Heather McLeod: Hide and Seek

In Dialogue with  Heather McLeod

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Heather V McLeod, Wreath IV, oil on canvas, 16” diameter, 2020. On view at and photograph courtesy of Trotter&Sholer.

Heather V McLeod is an artist exploring identity and the psychology by which we perceive others. Interested primarily in portraiture and representative work, McLeod creates pieces with the intent of capturing the character of the figure portrayed. She plays with the use of symbolism and concealment to enhance the narrative and evoke a playful yet ominous side to portraiture.

Born and raised in the greater New York area, McLeod received her BFA from Rhode Island School of Design in 2016. In 2017, she was awarded a Fulbright Study/Research Award in Perugia, Italy where she lived and worked for a year. She is a recent recipient of the Elizabeth Greenshields Foundation Grant and The Leslie T. and Francis Posey Scholarship. She has been featured in a number of exhibitions in the U.S. and abroad and has been the recipient of a number of art-related awards, including most recently AXA Art Prize Finalist. McLeod is currently based in Manhattan and completing her MFA from The New York Academy of Art.

Heather McLeod’s work is currently on view in the solo show Hide and Seek at Trotter & Sholer, NYC, through March 14th, 2021. 

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Heather V McLeod, The Ear Project, oil on canvas, multiple, 2020. On view at and photograph courtesy of Trotter&Sholer.

AME: One of the centerpieces of your solo exhibition is The Ear Project, a collection of ears rendered in oil on panel. When did your fascination with ears begin, what elements of the ear attract you the most, and what are the particularities of painting them?

HM: I get this question all the time and I never get tired of answering it. They are strange and I love that about them. That’s probably what drew me to ears in the first place. I have been painting the figure for years and there are just some parts of the human body that are more complicated to render. Ears are one of them.

When I was in my last year at RISD, I had three small panels in my studio so I made three small ear paintings as practice and I just fell in love with them. To me, they worked as a series but on their own spoke to the character of the sitter. I started to realize that you could tell so much about a person based on their ear- how they adorn them with piercings, earrings, tattoos and the hairstyle around the ear. They become reflective of the person and I started noticing them more and more.

Most of the ears are depicted from friends and family. Some are from acquaintances or painted from pictures that were sent to me, but all of them are real people. That’s important to me because in the end they are individual portraits. The light and color are different in each one because it’s a record of the time I interacted with the person. That can make it challenging to paint when an interaction happened in low light or when people send me photos at odd angles because they’ve clearly tried to take a picture on their own, but for me that adds to the character of it.

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Heather V McLeod, oil on canvas, 2020. On view at and photograph courtesy of Trotter&Sholer.

AME: Who decided the title of the exhibition and how do you feel that it resonates with your work?

HM: We went back and forth a lot on the title. The work deals with so many concepts that it was difficult to find a short phrase that spoke to everything. In the end, Jenna and Angie came up with Hide and Seek and I think it’s a great fit. It’s playful and approachable in a way that I feel reflects the work well. In almost all of my work, I’m dealing with the idea of hiding and the search for identity.

AME: What do you feel happens with the viewers perception of the sitter when one body part is focused?

HM: What I love about art is that everyone can walk away feeling differently. Every interpretation is valid but in my experience, people are able to resonate more with fractured forms than with completed ones. They can project their own interpretations onto it and fill in the rest of the figure. In the end, one person’s filled in body is completely different from another’s.

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Heather V McLeod, oil on canvas, 2020. On view at and photograph courtesy of Trotter&Sholer.

AME: Interchangeably, psychology, surrealism, and subversion of classical portraiture serve as influences of the show. Can you tell us more?

HM: I think a lot about all of these when I’m working. I don’t set out to make a specific investigation but it’s more that all of these are topics I think about on a daily basis. I have been drawn to portraiture for as long as I can remember, but after seeing so much of it I started to wonder about its purpose and why we always fall back on the same habits to investigate it.

We have become so reliant on the facial features to identify a person, but I am more interested in what can be read when this is denied to us. The viewer is left to read into other clues within the painting and in the end they can better inform us who the person really is as opposed to their what their likeness can reveal. More recently I’ve been drawn to surrealism and I was surprised looking back, how much of it was present in what I had been making for the past few years.

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Heather V McLeod, from the Wreath series, oil on canvas, 2020. On view at and photograph courtesy of Trotter&Sholer.

AME: You received a Fulbright scholarship and spent time in Italy. The tondo canvases you use, the position of your sitters, depicted in profile, and the tonality of your colors nod to Renaissance portraiture. To me the exhibition The Renaissance Portrait from Donatello to Bellini the Metropolitan Museum of Art came to mind. How do you navigate this legacy in your practice?

HM: That is such a flattering statement, thank you. I love that my work brought these Renaissance masters to mind. Being in Italy was such an inspiration to me and I have always been fascinated by renaissance art and portraiture. It’s not something that I ever feel the need to copy because it’s been done and no one will ever do it better than they did, but I certainly look to it for inspiration. Recently, I’ve been intrigued by their use of symbolism within paintings and how something can be appreciated at face value but reward the viewer upon further investigation. I’ve been trying to work with that idea in my own work and researching the symbolism of flowers and insects and seeing how that can enhance the narrative of a portrait. It allows the figure to offer a story without needing to spell it out.

AME: Currently you are enrolled at The New York Academy of Art, squarely focused on painting. Which techniques are you grappling with and how do you work with them in different ways?

HM: I’ve learned different painting techniques like indirect painting but I have always been more drawn to working alla prima or wet into wet. I have also been introduced to more sculpture based media like figure casting and it’s been fun to explore the same ideas using a different medium, but I’ve always been a painter at heart.

AME: Why paint and what does your studio, and studio practice look like?

HM: I’ve been painting for so long, since I was so young, that I don’t know why I do it really, or need to know. It’s just who I am. I spend way too much time in the studio but it’s because I love it there. I feel most at home when I’m working on something so I have lots of works in all stages of completion. I’m super neat so it’s all very organized, but I tend to skip a lot of the preparatory work and jump right into painting so there are a lot of ideas all around.

Anna Mikaela Ekstrand is an independent curator and the founding editor-in-chief of Cultbytes. She is interested in feminism, decolonial theory, and social practice. Currently, Anna Mikaela serves on the core curatorial team for the inaugural ‘The Immigrant Artist Biennial’ presenting over 75 artists. She has also held curatorial positions at the Metropolitan Museum, Museum of Arts and Design, Solomon R. Guggenheim, and Bard Graduate Center. She holds dual Master’s Degrees in Art and Design History from Stockholm University and Bard Graduate Center.