Visual Arts

Studio Visit: Heidi Hesse

Just a quick scan of the home-based studio of installation artist Heidi Hesse confirms that this native German has a serious thing for the Statue of Liberty, among other classic American icons. The 42-year-old artist, who grew up in the rural outskirts of Cape Town, South Africa, and a small village outside of Frankfort, Germany, has lined her north Phoenix studio walls with various permutations of Lady Liberty in all her torch-bearing glory, while a big blue gumball machine stands at attention in a nearby corner.

On one eye-popping, American-flag-red wall, she's grouped what appear to be pure white paintings from a series called Mapping Liberty. But when viewed more closely, you discover that each is pockmarked in an unmistakable outline of the head of the Statue of Liberty, each carefully placed indentation numbered in tiny black print. Every available work space is piled with books dealing with American history and culture, including one titled The Great American Handbook.

Hesse's artwork is all about getting inside of what makes America and her people tick. Granted, her obsession with the French-made, Roman-nosed symbol of The Land of the Free may seem odd for someone who has lived in this country for 20 years and is still a resident alien, though married to a homegrown American engineer. Occasionally still taunted about her German nationality ("I've been 'Heil, Hitler'ed' more times than I want to remember," notes Hesse), the artist began a serious love affair with the American symbol of inclusiveness when she began to think about applying for American citizenship in 1999 during graduate school at Ohio State University.

"The first time I flew over the Statue of Liberty, I had a very strange reaction," she recalls. "I cried. I had no idea I had a relationship with [it]. I began drawing her and visited [the statue] and Ellis Island during graduate school."

While studying under the tutelage of world-renowned installation artist Ann Hamilton, Hesse became convinced that she would never be able to fully participate in American culture unless she obtained U.S. citizenship. Then she discovered The Great American Handbook and began to read the documents so essential to American history. Those documents have provided ammunition for the battalion of works she's produced about American citizenship and its unique cultural experience.

Not that Hesse blindly accepts All Things American without reserve or comment.

"As an adult," she says, "the propaganda isn't working on me, though I'm trying to make it mine, a part of me."

That becomes very obvious after seeing her work in "Exporting Liberty," currently running at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Tucson. Her exhibition, filled with metaphorical references to cloying, decay-producing sweets, includes Having Your Cake and Eating It Too (2004), an elaborately decorated Styrofoam wedding cake in the shape of the White House, presented on deliciously fake green Astroturf and flanked by hulking neo-classic columns. Another is American Dream (2004), a gumball machine filled with plastic eggs containing questions that might be asked on a U.S. citizenship test, lick 'em-stick 'em tattoos and a chance to win a genuine "work of art" as a prize.

Of course, Lady Liberty makes an obligatory appearance in the show, drawn on a huge curtain of frosted Mylar set in front of a window by which freight trains flash past, vibrating the old wooden floors of the museum's brick building and bouncing colored light through America's grande dame. However, the show's pièce de résistance, scarily prescient with respect to the escalating war in Iraq, shrinking U.S. gas supplies and America's destructively abiding macho car culture, is Sugar Coated (2004). It's a life-size Humvee Hesse constructed in the side yard adjacent to her garage turned studio and completely encrusted with caged, multicolored gumballs.

As for the near future, Hesse, who's a member of the downtown artists' collective Eye Lounge, has been chosen for inclusion in "Democracy in America," a group show scheduled for this fall at ASU Art Museum jointly curated by ASUAM's entire curatorial staff.

Pointing to several signs she's pinned up around her inordinately neat, well-lighted studio, Hesse recalls buying a rubber stamp a while back that has offered her a psychological goal in her work. "Years ago, I bought a stamp at the Whitney Museum by Hans Haacke, a favorite artist of mine," notes Hesse. "It says, 'Make some sense of America.'" Between that rubberized bit of wisdom and another sculptor's admonition to start considering America home, that's just what Heidi Hesse seems to be doing.

For a close-up and personal look into the studio and work of Heidi Hesse, log on to

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Kathleen Vanesian