Update from 2021! Originally this post appeared on the WinklerGallery.org blog while I was an active artist member and President of the Board of Directors. Claira was also an artist member at the time.
As with many things, artists evolve and change constantly. Almost as soon as this was posted, I'm sure Claira felt that some things weren't true anymore.
Consider this a time capsule into a fantastic local Pennsylvania artist from 2017. This is her current website if you want to follow her: clairaheitzenrater.art
But first, here are two of my favorites of her more recent work!
Every month here at the Winkler Gallery and Art Education Center, we honor one of our member artists as Artist of the Month. All of our artists produce stunning work of all varieties that pass through a juried selection progress to be displayed at the gallery. The Artist of the Month allows us to zoom in on them one at a time. For March 2017, the honor goes to Claira Heitzenrater.
Claira is a relatively new member of the gallery, but has already gathered quite a bit of attention with her additions to the space. Her work, available at the Winkler Gallery, is ghostly paintings of every day objects. To get the full experience, you'll have to come visit us, but I'll give you a taste of her work here:
INZANA: Can you tell us a little bit of where you came from?
CLAIRA: I’m from DuBois. Raised in Punxy. Then I went to IUP for my BFA in painting graduating in 2012. Then I went to Edinboro for my MFA and just graduated last May.
INZANA: This might be because of the MFA, but a lot of the people I've talked to about your work seem to think it was done by someone much older. Do you think you have a bit of an old soul?
CLAIRA: I’ve been told, haha. Internal old lady. I think I’m tackling the concept of accepting your own death. I think that’s something younger people don’t want to think about.
When you’re younger you do have your whole life in front of you but at the same time you’ve already lived for 20-odd years. What if you only live for 30-some more?
Then you start freaking out and having an existential crisis. I’m trying to overcome that sort of thing by painting about accepting it.
That’s why in some of the paintings, parts are painted out calmly and it looks like it’s supposed to be that way to promote a sense of “it’s gonna happen anyway, and you need to be at peace with it.”
So I’m trying to create a peaceful environment for things to die in I guess.
INZANA: I think a lot of people our age have had that sort-of quarter-life crisis that spurs on those questions. When you really think about it through, 20 years is a long time. If we get to live four more of those, that's a long time.
CLAIRA: I’ve been preoccupied with death my entire life— not in a creepy way— but being eight years old and thinking “Oh, I’m gonna die some day….. like okay.”
So it’s always in the back of my head. And occasionally when you’re alone late at night and it hits you— it’s usually when you’re alone when you have a little bit of the crisis set in. Like, Oh God! Then what! Anything?
INZANA: : The dread. I think it’s part of what drives humans.
CLAIRA: We're trying to outrun our own death.
INZANA: What do you think about the state of art in today’s world?
CLAIRA: I think we’re about to enter something really good as far as art is concerned in contemporary work. I think a lot of people are angry, so they’re going to have a lot to say.
INZANA: Absolutely. Art always does really well when there is uncertainty or instability.
CLAIRA: I think we are entering a good time for creative freedom. Creative people need it.
INZANA: Everyone needs it. What do you think the effect of art is for people that aren’t artists?
CLAIRA: It really depends on the demographics. Around here, being the events coordinator, I make events that are art-making for people that aren’t artists.
Our next event is making fishing lures because that’s something people around here do. I don’t know if people seem intimidated and think they aren’t artists and feel like they can’t make things or they feel like it’s a waste of their time.
I try not to have a negative view of the way art is viewed around here. For a lot of people art is a hobby and will always stay a hobby.
It really depends on the demographic because in other areas you get the same age group going to art shows and taking art classes and expanding their creative vocabulary.
INZANA: Do you think that’s because people that are really into art and culture move to the cities and don’t come back?
CLAIRA: Oh yeah. Absolutely. And not to say there aren't people here that appreciate art. But there aren’t as many to appreciate contemporary art.
I know people that are just like, “Why don’t you just paint barns? That’s what people around here like.” They’ll have the idea that if you want to sell art, that’s all you can paint.
When I hear people saying “Well maybe I should just do that,” it really breaks my heart because I want to say “No! Paint what you want to paint! If people around here aren’t going to buy it, then someone somewhere else will.”
INZANA: What do you think about the internet and how it’s affected artists?
