In an overheard conversation prior to our interview, a passerby who knows the artist exclaims, “You made your earrings?!” Instead of a simple yes, Heather Rison opts for, “I make a lot of things,” followed by a smirk. A seemingly simple statement was an apt introduction to this Salt Lake City-based artist.
It is not unusual for galleries and museums to separate two-dimensional and three-dimensional works. Similarly, it is not unusual for artists to claim the title of painter, or sculptor. It is much rarer to find an artist who oscillates between mediums. That is understandable, as each is a time-consuming and difficult craft to master on its own. To not only try your hand at both, but to also produce extraordinarily moving works in both, is a feat Heather Rison has accomplished.
Rison moved to Salt Lake City from California a decade ago to pursue her love of painting. She was able to hone her technical skills under the supervision of figurative artist and instructor Jeff Hein. And while Rison credits his instruction for her adoption of a photorealistic technique, she felt boxed into that style. She has broken out of that box, one loose painterly stroke at a time. For a number of years her work primarily consisted of portraits in which the emotion of the subject took center stage while their features were the result of shadow and a rich oil color palette.
Neither oils or models are a cheap acquisition for a young artist. Rison began to model locally for figure drawing and painting classes in exchange for free admission, and access to models. She is featured in the documentary, Color Me Nude, on the subject of figure modeling in Salt Lake City, which can be found on Vimeo. This decision to model not only led to a more intimate relationship with her own body, but helped to expand her ideas of beauty as well. The video opens with Rison saying, “I was just listening to a song last night that says, ‘I am not my hair. I am not my skin. I am not my clothes. I am the beauty within.’ I try to embody that.”
In viewing Rison’s work, one immediately is struck with the variation of her models’ sizes, ages, races, etc. “I am drawn to the unique beauty and confidence of individuals. We know what we look like, isn’t it more interesting to be introduced to more?” This is another way in which Rison opposes institutional or societal “norms.”
Modeling for classes is also how she was introduced to sculpture. Once again modeling in exchange for admission to a class, Rison tried her hand at clay and was hooked. She works with both water and oil-based clay. Once the clay is fired, she mingles her talents and paints the surfaces. She occasionally will have a piece cast in bronze, and patinaed. Rison quickly excelled at the new medium and has been featured in several shows and sculptural competitions, including the Figure Sculpture United recent portrait competition, in which she claimed second place.
(photos by Heather Hopkins)
Working in three dimensions drew Rison back to a more photo realistic approach to her art. In her most recent work, “Shine,” for which she was awarded the American Women Artists associate member first place award, Rison wanted to challenge herself. “I wanted to see how realistic and technical I could really paint.” The artist says the piece is the work she is thus far most proud of. “Shine” is a 48 x 48 in. portrait of one of the artist’s close friends. In the portrait, the model is adorned with clothing that both represents her current home in America, as well as her roots in Zimbabwe. She is presented alone in a hotel room, one foot up on an ottoman, raising a fist that is recognized as the symbol for Black power. Rison portrays the model in solitude, rather than in a public space to reference the quiet conversations one must have with themselves about their own character and morals. Rison notes that as the work was painted at the height of the Black Lives Matter movement, it is often perceived as a BLM portrait. Which, she says, “it is, but it’s more than that.” Rison doesn’t want to tell her viewers how to interpret her works, she likes the idea of the differing perceptions individuals make and encourages people to investigate what that says about themselves. “If it triggers you, okay, ask yourself why. Sit with it.” “Shine” is currently on view at the Springville Museum of Art, until July 2 in their annual Spring Salon. Rison will also be participating in the Sculpture in the Park show in Loveland, Colorado, August 12-14. She offers private, as well as group lessons, and does commission work upon request.
Rison is an inspiring reminder to not be held back by rules or expectations. Like the title of her prize piece, she truly shines in all avenues.
You’ll find more of the artist’s work at www.risonart.com and on Instagram (@risonart and @risonart-woodenjewlery).
Heather Hopkins recently received her BA in Art History from the University of Utah. She is also an arts writer for Southwest Contemporary. When she isn’t lost in a museum or art gallery, she can be found hiking and camping with her wife and their cat.