Heidi K. Brandow likes to explore the juxtaposition of things that are familiar and safe with those that might make us feel less comfortable, reflecting the mix of the positive and negative that appears in everyone’s life.
That could be reflected in life forms that pop up in her colorful artwork inspired in part by Japanese commercial product designs – while those critters are “friendly guys,” they also carry the scarier label of “monsters,” she said.
Or it can be seen in her use of geometric forms taken from barbed barriers to prevent birds from perching on buildings appearing as a patterned background to an image of a beautiful bird.
That dark and light, good and bad doesn’t seem to be embraced by people today as part of their whole life experience, Brandow said, adding, “It’s not OK to be down or have hard times or talk about them.”
She said she’s fascinated by how people use social media to manufacture their identities, creating a perfect package that doesn’t necessarily conform with their reality. “It’s a weird thing,” she mused.
Brandow was talking with the Journal in her second-floor studio at the IAIA Museum of Contemporary Native Arts, where she is serving a residency and will talk about her work at an open studio event Saturday afternoon.
Of Native Hawaiian and Navajo ancestry, Brandow said she split her time growing up both on the Navajo Nation and Hawaii’s Big Island, which carries a substantial Japanese cultural influence.
“I’m really intrigued by even the simple application of the Japanese aesthetic in product labels and marketing,” she said. “They have a peculiar way of playing with things, of making characters.”
She is using the residency to work on her “patterns + monsters” series. “I’ve been working with them for more than 10 years now,” she said. “I’ve gone from work that is theoretically more dense to work that is a little more playful.”
The artworks start as blocks of wood, with plaster applied and then an acrylic graft of the design, topped with a polyurethane finish, she said. The bright colors and flatness of the images create a vaguely cartoonish feel.
In her artist’s statement, Brandow said of the series, “These paintings offer layered information that is inspired by pop culture, design, identity, and cultural history influences. ‘patterns + monsters’ is a study on the juxtaposition of regularity and chaos that exist simultaneously with one another.
“Additionally, the development and consistent use of monster-like characters offer a playful nod to the recurring archetype of monsters found in all cultures.”
Although Brandow said she “was always a doodler,” she didn’t start out to make art her career.
“I went to college at the University of Denver. I was a computer science major,” she said. “But I didn’t really have the feeling that was my thing.” She added that she wasn’t sure that it was the major itself or the campus environment that didn’t offer a good fit.
In any case, she came back to Santa Fe, where she had graduated from high school and currently lives, and started a family – her two sons are now 10 and 11, Brandow said. She moved around a bit, and finally ended up getting a degree in fine arts and painting from the Institute for American Indian Arts here, then going on to the Harvard Graduate School of Design.
Along the way, she also “fell in love” with Turkey, where she recently returned from a 2015 Turkish Cultural Foundation Fellowship Award.
Under that program, she stayed in Istanbul and pursued a project, “defining: home,” in which she interviewed many Turkish people and Syrian refugees in that country about their concept of home, from which she created a photography and film documentary.
She also curated a symposium and exhibition that featured Syrian and Turkish artists, Brandow said.
She said she plans to expand the “defining: home” project in April and May during a social engagement residency at the museum. Brandow said she intends to open that to anyone in Santa Fe rather than focusing on immigrants.
“I’m really curious about people,” she said, looking forward to her chance to record their comments.