Shift Happens at GreenHill

In Dialogue with Heather Gordon

Heather Gordon, 2019, photo courtesy of Eli Gray

In her drawings, paintings, and installations North Carolina based artist Heather Gordon maps the poetry of life using mathematical elements like numbers and geometry to coax narratives from information related to data of place, time and physical properties. In her collaborative projects she has extended her practice to large scale site-specific installations based on elaborate research, often including sculptural, performance and movement elements which altogether result in multifaceted and thought provoking projects that prompt the visitor’s intellectual and visceral engagement. In this interview Heather Gordon sheds some light on her nine-foot-high site-specific mural on the large exterior window of the GreenHill gallery to be completed late September. Heather Gordon’s public art initiative is the first of a group of works by the artist at GreenHill Center for North Carolina Art, as part of the Shift Happensart installation series which aims to explore art engagement at a time of social distancing.

AS: You are multi-media artist based in North Carolina. In much of your work you use mathematical elements to create shapes related to stories about the human condition. Tell me a bit more about yourself and your work.

HG: I’m frequently overwhelmed by life. In these 2020 times, overwhelmed may be an understatement. As a temporary antidote to this heightened emotional state, I have found the attempt at describing a complicated idea using specific data, a kind of mapping, to be a satisfying and rewarding process for making art and feeling grounded. Using numbers and geometry, I construct origami folding patterns specific to a messy or complex subjects like love, gratitude, or a supernova. What emerges is more conceptual rather than tangible art, as the product at this early stage is merely a mapping of a story shape, a set of numeric experiences and attributes condensed into a pattern of mountain and valley folds. These maps can be used to create physical works such as drawings and paintings, and also more spatially complex works such as site-specific tape installations and collaborative performance projects.

AS: What is the genesis and idea behind your public art works series, Shift Happens?

HG: When the invitation from GreenHill came for an exhibition opportunity, I was elated and saw this as a chance to try a new approach. GreenHill was feeling that too. The shift is on, in all areas of our lives. We all feel it. What does “exhibit” mean now?

As the planning for Shift Happens progressed, I kept getting caught in an eddy questioning the role of the artist at this time. How best can I serve? I got myself pretty whipped up about it, and a wise long-time collaborator, Justin Tornow, said “Just make art. We are artists in the time of COVID and Trump and social injustice and all the rest. Whatever you make will be an authentic expression of what it feels like to be alive now.”

Her encouraging words reminded me of how supportive artists can be of each other lives and work. Those words reminded me that we are all in this and because we see it, we are all responsible for the resolution of our various calamities and predicaments. It’s a kind of pact that we used to “shake on”.

Phillip Marsh, One Love, 2020, street mural, North Davie St, Greensboro, NC

AS: Can you elaborate on the site-specific installation, “One Love” Response, the first of these public projects starting in September?

HG: When I visited GreenHill, the One Love street mural designed by Phillip Marsh and painted with the help of 15 community artists had such a bold and hopeful presence on the city block. My experience of it was that the work was reaching for a handshake. I felt it inviting me to participate. To respond.

The One Love street mural is a response in and of itself. It was made in reaction to the murder of George Floyd, and makes reference by its title to the famous song of solidarity and positivity, “One Love” by Bob Marley. The One Love Response window installation will be complete by September 22, 2020. The work is a response by an artist to the work of another artist who is also engaged in a response. In formal terms, the One Love Response visual is based on an origami pattern I’ve made that creates the shape of the connected letters O-N-E-L-O-V-E. The folding pattern will inform the red vinyl tape that will be applied to the windows and delineate the word map in stripes. As Shift Happens progresses, other types of responsive projects that collaborate with the public are in the works including The Handshake Project, and How Do You Feel.

Heather Gordon, One Love Response prep documents including the directional map and the origami design based on the ASCII-to-decimal values of the letters, 2020

AS: Can you shed some light on the host of your project, GreenHill Center for North Carolina Art?

HG: GreenHill Center for North Carolina Art is located in downtown Greensboro, NC. Their mission is to celebrate North Carolina art and culture. GreenHill offers a 4000 sq ft gallery space curated by Edie Carpenter, studios for classes and workshops, and a variety of programming. My first experience with GreenHill was at a pecha kucha presentation event for regional artists more than 10 years ago. I signed up and gave my presentation, as did many dozens of other artists. I remember coming away from that event with a bunch of new artist friends and an expanded view of what being an artist looks like.

Now, with their new Executive Director, Barbara Richter, GreenHill is engaged in “a high-degree of re-imagining” when it comes to art exhibitions and programming. It’s an exciting time to be working with GreenHill to explore art engagement during a time of social distancing.

AS: How do you see this current public art series in context of your other work?

HG: Public works are a complement to my private studio experiments. For example, while I’m working on the public works for Shift Happens, I’m also developing a series called the “COVID drawings”. These drawings have 7-bit binary translations from a variety of text sources including current interviews and tweets by President Trump, passages from well-known texts like Lord of the Flies, and statements made in resistance to the president’s words. With these works, which are filled with numbers, the language is what shapes the work. In my frustration to find trustworthy and complete data during this time, I’ve focused on language rather that raw numerical data such as hospitalizations, infection rates, and death counts.

Somewhere along the way, the repeated horror and trauma as depicted through data just ceased to have meaning for me. In these COVID drawings, which I often come to in the middle of the night, I get to vent my anger at Trump with some wit while recording factually what was said. The laborious and repetitive nature of making these seems to calm the inner beast who often experiences helplessness in the face of today’s whirly twirly reality.

Heather Gordon, Sunshine Enema, 2020, colored pencil and ink on graph paper, 22” x 30”

One Love Response project installation : Sep 17-22 GreenHill Center for North Carolina Art , 200 N Davie St , Greensboro, NC 27401 Heather Gordon and Phillip Marsh, One Love and One Love Response Artist Dialog, Oct 20 from 12:30-1:30pm

Etty Yaniv works on her art, art writing and curatorial projects in Brooklyn. She founded Art Spiel as a platform for highlighting the work of contemporary artists, including art reviews, studio visits, interviews with artists, curators, and gallerists. For more details contact by Email: