Right now is a time of transition for Heidi Brandow.
The Santa Fe-based multimedia artist has had a busy year. She just wrapped up working and teaching at the Institute of American Indian Arts and was named one of THE Magazine’s 12 New Mexico Artists to Know back in January. Earlier this summer, she also spent a month working with arts organizations in Turkey and participated in the UCross Foundation fellowship for Native artists in Wyoming.
Later this fall, Brandow is going to be making a move to Boston, where she will be working on a master’s program at the Harvard School of Design.
In the midst of preparing for this major change of scene, Brandow said she’s also been taking time to focus on realigning herself creatively. The result, she said, is a new body of work, aimed at paring things down and getting “back to the basics.”
The new series of as many as 18 works, which Brandow titled “Departures,” will be on display at form & concept gallery starting Friday. It will stay up until October.
“In a way, it’s a departure from what I’ve been doing, but also it’s literally a departure,” said Brandow. “Part of my process in creating the work even is preparing myself to depart mentally from my home.”
She described the new works as a “second cousin” to her well-known series of monsters that she paints onto mixed-media wooden panels. The new pieces use the same bright color schemes and illustrative pattern work, but her new subject matter deviates from the playful critters of the past.
Most of Brandow’s new series features images of bones and skulls. She wanted to get back to the “core essence” of her art – she felt her work had started to become too chaotic – and said she feels the bones’ imagery symbolizes that change in direction.
It’s also something that had been on her mind since her residency in Wyoming earlier this summer, where amid the vast landscape, she saw animal bones while out on walks.
“They do still follow that cartoony aesthetic, very colorful palette that you’re used to with Heidi Brandow’s work,” form & concept gallery director Jordan Eddy said of the “Departures” pieces. “And yet, it’s a leap in terms of subject matter, and it’s something that a lot of people will relate to. Bones are this stripping back, this sort of slimming down into the essence of an idea.”
The new series also features acrylic pattern work adhered onto the wooden panels, representing memories from Brandow’s childhood. The artist, who has Native Hawaiian and Diné roots, lived in both Hawaii and the Navajo Nation while growing up. The patterns were largely inspired by her time on the reservation and include depictions of convenience stores – the region did not have many grocery stores – and pixelated images of her family. She also created patterns inspired by packages of bologna, which she explained as reminding her of her family’s affinity for road trips and the lunches her mom made for them.
In that sense, she said this body of work feels more connected to her personal experiences and the memories that inform who she is today. “Everything is always personal on some level,” she said.
Images of her upbringing and personal life are not something she often delves into. “But for some reason it just felt right,” she said. “It felt where I needed to be.”
She credited a recent monthlong return trip to Turkey for an art conference and to work with local groups – she previously attended the Istanbul Technical University for industrial design and still visits regularly – with reenergizing her and reminding her of a feeling of going home.
“(It) allowed me to open myself up and reconnect with those things I hold really dear, those early memories,” she said.
Though the work is a departure, she explained that the new pieces elicit the same feeling for her as her monster series, which she’s continued to work on and develop over the past 15 years. She’s previously described the monsters, which are influenced by the Japanese art and aesthetics she was exposed to growing up in Hawaii, as an artistic release for her. It’s also a style that gives Brandow a lot of joy, she said, because of its ability to reach a widespread audience.
“I don’t come from a community where people have the privilege of accessing higher education or really fancy experiences, and so creating work like that is really important for me,” said Brandow. “It’s not to say these things are dumbed down at all, but I actually think it’s more tricky to create work that is not only visceral for a 68-year-old, but it’s also a visceral experience for a three-year-old. I don’t know if many people are able to accomplish that. (I try) to always keep in mind the audience and the people I want to create for, and that’s pretty much everybody, because I come from that community. These are my people.”
At Harvard, Brandow will be putting her focus on the intersection of art and social engagement. Her area of focus will be “Art, Design and the Public Domain,” looking specifically at how artists can work within Native and other disenfranchised communities.
“I have no expectation of what that’s going to look like,” she said of what she plans to do next. “But I’m really excited about it.”