A harrowing and vividly colored landscape serves as the backdrop for powerful commentary on climate change. This is the environment of Julie Heffernan’s When The Water Rises, currently on display at Virginia Beach’s Virginia Museum of Contemporary Art.
Heffernan’s oil paintings, such as “Camp Bedlam” (above), bring us into an alternative habitat that shows the aftermath of an environmental disaster. Construction cones displayed on sodden bed mattresses, TVs bursting with fire, drapes tangled in the branches of trees, and people in the shadows trying to survive — these elements of the painting capture the eye. In response to natural disasters like Hurricane Sandy, which demolished many areas along the coast, “Camp Bedlam” explicitly shows that humans are going to have to live very differently in the coming years.
A contemporary painter who is known for her Baroque-inspired portraits and landscapes, Heffernan’s surrealist paintings tell stories. Originally from Peoria, Illinois, Heffernan credits her Catholic upbringing as one reason she became interested in the arts. As a little girl, passionate images of saints and gods drew her in.
“I didn’t think about them as art, I just thought about them as pictures of interesting people that were part of powerful stories,” Heffernan said.
Heffernan received her BFA in painting and printmaking at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and her MFA in painting at Yale School of Art.
“My teachers were minimalists, and I wasn’t somebody interested in minimalism. I wanted art that told powerful stories,” Heffernan said. “It was in graduate school that what a powerful painting means became clear.”
Having been an artist for several decades, Heffernan’s paintings are critical and deeply personal. Inspiration draws from many sources and from studying various painters.
“The reason that painters like Titan or Rubens are great is that they do more than just draw well, they have hidden truths in their paintings,” Heffernan said. “I feel like a lot of paintings lie to the public. They either suggest that life is easier than it is or prettier than it is.”
As an example, Heffernan offers 19th century French painter William-Adolphe Bouguereau.
“He has pictures of pretty peasant girls whose lives were very hard, and there’s nothing in those paintings that talk about how hard their lives were,” Heffernan expressed.
Some may describe her work as magical realism, but Heffernan strays from that label. While some of her paintings might be fantasy-driven, they are fantasies about real issues, and don’t romanticize hardship.
When the Water Rises explores those hardships through the ways both humans and natural disasters negatively affect our habitats. Trying to change the fossil fuel industry may be out of our reach, but Heffernan says that people can do things to make our areas better.
“Human beings have a way of turning our backs on things that force us to change. The little person is not going to make a huge change,” Heffernan said. “But I do think that if little people, for example, stopped using plastic bags — we could do that, that is within our power. Little people can change their habits in other small capacities, and this is a reminder that we should.”
As she’s grown older, Heffernan says that her paintings have become more about the world being in trouble, as opposed to the paintings about being young that she created when she was young.
“I’m making a painting right now where there’s a woman trying to hold up a tree, so the paintings are much more about the world as we know it dying,” Heffernan said. “I had two boys, I brought them up, they’re on their own. Now my outlet goes to the bigger picture of where I could possibly… I can’t nurture the earth, but I can certainly respond to its plight.”
Now living in New York, Heffernan has been a fine arts professor at Montclair State University for several years. There, she teaches hopeful artists to find their own truths in their work.
“I want them to be able to make a convincing picture for themselves, so that if they have an idea that really matters to them, they can express it in paint,” Heffernan said. “I want them to understand that a painting is a product of a lot of mediation and thoughtfulness, and that they can learn about life through paintings.”
When the Water Rises will be at the Virginia Museum of Contemporary Art, located at 2200 Parks Ave in Virginia Beach, from now until Dec. 30. For more information, click here.
All images via the artist/julieheffernan.net