Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Art Space Talk: Chehalis Hegner

Chehalis Hegner received her MFA in Visual Arts at the Art Institute of Boston in June, 2005. Her mentors include photographer Arno Rafael Minkkinen, George Fifield (Decordova Museum and Sculpture Park and founder of the Boston Cyber Arts Festival), Jonathan Singer of Singer Editions, Boston, and Franz C. Nicolay. Hegner received her B.A. at Berklee College of Music and is also a graduate of the Interlochen Arts Academy at Interlochen, Michigan. In 2006 she completed the Boston Lawyers for the Arts seven month program on Professional Development for Artists. Chehalis is currently represented by Jordan faye Contemporary in Baltimore, MD.

Chastity Belt by Chehalis Hegner

Brian Sherwin: Chehalis, you earned an MFA in Visual Arts at the Art Institute of Boston in 2005. Can you tell us about that program? Who were your mentors?

Chehalis Hegner: The MFA program at The Art Institute of Boston attracted me for a variety reasons: First, Art Institute of Boston MFA candidates research and seek out possible mentors from their field of interest. The mentors are not directly related to the program. This is optimal because the student has the opportunity to work with artist mentors who reflect his/her specific interests. In my case, these initial liaisons led to long term relationships that continue to infuse my work today. My mentors included George Fifield, founder of the Boston Cyber Arts Festival and former New Media Curator for Decordova Museum, photographer Arno Rafael Minkkinen, and Jonathan Singer (Singer Editions in Boston, MA.)

BS: Would you like to discuss other aspects of your academic background and how those experiences have guided you as an artist?

CH: Undergraduate training as a musician (singer/songwriter and guitarist) has had a deep influence on my work as a visual artist. Having had a direct experience in understanding the principles of musical composition and performance has influenced the way that I make photographs: such as a sensitivity for dynamic and tonal range, rhythm, melody (line), contrast, and the emotional expression of the content.

Other academic studies in the visual arts have enriched my conscious connections to other artists, past and present. Those studies helped me to identify my artistic "family," thereby understanding my work within a broader context.
Butt Wait- Have you seen... by Chehalis Hegner

BS: In 2006 you were nominated by Arno Minkkinen for the PRC/POV 30th anniversary exhibition. Can you tell us about that experience and how you felt to be nominated?

CH: I answer this question with a great sense of joy and gratitude, because Arno has been, and always will be, one of the great lights in my life. It must also be said that to work with Arno is to experience the lineage of his teachers and their teachers as well. Arno has a great love for the history of photography ~ this aspect of his teaching imparts a sense that, together, we are all making one great work of art. Knowing this, one of the questions to ask when making a work is: with this photograph am I contributing to the One Work, or am I somehow taking away from it? He never put it to me exactly like this, but it is an idea that came to me as a result of my many conversations with him.

BS: Chehalis, allow me to ask some questions about your work. I understand that you are interested in the healing quality of photography. Can you discuss this in detail?

CH: Photography is meaningful to me because it allows me to be a witness: a person who is present and willing to observe consciously, without judgment. Being a witness ignites a fundamental process of healing or change. Many of my subjects felt transformed by having been seen and photographed in this way.

This symbolic anointing occurs because we rarely have the experience of of being genuinely seen by another, or even by ourselves. Our society structures life as a fragmented experience ~ based on various forms of alienation, rather than on community building and sharing. Making pictures addresses a basic human need: to work toward a state of unity, which is our forgotten natural condition.

Whether in the genre of self-portraiture or working with a subject, photography has shown me a place of inner vitality infused with the possibility of discovery. It has been a mostly quiet journey, punctuated by the beautiful sound of the camera’s shutter and the vast array of emotions present in each passing moment.
Arthur Ganson by Chehalis Hegner

BS: So, when you are behind the camera do you view yourself as if you are on the outside looking in or in the inside looking out? Or are you one with your subject? I suppose this is a philosophical question... is there a personal philosophy behind your work?

CH: This is a complex question. I feel that in both self-portrait work and when working with a subject, I am playing multiple roles simultaneously (I.e. photographer, actor, director, interpreter, witness, and sometimes muse.) As the photographer, I feel I am on the outside looking in, but as I identify with the subject or become the subject myself, I feel as if I am on the inside looking out at the Big Eye (or, the lens of my camera).

I may project onto my subject any story that exists in my mind. In that sense I sometimes feel that I am one with my subject. In reality, we are separate beings. If I have a sense of becoming one with my subject, I also feel I am becoming one with myself. I am doing my best to stay away from "beliefs and personal philosophies" right now. Clinging to ideas separates me from the ever unfolding experience of being a witness ~ and to me, that is where the sense of mystery, humanity, and beauty exists.

BS: Would you say that the images you capture are a reflection of your identity-- or to go further --your soul?

