ceramics, chairs and works on paper.
I get up really early, usually by 6am. When I'm working at the farm on Long Island, which is a two-hour train ride from my other studio in New York, I come downstairs, walk out the door and down this really beautiful little path to my studio. I’ve been working in the same studio for almost 20 years and I’m not going anywhere.
I sit down and have coffee and I look at the work. I read some spiritual books and I meditate. Looking at the work is part of the meditation process. The room is full of paintings, some finished, others still works in progress. The room itself is almost like a piece.
I give myself an hour for that and then I start working. The looking part is me trying to figure out the easiest way to do something. I get ideas all the time, though: at night, when I’m out and when I’m talking to people. I usually imagine the finished piece before I actually finish it. I know what I’m doing. It’s always been that way: I imagine the piece and then I make it.
My studio is a medium-sized barn. When I moved there, I took down the barn and built a nice new one with a beautiful basement for the ceramics studio. I work on the ground floor. It has a little couch in there, where I sit and think, and a little kitchen, where I make my coffee. I get to look out of the window at a two-acre farm. That’s a big inspiration. The garden, the farm and the studio are all part of my thinking about my work.
I work all morning. At around 1pm, I go back into the house and I have a light breakfast. I take a break, sometimes I go out and walk, do a little exercise, take care of business, do shopping, that type of thing. And then I go back into the studio later in the afternoon.
Every once in a while I just stop and sit quietly. Sometimes I walk around the field and that’s like a walking meditation. Meditation has always been a big part of my life, all the way back to when I was little, growing up as a Catholic.
Sometimes I forget to eat. But I always have this high energy protein drink. It’s made up of bran, cereal and vegetables and I put it all in a blender and grind it up with orange juice and protein powder. I’m obsessed with that, I never miss it.
My studio is not totally neat and refined but I’m not a super crazy nut, either. I’m right in the middle. I’m always working, so there’s always paint around.
I’m pretty much on my own in the country. But in New York, I have two neighbours across the street, a couple, and they’re both really good artists. Sometimes he helps me with woodwork, if I want to make panels to work on. He has made some of the furniture, as well. His wife is a wonderful ceramic artist. I’ve been thinking about asking her to help, too.
Going to art shows is like an addiction. I go back to New York all the time for openings. I’m still kind of obsessed with the art community there. It's an inspiration and a great place for talking about ideas.
I have other people’s art all over my house. I find it very inspiring. I have a few pieces by Marilyn Minter; Keith Sonnier is a friend of mine and I have his work; I own pieces by Paul Gabrielli, who helps me with my work and who was once my student; I’m also a fan of Cindy Sherman and I have a photograph by her.
I usually know when an artwork is finished. But sometimes there’s a piece that stays on the wall forever because I can’t figure out if it’s done. Often, I pay attention to what other people say when they see a piece for the first time. These things help me to get an idea of whether the outside world thinks a work is finished or not.
I work on a few pieces at the same time. I’ve got a lot of ideas going on. In the studio, there are some early pieces that I haven’t yet shown because I’m just not sure whether they’re okay or not. The other day someone came in and started raving about one of these works, so I put it right out in the middle of a wall to see if it was okay to go.
Too much success can leave me feeling depressed and paralysed. In recent years, I have had a number of big shows and was getting a lot of really positive attention, to the point where Art News put me on the cover of their magazine and called me an "icon". Instead of being happy, I felt pressure to keep working. I don’t have a therapist but I might get one to find out what was going on. That was very unusual. I was unreasonably unhappy and there was not any real good reason for it.
I finish working in the studio around 5pm. Then I do errands, go to the beach, all that kind of stuff.
The ocean is about a mile down the road from my house. I go there and I walk. I also swim in a swimming pool at my house when the weather’s good. We just turned it on for the summer.
I go to bed fairly early in the evening. I try to stay home a lot and watch television or movies. I'm a little bit of a reader but watching visuals is the way I prefer to spend my time.