Arts Review Profile

Heidi Schwegler Puts Everyday Ruin on the Gallery Wall

Raw and/or reimagined, a Portland Artist and Educator shows us what we’ve tossed out.

Heidi Schwegler came by the gallery the other day to install Satisfactual, July’s art exhibit. She pulls out a bunny, a ceramic trinket you’d find in a free box or local thrift shop, looking like it’s been touched up, but not new. It’s the size of a soup can, with long ears, pink on the inside, and it looks cute as you’d expect, even as a lone still creature on a white wall. I don’t know the story behind this, I don’t know if she has one. She just found it. She holds it up against the wall, envisioning how it will look.

Heidi is interested in objects at this point in their existence — the point after they’ve been discarded by their owners and how, when, and where she discovers them. She calls herself “an urban archeaologist,” finding and collecting items that have been left behind, presenting the items in a range of ways that question our use and attachment to them. 

She is currently the chair of the MFA Applied Craft and Design, a joint graduate program at PNCA and OCAC. She has been a working artist, exhibiting her work in galleries across the country for over twenty years, including the Upfor Gallery and Disjecta here in Portland. She has a BFA in Art History and Metals from the University of Kansas and an MFA in Metals from the University of Oregon. She has received numerous awards and grants, and has spent much of her time as an educator.

All along, she’s been picking up the forgotten or “done with” pieces of human consumption amidst its journey to the landfill, to honor its existence. The materials used in Heidi’s work are seemingly unlimited. She uses what she finds, or “found objects” which themselves preserved as they are, only removed them from one context to put them in another. Or, she manipulates the object, changing the material. She finds a pillow, a fluffy soft pillow, and casts it in glass. A work called “Popular Delusion” depicts a wrinkled, scrunched up bedspread. Its materials are a bedspread and concrete, and it appears as stone statue of a bedspread.  

In 2009, Heidi left Portland after teaching full time for eleven years. She needed a change. She traveled. Covering 28,000 miles in Iceland and China, as well as the US, in an interview with Drain Magazine, she says she discovered “an affinity for the ruin, non-sites and discarded objects.” Satisfactual will present some remnants of the ruin she found, including pieces from a visual series she calls Property, which was inspired by the collected items and photos taken on these journeys. Property, started in 2010, is an ongoing project.

From only meeting her briefly, and getting a sneak peak at the show, Heidi’s attention to the things we easily overlook, and “the trash” brings up memories divorced from emotion and free of nostalgia, but just of life lived. Like recalling the things you need and have used without an attachment to them and considerating the wasteland we each leave behind. Heidi’s eyes don’t easily glaze over the urban landscape. She’s made it a life’s work to study these things. 

Heidi’s eyes don’t easily glaze over the urban landscape.

Sometimes I wonder too much about what an artist is trying to say, if the artist has a story behind their work, so I am left thinking about them while I am beholding whatever it is they do. Or we convince ourselves there is something to understand in the first place, and that it’s in the artist’s hands. With Heidi’s, I find myself not thinking of her at all, what she is trying to express or if I am “getting it.” Just observing her collected objects and visuals, in their separation from people, lends an unusual and impossible life to the object. And the effect of: hey, you’ve seen this object before but it’s not made of what you think it’s made of and it’s not where you are used to seeing it and now it’s the center of your attention when it’s usually just overlooked makes me see it for maybe the first time.

A small sampling of images from Property:

By Kathleen Dolan

I studied writing and English at Purchase College in NY State and graduated from PSU with an English degree. I contribute content, edit, and brainstorm at THRU.

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