CH: Identity is something we create in order to feel safer in a universe that is incomprehensible and overwhelming. My pictures often reflect an inner need to strip away surface identity in an effort to understand how to experience life more simply, more wholly. We are so much more than our stories. I am interested in having the experience of living from a place that is ultimately deeper than an exterior identity. In that sense, do I photograph my soul? Certainly to encapsulate that state of being in a photographic image is the ultimate challenge. One of the very few places I’ve seen this in the history of art is in the Mona Lisa. Looking at her is a humbling experience as she witnesses us.

BS: Chehalis, are you interested in symbolism? For example, does water in your images hold a certain meaning for you... such as purity or the fear of drowning?

CH: Symbolism can certainly be used to shape and project the inner meaning of an image. I think photographs are similar to dreams. We dream the image into a tangible reality on photo paper; then we have the rest of our lives to decipher the deeper messages that our unconscious has put forth. Often for me, photographs are harbingers of what is yet to come ~ in terms of my own understanding about their content. The photographs often seem to posses an inner knowing long before I am ready to see their messages in the light of consciousness.

BS: Would you say that photography allows you to step closer to your vision of truth compared to other media-- or to at least scratch at the surface of truth as you perceive it?

CH: It’s hard to envision an ultimate, platonic ideal of truth…but photography is the medium where I feel most at home. Maybe photography is a kind of Visual Yoga. Perhaps another artist may feel more at home with a paintbrush or chisel. It is, as you say, a mere scratching of the surface, however. Is the truth a fixed thing,
or is it elusive because it, too, is necessarily always changing?
Crucifix by Chehalis Hegner

BS: Chehalis, is photography a spiritual process for you? How do feel after you set the camera aside?

CH: In a tangible sense, it is obvious that my eye is my captain. Even so, the camera also feels like a separate entity with whom I join forces…sometimes I have a distinct feeling that it is the lens herself that is making the pictures, and not ‘me.’ In this sense, the camera becomes my guide, and I surrender to its direction. But perhaps it is most accurate to say that we venture out together.

I came to photography after many years as a musician because I lost my eyesight in the left eye. It is true that sometimes it is through our greatest losses that we begin to to awaken. In blindness, there is new light, and new sight. The camera has been integral in this process and it is a spiritual journey. Yes.

After the camera is set aside, I usually feel a sense of fullness, but I also experience a feeling similar to the high one gets after a long strenuous hike. If I don’t make pictures for a while, a kind of tension seems to build up in my psyche…as if there is always another question that needs to be put to inquiry and a body that hungers to hold the camera physically to make the exposures that may offer a clue to an answer. The camera allows me to go into the center of the question in order to explore it.

Making photographs also has an erotic quality ~ not in the sense that it is a sexual experience, but because an intimate connection is felt through having deeply seen something or someone. When the camera is set aside, it brings with it with a feeling of being deeply sated; sometimes this is accompanied by a sweet state of exhaustion ~ having ventured deeply, sometimes far beyond the known and ‘safe’ realms life.

BS: Chehalis, can you tell us about your series A Woman's Greatest Fear? How does this series convey some of the issues and positions that you have stressed with your previous work?

CH: That series, still in progress, is a response to a survey that was conducted. Women were asked what their greatest fear of men was, and the overwhelming response was "to be raped or killed." Men were asked what their greatest fear of women was: the most prevalent answer was "to be laughed at."

I felt the outrageous imbalance in the survey results so I decided to make some pictures about it. I hope the picture will help to stimulate a dialog between men and women. Can we create a world where we all feel safer? Yes, the topic of feeling unsafe in the world as a woman has been expressed in my previous work, but perhaps in less obvious ways.

In this series I depict the woman wearing a fur coat because of the association of the female as surrogate prey. It is a game where the male dominates the female in an attempt to subdue her inner and outer strength. If he terrifies her enough, he will never have to feel humiliated by her laughter that he is "not enough" to satisfy her.

The the use the culturally based settings (Roman ruins, churches, museums, playgrounds), I am also commenting on how a male-dominated society, itself, subdues women on a global scale.
On the Table by Chehalis Hegner

BS: What are you working on at this time? Also, will you be exhibiting in 2008?

CH: Right now I am mostly working on two series: "Witness at the Precipice," which I described in your question above on the potential of healing and photography. The other is my ongoing series addressing what it means to be a woman in contemporary society.

I am currently preparing work for a solo exhibition at St. Gauden’s Contemporary gallery in Cornish, NH that opens on May 31st of this year.

BS: Where can our readers view your work in person? Are you represented by a gallery?

CH: Currently I am represented by Jordan Faye Contemporary in Baltimore, MD, and otherwise I am presently self-represented. Exhibitions, Jordan Faye Contemporary, and studio visits are ways to see work in person. Anyone interested in being on my mailing list for exhibitions and other activities can contact me through my website: www.chehalishegner.com
You can learn more about Chehalis Hegner by visiting her website-- www.chehalishegner.com. Chehalis is also a member of the myartspace community-- www.myartspace.com/chephoto. You can read more of my interviews at www.myartspace.com/interviews.
Take care, Stay true,

Brian Sherwin

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