CGP Community Stories

Christine Heller, November 26, 2017

Title

Christine Heller, November 26, 2017

Subject

Art
Activism
Suffrage Movement
New York History
Cooperstown, New York
Refugee Crisis
Students
Local Politics
Ethnic Relations
Community

Description

Christine Heller is an artist currently based in Cooperstown, New York. She came to this area in the 1970s with her husband, Marc Heller. While her art is her first allegiance, Christine Heller has also spent time teaching at various colleges and universities including Hartwick College and SUNY Oneonta. Many of her art pieces are installations, paintings, drawings, and murals and have been featured in art museums and schools across the United States. From 2005 through 2017, her subjects have included Syrian refugees, suffragists, children, dancers, and the cost of war. She combines powerful subjects through her art with activism and hopes to use art to educate others and break down barriers. Christine Heller is also involved in local community groups and activist groups, especially related to local politics.

In this oral history, Christine Heller describes several of her art pieces. She discusses her process and details impactful moments during the creation of various pieces. Heller explains in detail her work on New York State suffragists. She describes their history, her creation process, and the impact she hopes to have as she still feels the work of the suffragists is highly relevant today. Christine Heller also recollects some moments about art shedding light on moments between different ethnic groups and how art can bring people together, especially kids. Another topic discussed is Christine Heller’s involvement in activist groups, her creation of an activist calendar for the local community, and some of their projects in 2017. Some of her artwork can be viewed on her website: https://www.christinehellerstudio.com/

I interviewed Christine Heller at her home in Cooperstown, New York. She had just finished a show featuring her portraits of suffragists and is preparing for another show featuring the suffragists, so they were a notable topic. The interview occurred the weekend after Thanksgiving, and so some family members were still visiting the house when the interview occurred. As a result, the recorder picked up some background noise despite us being far away, but Christine Heller’s voice is never overshadowed by that noise.
I have slightly edited the transcription to modify some run-on sentences and remove false starts unless I felt they conveyed important sentiments. While quoting a Latino collaborator for one of her murals, Christine Heller quotes his use of a slur regarding African Americans when referring to the injustices Latinos faced in Denver, Colorado. The word is only used once and I have partially censored it, but as it was clearly a quote from someone else and I believe it emphasizes the discrimination that community faced, I have kept it in the transcript. It was impossible to reproduce fully Heller’s sentiments and passion about her artwork, activism, and experiences, so researchers are encouraged to consult the audio recordings.

Creator

Brittany Boettcher

Publisher

Cooperstown Graduate Association, Cooperstown, New York

Date

2017-11-26

Rights

Cooperstown Graduate Association, Cooperstown, NY

Format

audio/mpeg
27.6MB
audio/mpeg
27.5MB
audio/mpeg
575KB
image/jpeg
123KB

Language

en-US

Type

Sound
Image

Identifier

17-002

Coverage

Christine Heller's Home
Cooperstown, NY
1950-2017

Interviewer

Brittany Boettcher

Interviewee

Christine Heller

Location

Cooperstown, NY

Transcription

CH = Christine Heller
BB = Brittany Boettcher

[START OF TRACK 1, 0:00]

BB:
Alright, today is November 26th, 2017, the interview of Christine Heller by Brittany Boettcher for the Cooperstown Graduate Program's Community Stories Project, recorded at Christine Heller's home in Cooperstown, New York. To start off with, can you please tell me a little bit about yourself and where you're from?

