Shelley Heffler - Creating Eco-Conscious Art with a Message
As society becomes more and more aware of the realities of climate change and the impact we have had on this big blue marble, more and more artists, visual storytellers, are bringing attention to these issues. By creating works with recycled materials, they are utilizing a form of environmental activism, and in the process they are limiting their own environmental footprint. Shelley Heffler is one such artist, using her work to reflect environmental concerns and address the over-saturation of man-made products that cannot be recycled.
In her latest series, Rescued Refuse, she salvages vinyl street banners before they are discarded in landfills. Heffler attempts to encapsulate the significance of the human footprint through the transformation of each banner into works of art that reveal a connection between consumption and environmental waste. These reclaimed billboard vinyls are message boards of societies, conjuring both time and place through a physical presence.
Each banner is meticulously hand-cut, fracturing the initial image and disrupting the central intent of the printed information. Colors are sorted and brought together as weavings, collages, or three-dimensional wall sculptures. As Heffler constructs the assorted pieces, images disintegrate into complex abstract shapes and complex color schemes, transforming the final piece into a new narrative. Heffler strives to harness the transformative power of art to promote awareness, provoke dialogue, and inspire action.
Born and raised in the Bronx, she attended Fashion Institute of Technology in New York where she studied Interior Design, followed by a Master’s Degree in Fine Art. Heffler also taught ceramics and fine art for the Los Angeles Unified School District for more than 25 years and was an adjunct professor at Otis College of Art and Design. In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, Heffler has created several community programs. Among those are We Are Home, a collaborative project where 130 quilt pieces were created by the public and auctioned to benefit the unhoused. This project was on display at the Museum of Art and History in Lancaster, California. Additionally, as part of the Artist in Residency program at Inglewood’s Rogers Park, she brought the community together with her It Takes a Village quilt project.
What is your role as an artist in society, your local community, and the world at large?
Rather than the word “role,” I prefer “commitment.” Over many years as an arts educator, I have helped people and communities find their voices and express their concerns through individual and collaborative art projects.
Artists are like Alchemists, capable of transforming a few humble materials into objects which are imbued with spiritual and aesthetic meaning. Art is the way humans leave their mark on the world. The famous cave paintings at Lascaux are examples of peoples recorded place, time and story long before the written word. I see my art reflecting the times, concerns and spirit of this era
Why do you think conservation messages are important in today’s society?
Resources are limited and conserving our environment and wildlife is for our future generations. Continued human population growth has led to unsustainable rates of consumption of our natural resources, resulting in a loss of Earth’s biodiversity. The main factors driving biodiversity loss include habitat destruction, climate change, invasive species, overexploitation, and pollution.
Your current sculptural series which uses repurposed billboard vinyl banners, Rescued Refuse, debuted on Earth Day, featuring 21 wall sculptures and are on display at the West Hollywood Library. What prompted you to start working with this material and creating the type of art you construct today?
In 2017 I was at an artist residency at 360 Xochi Quetzal in Lake Chapala, Mexico. My experience there was profound, to say the least, and when I returned I saw my work in a new light. I began cutting up my paintings and reshaping them into topographies and organic constructions. There was this need to destroy them, in order to create something new from the old, like a phoenix rising from the ashes. This invigorated me, boosted my creativity, and freed me to experiment with the materials in new ways.
Before I knew it, I ran out of material in my studio, when I discovered that the City of West Hollywood’s Arts Division was offering used vinyl to artists to divert the material from landfills. The used vinyl was once used to display artwork on fences around the City or to advertise West Hollywood art, and cultural events on street pole banners. I was brought to a landfill where hundreds of banners were heaped across the landscape. It dawned on me then, that this vinyl material will never degrade or be eliminated from the planet. Consumers will never stop creating banners, for advertisements of art exhibitions, car shows, products and events. I believed I had an obligation to find a way to transform this non-degradable material into art. These are the marks humans are leaving behind and I am creating a new narrative with them.
In your series Shape Shifters, who inspired you?
For this series of draped forms I was influenced by several artists, Frank Stella, John Chamberlain, Helen Frankenthaler, Judy Pfaff, El Anatsui, and Sam Guilliam. Each artist pushed the boundaries of their materiality, with breakthrough discoveries of new shapes, forms and structures.
What is the significance and meaning of this series, and how do you achieve that?
My work speaks as both painting and sculpture. Trash and consumerism, a by-product of man’s mark on the environment, is destroying our environment. I cut, slash, crunch, and weave the vinyl into three-dimensional objects. Through the action of deconstructing, I attempt to restructure and form material to reclaim and restore a healing presence through the work.
What would you like viewers to take away from your art?
Abstract art does not attempt to represent a real thing. I want the viewer to take in the whole art piece and react to it on a visceral level. Visual art should speak to the individual at the core of their being. Each person brings their own story to the work, responding to the material and how it’s formed, color and texture. The lasting effect is the transformation of the art.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve been given?
Never give up.
Where can we find more information on your artwork, buy it, or see it in person?
My studio is 68-845 Perez Road, Cathedral City, CA 92234. Works are also available for purchase at Saatchi Art.