“We have all of this ritual surrounding marriage, but we don’t have a ritual for divorce.”—Heather Beecher Hawk
Heather Beecher Hawk: Founder, The Understory / Zanesville, OH
“we have all of this ritual surrounding marriage, but we don’t have a ritual for divorce.”—heather beecher hawk
What was the genesis of The Understory and your work up to now?<
I had wanted to do something around art for a long time, and for several years, I had been thinking about The Understory. To back up, I had a lot going on in my life at the time. I had a divorce in 2006, so I think that devastating experience prompted a lot of creative energy. When something big happens, whatever that might be in somebody’s life, it can leave someone unusually vulnerable. It had been such a long period since I had really gone into a deeper place, creatively. I was writing during that time, but I wasn’t quite finding the satisfaction that I wanted. When my relationship ended, it rearranged my entire life; it disorganized everything. Out of that, I was flooded. I don’t know how else to put it. I was flooded with creative ideas in a way that I never had before and haven’t since. I’m still mining that two years as a resource for generating material. During that time, I started getting these very grand things that were coming to me. For example, an entire series of paintings. I would see each and every painting down to the smallest detail. I would see the title, I would see the venue that it was going to be in; I would get all of this down, and I would step back and think, “Wait a minute, I’m not a painter.” I don’t even know how to paint. I don’t even have paint. But it kept happening. I even had several inventions come to me. I would sketch it all out, put all of the ideas down, and then I would step away from it and say, “How the hell am I going to do that?” The creative energy manifested in lots of different artistic mediums.
courtesy of heather beecher-hawk
During that time, I was also thinking about what became a big theme for me: the definition of a sacred ritual and sacred objects. I wanted to do something with my wedding dress, as a performance piece. I wanted to explore the way we deal with objects that have a lot of meaning, and the way that objects and meaning change. My wedding dress inspired me to think about objects that are too sacred to discard because of what they mean and represent in our lives. I think art can create a way to let go and transform both object and memory. My wedding dress was hanging up in dry-clean plastic sleeve in the basement and the question was what I could do with it. My desire to use it as a symbol of all that I was going through is what led me to the idea of a performance piece and the formation of a collective, which became The Understory. My desire to transform both my experience and this object infused with deep cultural symbolism, led me to create a performance whereby I cut off my wedding dress in front of an audience. I had new garments sewn on, using part of the old wedding dress, and fabric brought in by the audience. They were asked in advance to bring a piece of fabric that was sacred to them. There was a Yoda doll’s cape, grandma scarves, hankies, and someone’s aunt’s hand-dyed silk.
All of these things were running simultaneously. I started sifting through what felt like the dust of my life, and I really wanted to do something with that experience. We have all of this ritual surrounding marriage, but we don’t have a ritual for divorce.
While all of that was happening, I started to really desire collaboration. At that time, I started what’s called a “conversation salon.” They were kind of big in the ’90s, and I had done one in 1995 in Columbus, Ohio, so I started one in Portland around 2007. It was good, but it didn’t really get to where I wanted it to go. It is still a conversation, not a creation, as a collaborative effort. In the midst of all of that, one day, I had a vision of my basement becoming a gallery. I did not just want to create it, but I wanted to share it. It was more than a desire; it was more like a need.
All of that happened around 2007, and then around December 2008, I went to a barbecue at the house of someone I had never met before, and I was sitting there with this woman that I found out was an artist—Leah Bobal—and I told her that I had been thinking about starting an art collective, but didn’t even know where to start in terms of involving other people. I was just getting tired of needing a degree to do something. Why do I need a degree to call myself an artist? I asked her what she thought, and she loved the idea. This was probably around December 2007.
We started getting together to talk about what this collective would do. Mostly though, I was really driven by that first performance which ended up being called Altar. It was Leah Bobal’s idea to bring on another person for our first performance. She said Ruth Waddy, a seamstress and a fabric artist, would be perfect for this performance. So, we reached out to Ruth and Ruth was interested; that was January 2009. We had the event in February 2009. It went so well, and we all really meshed together, so we started to work on a vision for where this collective could go. I don’t even know if we ever officially said that all three of us were now The Understory, but we collectively came up with the name. After that, we decided to continue collectively working together.
