Arts Getting to the bottom of the world
If an explorer is someone who travels in search of the unseen, then Crystal Heiden, an artist who grew up in Milford and now has a studio in Bridgeport’s AmFab building, is an explorer, too.
The farthest she has traveled so far is to Maria Island off the coast of Tasmania. Located in the “Roaring Forties” latitudes of what is sometimes called the Southern Ocean, Tasmania is closer to Antarctica than it is to the north coast of Australia. Maria Island, a sanctuary for the folkloric Tasmanian devil, is reached by a ferry that crosses a choppy strait known as the Mercury Passage.
“They call it the Mercury Passage because the waves make the ocean kind of like mercury. It’s constantly changing. It’s a hard crossing to make,” Heiden says. “When we were in the middle of it, the seas were quite big. Everybody on the boat was green and I was taking pictures.”
Heiden is not primarily a photographer. She talks about having an eclectic art “practice” that also includes sculpture and drawings (mostly of fanciful objects), video and writing. When she went to Maria Island last March, she used her camera the way a butterfly collector might use a net. Except she was out to capture visual moments more fleeting than a butterfly.
Examining her specimens back home, she chose one image that seemed especially promising. The photograph itself was a foggy, cloudy shot with just enough nautical detail to suggest it was taken aboard the ferry. Heiden amended it and almost obscured it with a message scrawled in orange chalk.
“It is grey the bottom of the world,” it began, then in a few words told how she got there and how that moment in the Mercury Passage contrasted with the bright colors of the island, “a sanctuary hidden way from time and the heavy hand of humanity.”
The opening words have an authoritative, “you are there” quality. They have even more impact if come upon unexpectedly as they might have been in a recent group exhibit of AmFab artists at the University of Bridgeport’s Schelfhaudt Gallery. The first impulse is to try to identify the photographic image. Once read, the words reflect back on it, putting the viewer on the deck of the ferry, looking up into a stormy sky or perhaps down into mercury waters.
The photograph was one of four documenting her travels that Heiden had in the exhibit. Others were of a dawn after a stormy night on the Isle of Skye and of the volcanic mountain in Iceland that Jules Verne imagined led to the center of the earth. The fourth was taken on a camping trip to the Yorkshire Dales in 2010, but was the first Heiden thought to alter with text.
The photograph was of a green trailer on a green hillside and Heiden had repeated the story behind it so many times to friends that she finally decided to write it down, “like a folktale to myself,” across the photo. It told of being stopped in her tracks on the way to use the campground toilet.
“The light was perfect. The trailer was perfect,” she recalls in her studio. “Everything was this weird grayed-out green. So I walked back to get my camera and took the picture. I didn’t want to risk losing that moment by going to the bathroom first.”
If her morning urge was mundane, the resulting image is the opposite. Heiden says she stood on a step stool to write her story in blue across the sky. She outlined the green trailer in lime yellow, as if it had Christmas lights. It appears to lean against the hillside, without foundation.
Physical laws are also challenged in Heiden’s drawings of “impossible objects” that she sees as “things that could exist but probably wouldn’t exist because gravity exists.” She has exhibited wire and ceramic sculptures that tend to look bent and crumpled.
Heiden has degrees from the Maine College of Art and Northwestern University. She has machine skills inherited from her parents and now has a day job at a metal working shop in Shelton. She says the owner is generous with time off for travel and art residencies. Her interest in combining faraway places and art is long standing.
When she was in graduate school in 2011, she built a dinghy from canvas and oak that she positioned on the ice-packed shores of Lake Michigan. She didn’t intend to launch it. She wanted it as a focal point for photos reflecting her interest in Arctic and Antarctic explorers.
At the same time, she was reading American literature, interested in the ideas of Manifest Destiny and frontier. She was especially taken with Cormac McCarthy’s novel, “Blood Meridian,” that she came to see as informing her art. Towards the end, a main character arrives at the Pacific Ocean and somehow doesn’t stop.
“I was interested in the dual point, where the character continued on past the horizon.” Heiden says. “I was interested in when you see the horizon … it is perceived as a hard line, but it’s not. You can never really get to it. But you can always see it and it’s always in front of you and always behind you. It’s the multi-universe that happens where you think it’s the end point, but it’s not the end point.”
Since her first trip, to Italy in high school, Heiden has been to 10 countries, including China. She cashed in air miles to get to Tasmania. She jumped at the chance to go with an acquaintance doing research there.
“I’m one of the only fools who travels halfway around the world for a week. You’ve got to make the trip when you can,” Heiden says. “It’s the closest I’ve gotten to the bottom of the world so far. Hopefully, I’ll get to Antarctica eventually.”
Culture writer Joel Lang is a frequent contributor to Sunday Arts & Style.