Woman Art Warrior: Heather Hart Lets Us Reside Inside Her Creations

Born in Seattle, Washington, and working out of Brooklyn, New York, Heather Hart explores the power in thresholds, questions dominant narratives and creates alternatives through her large-scale sculptures. Hart co-founded Black Lunch Table, an oral-history archiving project founded in 2005 that focuses on the lives and work of Black artists. She is also a member of the Black Trustee Alliance for Art Museums.

This summer, Hart will present Oracle of Intimation at Home Again, the first installation of The Hawryluk Collection of Art in Nature, a new series of outdoor public art installations inside the Virginia B. Fairbanks Art & Nature Park at Newfields Museum in Indianapolis, Indiana. For Women’s History Month, EBONY spoke with Hart about her work and inspirations.

EBONY: How did your childhood and learning carpentry from your father influence your work?

Heather Hart: First, I am attracted to the methods of the everyday, the architecture that surrounds us in our neighborhoods, and lumber. My parents were the first ones to encourage me to make things as artwork. But I also appreciate carpentry as an oral history; it is something you normally learn from another person directly, and every region of the world has a slightly different language to describe the same thing. This helps my work hold metaphors of translation, inheritance and threshold space. And perhaps most importantly, learning carpentry from my father demonstrated collaboration. As an artist working in the public realm, I am constantly learning from others and working with teams of people to execute a project; we have to find a common language; we have to move forward together. Collaboration like this is a life lesson more of us in the world could use.

Inside Southern Oracle: We Will Tear the Roof Off, 2019. Image: courtesy North Carolina Museum of Art,
Inside Southern Oracle: We Will Tear the Roof Off, 2019, Heather Hart. Image: courtesy North Carolina Museum of Art, photographed by A. Lombardi.

What are the main themes and exploration in your large-scale pieces?

My work centers on ideas around Black space. More specifically, I am interested in threshold spaces as they appear in the built environment: rooftops, porches, stoops, balconies, arches, etc. These are spaces that I see as holding power that shifts, that can change identities depending on how they are interpreted. A porch is between the field and the house, it is between private and public, it is between safety and danger. A porch can be a throne, where old folks post up to monitor the neighborhood. A porch can also be a space to teach hair braiding or play games, to lounge, to hide and to observe. This is what I’m thinking about when I build a sculpture that resembles this form–its ability to shapeshift for us. I am interested in building sculptures that can hold a visitor’s experience of it and then be conceptually open enough to shift to hold space for the next person in a different way. I also believe in play. If I can host a fun exploration of space through physical interaction, the experience can last longer than a normal art-viewing experience, and then we can have a conversation about space and power later.

You are presenting a new piece at Newfields this summer. What inspired the upcoming piece and how do you want people to feel when witnessing it?

I grew up searching for myself. My father took us to the archives regularly, and we were able to trace most of his family to 1860 when enslavement robbed identities. We were never able to find my great grandfather’s mother, Minnie Wells, further than the 1870 census. In 2011, I found a microfiche for an 1877 marriage license of my great-grandfather’s father. It was a marriage between Winnie Wells and Julius Hart. But I knew her name was Minnie. With a one-letter error in transcription, Minnie had disappeared for over a century. Our “factual” records are full of errors like these: a census taker’s handwriting or the subject’s accent changes a name, a race or a date. I’m captivated by this slippage, this liminal space between truth and fiction, oral histories and written histories. The oracle for Indianapolis will appear as an independent rooftop, removed from its house and dropped from the sky onto the grounds. It could also suggest a house that has been buried or sunken into the earth, leaving an island of house to climb on. fantasies. I am ultimately inspired by the idea of change and growth and of community stakeholders. I hope folks can bring their own ideas to the piece and feel entitled to interpret it through their own experience. 

Artist Heather-Hart photo-by-Kevin-Grady (1)
Heather Hart. Image: Kevin Grady.

Why do Black women need to make art? What role do we play in making a statement about the world around us?

OMG can Black women take up more space … please?! Seriously though, Black women have been making art since the dawn of civilization, but we haven’t been deemed part of the “canon of high art” for very long at all. It’s time the world takes the creative work we do as Black women seriously and as a valuable, thoughtful part of the conversation! Artists have always revealed the world to itself and have also been critical to the practical imagining of better futures. Black women need to make artwork because we are uniquely positioned, in our embodied experience, to truly reflect the world and to lend hope for the future, the systematic biases that can indeed be fought and the vision to create something new and equitable! 

Who are some female artists you admire?

There are way too many to list, I am bound to leave out so so many, but let’s see … Camille Norment for sure, Fo Wilson, Xenobia Bailey,  Eliza Myrie, Steffani Jemison, Jina Valentine, Nyeema Morgan, Chloë Bass, Saya Woolfalk, Crystal Z. Campbell, Karyn Olivier, Vanessa German, Dineo Seshee Bopape, Tricia Hersey and lately I’ve been going back to Barbara Chase-Riboud’s work a lot.

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