There were times when Leah and I would sit down and write out our mission statement. We were sort of trying to design The Understory. We swapped stuff back and forth. We never did formalize it, and I think the reason was because the collaborative was so fluid. Every time we tried to nail it down, it surprised us—it changed organically, and we were open enough to let it. We just wanted to create and experiment and have fun. We ended up having shows that combined visual art, installation, photography, video, dance, and music. If we had been too defined in the beginning, maybe the collective wouldn’t have been so interesting and dynamic. That first year, in 2009, we did three shows and we were really cranking. That same year, we also did something called Live Debris, down on the waterfront in Portland, OR. It was all of these local artists who created an installation about reducing the stigma around garbage and poverty and homelessness. It took place in an area that is typically thought of as Homeless Row. It was quite a lot of work that first year: three Understory shows and that one public piece.
courtesy of heather beecher hawk
In 2010, we did two more shows that were much bigger and more complex. They had way more people involved. Each of our shows was a one-off show. I think that’s unique, in that we would put a lot of work into a show and then never do it again. Although, we didn’t all equally agree on the one-off thing. I did, but Ruth got to the point where she thought it was rash. There was a lot of effort put into our performances for doing it only once. I was more of the mindset that there was something very unique about what is happening right at that moment, as opposed to duplicating it over and over and over again. It loses energy that way.
Progressively, more time went into our shows, the production and rehearsal, and there were a lot more artists involved. After our show, we would always get together and talk about what went well and what we wanted to change. We were very democratic in our way of dealing with things; every detail was discussed, right down to the title of the show. We would put this huge white paper up on the wall, and all of our markers would come out. It might take us a couple of hours to come up with the title for our shows, but it was completely democratic in the way that we would do it. We didn’t ever talk about doing things that way; it was just very organic and felt natural. We would also get feedback from the people who came to see it.
Everything happened in my rental house. It kind of cracks me up to think that we had 25 people in a 300 square-foot basement. Imagine a little rental house in Portland and the number of cars that would show up. We had a sandwich board out front that said, “The Understory,” and people would go around to the back door. As soon as you entered that old cellar door, you were walking through these old timber beams and big rocks. We transformed it into an art space. The installations would come all the way up the stairs because we really wanted it to not just be a house; we wanted it to be an art space from the first moment. The washer and dryer became the bar. I would drape fabric over it, and we’d have liquor and wine and a volunteer bartender.
In 2011, we talked about the drain of being so very active and busy for the two years. Going in, we had no idea how far we were going to go or what it was going to mean. We realized that there was a difference in terms of where each of us wanted it to go for the future. Leah was burned out. We all had day jobs, and we all had our own art that we were producing individually. Leah was not sure if she really wanted to continue and she wanted some time to think about it. Ruth wanted to go a different direction. She wanted to go public and bigger. There were some venues in Portland that were begging for artists. We had some opportunities to get up on stage and not pay a dime, because the venues needed the business. And we had definitely acquired an audience of people that were interested in us. We decided to take some time off, but then things got beyond our control and started to take their own direction. Leah had a serious family emergency. Ruth had a life change that took her to Austin, TX. A year later, I bought a house and moved out of the rental, which was our Understory venue. I remember looking back and thinking well, maybe it ran its course. Life continued to go its own direction, and we didn’t have another show as a collective after that.
courtesy of heather beecher hawk
What are you doing now in Ohio?
I have only been in Zanesville for a year. It is very rural, but I live an hour east of Columbus, which has a very strong arts community. I came here originally to do research on a story that I’m writing, but about six months ago, I felt the need to work on performance art again. I’d been creating visual art, but hadn’t performed for a few years. Two months ago, in May 2014, I wrote a play and performed it in an art gallery in Zanesville, during their monthly Art Hop. That piece was a 30-minute, one-act play based on somebody’s life story—somebody that wanted me to tell her story. After many hours of interviews over several months, I decided that a performance piece was the best way to share her story. Afterwards, I was pleasantly surprised by how many people came up to me and said that the community needed more of this, specifically more performance art, and I was surprised at how many people were interested in being involved. Because it is Appalachia, there is a lot of interest in oral history. I’ve been having very casual conversations with people about what we could create together. I can’t say where that is going to go, but there is interest.