CLAIRA: For the most part, things like Instagram have been great for artists because you can get a really wide audience just by using a hashtag. You can put a painting on there and someone in Hong Kong is going to see it. But if you just have a website with no way of getting it out there then nobody is going to see it in someplace like Japan. Social media really opens up the door though.
INZANA: Do you think everyone having access everywhere has started to oversaturate the market for art?
CLAIRA: For me, over-saturation would be every single person with a paintbrush in their hand making their own work or every single person with my painting on their wall.
You’re gonna have people with different tastes but they’re still going to see your work. I really don’t believe in over-saturation of anything unless every single person in a given area is doing the same thing.
INZANA: Would it be a bad thing if everyone were artists?
CLAIRA: I don’t think it will happen. I would love to see everyone being creative. I would love to see every person in DuBois making art. But because every single one of us is different, I don’t think we’ll ever see that.
INZANA: Automation is leading to less and less labor jobs and driving more people into creative fields. Art will be one of the last industries to get automated because it's hard to get a robot to paint something with "soul" to it.
CLAIRA: But then you have people that don’t believe those exist.
INZANA: But if they look at a painting that moves them...
CLAIRA: Yeah that’s a whole other interview. I think everyone should create something. They should make art in some way and understand why they’re making it.
INZANA: How did you find the Winkler Gallery at first?
CLAIRA: I didn’t know about it at first. I had just graduated from school and I’ve entered that Laurel Arts Festival a few times in Brookville. I never really won anything, but just went to see my work in the show. It was the year Perry Winkler juried it and I walked in a I had won both first and third place for the professional category.
Kyle Yates-- another artist at the gallery-- said that Perry was really interested in my work, but I had to work and didn’t get to talk to Perry.
Then a few months later, Cora, came into Michaels-- where I was working-- and I congratulated her after seeing something on Facebook. I gave her one of my business cards to give to Perry. A few days later Perry called me and wanted me to bring my artwork over.
INZANA: Do you feel like you’ve gotten anything out of having your work at the Winkler Gallery?
CLAIRA: I had two residencies last year. One at the Vermont Studio Center and one in Sparkbox Studio in Picton, Canada. It was really nice and I did a commission over Christmas.
I haven’t done much since then with a new job and moving apartments. Now I have an apartment that my easel fits in the apartment so new work will be coming soon.
INZANA: What do you think about the idea of embracing mistakes while making art?
CLAIRA: That’s one of the biggest things I tell people when they are drawing: don’t use an eraser. That’s pretty intimidating for a lot of people, but that mistake is going to come back later and you are going to like it.
INZANA: Do you think college is needed for artists?
CLAIRA: I wouldn’t say it’s necessary but it’s definitely important. Especially, without my degrees— even though I’m not painting at work— I needed them to get hired here.
Of course there are artists out there that don’t have any training or education but they got locked into a style that’s really selling. There are painters in California without a day job or education and they’re killing’ it.
I don’t think it’s necessary to get the degree but I’m glad that I have it.
INZANA: What are you excited about working on in the future?
CLAIRA: Really I’m just excited about making new work again. I’ve heard that once you get out of grad school you either stay the course you’re on or you do a complete 180 and start painting something else.
INZANA: The work you have now feels like it’s real but has this weird ghostly feeling.
CLAIRA: That's the goal.
INZANA: I think it works really well. It's grounded in realism, so you look at it and can suspend your disbelief but then something feels kind of uneasy about it when you start to notice the ghostly parts.
CLAIRA: I think the next goal is to maybe go in a more realistic direction while maintaining that overall feel of something being out of place. Not quite uncanny but a little bit unsettling.
I’m not trying to go for creepy weird or gross stuff because I think that’s hokey. I want to go for something a little unnerving and jarring. So maybe bumping up the realism but still painting things in as ghosts without it being like gimmicky.
That’s a pretty lofty goal. None of my goals for myself are ever small.
INZANA: You can never accomplish anything if you don’t set lofty goals.
CLAIRA: If it doesn’t make you uncomfortable then there’s no sense in doing it. If you’re not uncomfortable then you’re wasting time.
INZANA: And you only have limited time because you’re going to die.
CLAIRA: Cause you’re gonna die anyway.
INZANA: How’s that for a full circle interview.
CLAIRA: Yeah that happened.
You can follow Claira at https://www.instagram.com/virgosunstudio/