How do you paint what’s going on inside your skull?
Heidi Whitman hails from a long line of artists who make such invisible things visible. In 14th century Florence, the architect and painter Giotto di Bondone thawed out frozen-faced divines with a human warmth. Impressionists such as Mary Cassatt and Henri Matisse infused pictures with light and movement. Later, in the 20th century, Elaine and Willem de Kooning along with other abstract expressionists such as Jackson Pollock and Franz Kline made painting itself an event that would last long past their lifetimes.
In the same tradition, Whitman performs the magic of bringing unseen networks to life, both internal and external. In comparison, an fMRI scan is but a pale shadow. Electro-chemical brain happenings explode in anger, ripple gently in meditation, take off unexpectedly, driven by curiosity, running complex codes in rhythmic patterns. Networks of civilization as surveyed from the sky contrast with and conflate thisbrain activity. Take away the hard matter of our skulls, says Whitman and observe how the networks within us enmesh themselves with the networks outside streets and train tracks, switchbacks and footpaths, rooftops and road signs. No matter how meticulously an anthropologist records his digs through ancient ruins, the conflation of brain inside to world outside requires the imagination and drawing prowess of a Whitman to describe.
Whitman discovered her love for drawing while in film school in New York. Unlike film, she realized drawing didn’t involve perpetually raising funds, or working with stubborn machines. She delighted in the fact that all drawing asked of her was to maintain a direct connection between brain, eye and hand. In 1980, Whitman graduated from the Museum School in Boston and shortly thereafter joined its faculty where she remains part-time. She shows here and abroad, most recently at TAG Fine Arts in London, the Kemper in Kansas City and Carroll and Sons in Boston, in private collections, Fidelity Investments, Bank of America, the Federal Reserve all number among her many collectors. Whitman’s art also figures prominently in Katharine Harmon’s book “The Map as Art,” (Princeton Architectural Press, 2009). Whitman’s prices range from two to twelve thousand dollars.
“You know the Flower District has been sold,” she says, pointing outside the window of her studio in Boston’s South End. “I’m worried development will ultimately take this building as well, where I’ve been for so long.” Artists and designers occupy every floor. The night before, many of them came to an open house to see Whitman’s “Lost Cities” constructions pinned to the freshly-painted walls one on top of another, old school salon style. Whitman considers the net of shadows cast by these pinned pieces as a key medium in these mixed media constructions and mashups, as elemental as paper, paint, canvas and glue.
Unpinned and compact, Whitman’s Mappamundi 3 combines her passion for ancient worlds with classical cartography ever suggestive of the mind’s mysterious terrain. “I have always been in love with maps,” she says. “Even as a little girl, I loved those stories featuring maps. Treasure Island, Winnie the Pooh. I got so into mapping brains, people started asking if there was something going wrong with mine. Harvard’s Peabody Museum of Natural History gave me permission to pursue my research drawing their shrunken heads. Quite ghastly they were, especially with their little tags, saying what anthropologist had collected it. One day I recall the Director asking me not to sketch so publicly but to use his private office for fear of upsetting the public.”
Under Whitman’s studio worktable lies a cardboard box of scraps, bits of canvas, old map shreds, odd paper Whitman had painted for other projects. Such waste you couldn’t pawn off on Goodwill, but with an X-ACTO knife routinely “using up zillions of blades”, tiny scissors, and a glue gun, Whitman transforms it into crisp topographies and traceries of the mind, these grids of pure consciousness.
This is not to say the work is not without humor. In her construction titled the Lost City of G, a train track leads incongruously nowhere, mocked by an upside-down palm tree. Loops, marshes and switchbacks and various topographical markings cause a double take: are they real, or merely symbols standing in for mental activity?
In Lost City of G, the colors are of the desert, which explains Whitman is hardly colorless. Her travels through various deserts taught her that. Her recent sojourn in Central Asia inspired Lost City of G’s palette of sand, blue, green, orange-brown, and slices of red.
How many other lost cities lie under those Central Asian sands and the entire spinning crust of our planet, for that matter? And how will they seek out the networks in our minds to make some unifying connection? Conversely, what do our minds yearn for, one wonders — our memories hold, our dreams conflate, what happenings within and without our skulls triggers us, deadens us, confuses us, uplifts us and awakens us to art?