Born Battle Creek, MI, 1979 / BA, University of Michigan; MFA, Cranbrook Academy of Art / Lives in Detroit
Megan Heeres’s Invasive Paper Project is, in principle, quite simple: participants take vegetable matter from invasive plants, such as Phragmites, Honeysuckle, and Garlic Mustard, and use it to create paper. Along the way they may learn something about paper making and also about the environmental impact of invasive plant life on local ecosystems. While developing the project, Heeres has had to learn, through trial and error, about the paper-making properties of the plant materials and, since she does not want to further propagate invasive species, develop a way to dispose of the remaining vegetable matter in an environmentally responsible manner. In configuring the work for a gallery setting (2015’s The More We Get Together at Detroit’s Simone DeSousa Gallery) Heeres has gone to great lengths to create an environment that harmonizes the physical and emotional comfort of project participants with more traditional formal and aesthetic concerns; nothing seems unresolved. Whereas much participatory art creates the impression that visitors are simply actors in a theater of the artist’s construction, Heeres’s installation seems to genuinely project an atmosphere of thoughtful inclusivity. It goes without saying that all artists care about their art; Heeres has made an art out of caring. Tellingly, Heeres chose her first degree in Health Studies and Art because she wanted to investigate art’s potential for allowing people to heal themselves.
At first sight, the work Home. HomeGrown. (2012) seems very different. Ink solution cascades through a series of 12 approximately conical cups onto a panel mounted horizontally below. “Completed” panels are displayed on the wall alongside. This is art that generates art. By unmasking the process behind the panels’ creation, Heeres’s intent is to reduce the psychological divide between the viewer and the artist. The slow dripping cadence, and the soft hum of the pump, create a meditative experience that Heeres perfects in her studio. She considers the work to be a type of clock, differentiating between her extra-studio life, in which she never seems to have enough time, and the relative sanctuary of her studio. By reproducing it in the gallery, she includes the visitor in this subliminal experience. Natural processes are rarely far from Heeres’s thoughts; the most obvious one in Home. HomeGrown. is gravity, but more subtly, the work relies on alginate, a natural seaweed-derived thickening agent, to maintain the required ink viscosity.
The process for “painting” the panels is inherently very sensitive to variation. Heeres describes the compositions that emerge as being “dependent upon efficiency of the pumping mechanism, the viscosity and color of the ink solution, the temperature/humidity of the space, the caretakers tending to the piece, and the amount of time the solution dripped upon the surface.” It is perhaps not coincidental that this sounds more like the conclusion of a scientific paper than a traditional artist’s statement; Heeres is that rare artist who instinctively, but consciously, develops her work within a far larger conceptual, and social, framework. Currently she is working on a series of works (e.g. 2016’s Blue Reach) inspired by a collaboration with eye surgeon Dr. Alon Kahana, and more specifically by discussions surrounding his research on neural crests and their potential for regenerative medicine. Kahana says of their collaboration, “Megan likes to think in big picture terms before figuring out details. As such, she and I are very much alike. Many artists I am familiar with are focused on the details – shape, color, texture, etc. Megan’s work is more experimental …. I really like that!”
Heeres’s work Beacon (2014) is an ambitious collaborative project that was installed in Detroit’s First Congregational, an historically important church noteworthy for its involvement in the Underground Railroad. The installation’s central concept was to reconfigure the building into an “instrument” for translating movement from participants at ground level into sound and light emanating to the street from the bell-tower. The work served as a metaphor for Heeres’s belief in the capacity of communities to collectively generate transcendental experiences, and was inspired both by its location in a city where faith-based social structures are still very strong, and by recollections of her childhood involvement in the ELCA Lutheran church. She regards the social relationships created around the project, most notably the involvement of the initially suspicious church members, to be an important aspect of the work. In a way, this is the central strand of Heeres’s art – inclusion, not as a gift to be bestowed by the artist, but as a process of finding common ground.
Steve Panton, March 2016
Copyright Essay’d 2016