With performance art, I believe the performance, artist, and audience meet to create something from that moment. The experience is lived in the sensory engagement. I like that performance is a temporary, impermanent experience, and because we are performing all of the time (life is a performance), it calls into question what is reality and what is performance? Street art is especially unique because it is an interruption of the ordinary. It doesn’t ask for anything and it belongs to everyone. That’s why I perform on the street. People have urged me to perform inside a gallery, but I want to reach people. I am hoping that these kinds of collaborations will happen naturally as I get to know more people in this region.
Do you have a writing background?
I have no formal education as an artist or writer, but I have been writing since I was 12 and creative work has always been a draw for me. My educational background is a Bachelor’s and Master’s in Women’s Studies. To be honest, I think that a lot of ideas around collective art and performance comes out of feminism, for me, more so than it comes out of an art background. I know that they mesh together, but that is more or less where my consciousness comes from. I remember the way that I got drawn into Women’s Studies: I had this Women in Film class that I loved, and I wanted to see what else there was. In grad school, it was a Women in Art class. I think that I was going that direction all along, but I didn’t know it. It’s only been this year that I started submitting fiction.
What is the link between writing, collectives, and making?
I’ve always been drawn to solo creations and acts, as well as collaborative work. I really do believe that some of my best work was created with others. The Understory writing itself even became collaborative. The conversation salon that I ran, was very philosophical and very intellectual, and there was something great about that, but it was nowhere near as fun. What we were able to do at The Understory was really fun. For me, it felt much more like play than work. We worked really hard, but we had so much freaking fun doing it. It was some of the best moments in my life, and I would’ve never have been able to do that by myself. Even as I was doing that collaborative work, I still consider it primarily a conversation. It’s just that it happened in a totally different medium than sitting around and talking and philosophizing.
The other thing is that collaborative artwork pushes you in different ways. There is all of this stuff that has to happen in between what we do in our heads and what we do in the group. There is so much stretching that we go through.
What was your collaborative process?
We each had ideas individually. I had a wash of ideas, then I would write everything down, and Leah and Ruth did the same. When we got together, we were prepared with things to share.
With titles, we would do a bubble map. We would work on it for hours, until we were all completely satisfied. We would democratically dole out the seats for the show. Heather Zinger ended up being our photographer. I didn’t even know her. She showed up post-show early on, because she wanted to take pictures. She turned out to be a lovely person, extremely talented, and from then on we hired her. All of our personalities contributed something different to the table. We all had different strengths.
The way other artists got involved kind of varied. For example, Ruth might say, “Let’s add an installation to this. I know two people that can do something really cool.” So then the two people would come in, and maybe I had never even met them before, but they would get involved with that particular show.
What makes somebody a good collaborator?
Generosity of spirit and time is one thing that makes someone a good collaborator because it does take added time to work collaboratively with somebody else.
Why is that?
It’s the mindset. Some people find it harder to work collaboratively with each other. A lot of artists start off working in a solitary role; many of us, but not all of us, because I know that there are a lot musicians, for example, who get together and create work on the spot together. There are other types of art where it starts out as a seed, as a solitary endeavor, and then grows with collaboration. But I don’t personally see it as more work. I’ve heard from other people that they do, but I feed off of it. I think it is tremendously interesting to collaborate.
Hiring artists to collaborate with you is not the same as actually creating the work together. It’s not that I don’t want to pay artists, but hiring is a different relationship. I enjoy doing solo work, but in some ways it’s more exciting to develop something with others. I like to be surprised and challenged, to stretch myself and my ideas, and that’s what working with others does for me.
courtesy of heather beecher hawk
Any final words of wisdom?
I want to stress that my collaborations happened out of personal frustration and not having an avenue to get work out there and create: not having the money, not having the connections, and not having the “Artist” label. I think there are a lot of people in a similar place like that. But we can’t wait for permission. I finally said, “I’m not waiting anymore. I’m not going to wait for somebody to call me an artist or to justify my need to express this idea.” That is an excuse.