CH:
My name is Christine Heller; I live in Cooperstown. I came here many years ago as a young artist and I hadn't finished my education and wanted to get my MFA so I was away for two years in Philadelphia at the Tyler School of Art, which is a part of Temple University's system. That was wonderful and I came back here and then looked for teaching jobs and more show possibilities, and have been working here and for a while we moved to western Massachusetts. And I lived in Hudson, New York for a couple of years. For a couple of winters, we lived in Denver, which was an interesting experience in a totally different part of the country. Meanwhile, I've been doing my art. I was an installation artist coming out of graduate school, which meant I made sculptures and paintings and drew on the wall. When I had my children, I did very small paintings and small sculptures. Some of the sculptures were made into bronze. I worked with Terry Slade at Hartwick College because I was teaching there a few courses a year. I went back to installation after my kids were old enough so I could be out, because when you do an installation you shift to show up for a week and then be there working for a week. Then my work evolved into murals [clears throat]. Then I started doing portraits when my younger brother was dying. I just felt I didn't know him very well. I wanted him to look at the pictures we had of him as a child and so I started drawing him from the photographs and my family and then they became paintings. That led into [pause], it was so sad [pause], I just couldn't take it anymore, looking at my younger brother. It was so sad, so I started working from photographs in the news. In the New York Times, every day there's quite a dramatic photograph on the front page. And I used those photographs of like a Pakistani woman who was in a flood, and she was standing in a line with all women, all beautiful colorful saris, but they were homeless and the tents where they lived, the refugee tents, were in the background. They were holding plates in line for food, and this one women's head was down. It was so beautiful, so I painted her and I found other [pause] people who were struggling with, one women's son was shot in a park in New Jersey, and he was an A student. He was a young black man. There was another coal miner in West Virginia who had just lost his job. I have a profile of him with his hat on. A mother in Kyrgyzstan, whose son was killed by [pause], I guess he was in a rebel group and the government forces killed him. It seems sort of perverse in a way, for some reason, I felt like I was part of the river of life. I had just jumped into this huge river that so many other people were in and maybe we'll all be in eventually. Struggle and suffering and, you know, you can't compare suffering, I think. You could say well “you're in a warm house, and your country wasn't threatened,” but I still feel that I felt a common bond with these people who I was drawing and painting. And it keeps one sort of humble, I think. Like, when the first Gulf War started and my son was a newborn, and I was up in the middle of the night feeding him and [pause], I thought “Oh, my God I could so easily be a woman sitting or whatever, moving in a trench, homeless in Afghanistan, and here I am, I'm so lucky that I'm here sitting in this warm cozy house holding my baby and I'm safe.” I just feel that it's just by chance this happened. There's nothing that I did to bring me here. Of course I've studied and I've worked hard, but there's nothing that I actually did do to make me land here, rather than over there. So I feel, somehow connected but I also feel grateful that I'm not there and I feel terrible that people have to go through war and famine and suffering and homelessness. So then, I go in and out of painting phases. After I did the portrait series of my family, I started doing little abstract paintings on board. Then I think it was the summer of 2015, refugees started moving out of Syria and crossing into Europe in huge [numbers], I mean everybody remembers those photographs. I felt it was frightening to see people on the move, knowing they were homeless leaving Syria, a war torn country. I have to know who these people are, because it seems sort of frightening. So I started looking at photographs of them, closeups of them getting out of those boats, traveling in the water to get to Italy. I started drawing them, the mothers, the fathers, the children. And then I was asked to do a big mural at SUNY Oneonta, so I did a forty-two foot mural. Sort of cut-outs of people walking about life size, walking, walking, walking along the panels, and then huge faces. The faces were like six to seven feet high, superimposed on those painted cutout figures of people walking, which to me represented people walking into Europe. But, I love being there with the students, and one of the students said well, her impression was that those people walking were us, the viewers, just watching the Syrians and we’re powerless. We're so powerless to do much. I felt that was really interesting. That's what's really fun about teaching. I like to teach from time to time, but I am an artist and I feel my first allegiance is to my art because [chuckles] I'm an introvert. When I teach it's so exhausting for me; we were just talking about this, it takes me quite a while to recoup my energies, but I do love it. I love being there. That mural was January 2016 and I’ve done a couple of murals the two years before that. One was in Denver, I got a grant from the [Urban Art Fund]. It was a graffiti [eradication] program. It was a Hispanic neighborhood and they were trying to paint the graffiti away, you know paint the walls where there was graffiti and then have an artist come in and do murals. The owner of the restaurant was great. He wanted Aztec imagery, so I studied up on it. We conferred with what he wanted and I copied the arch. There was an archway that was the entranceway into the restaurant and then I copied those arches across the wall in [trompe l’oeil], so they looked real. People looking at the photographs say “Oh wow! How did you [chuckles] get them? Oh, you just filled in the arches because those arches were already there.” And I said “No! I painted those arches, then I filled the area in with the imagery of a temple, the sun.” There was a jumping fox who represented fire, so that was interesting. I was working one day and there was a motorcycle group that came up and one young kid, he was the age of my son, jumped off the motorcycle and he said “you mean, how can you do this?” meaning I was white. It seems like a Chicano, they called themselves Chicano, it wasn’t a dismissive term for them. He said “It seems like a Chicano woman would have to do this.” And I said, “Well, I just, you know, love art and I talked to Marco the owner and we came to this." I thought it was interesting that he questioned this crossover, that why should I be able to do that because I'm not Hispanic. And it's coming up a lot now in conversation. I feel Mudbound, a novel that's written by a white woman that's about whites and blacks in the South. I guess the director [of the film version] was questioned, she’s a black woman, and she said, “How can Hilary Jordan, the writer, write about black people, cuz she's white?" and luckily the director who's black explained it and said, “We can definitely write about or paint forms of other kinds of cultures or about other people's lives and that's how we understand them. We don't necessarily all have to be white or black or Hispanic.” I thought that was a really good answer. I also got that when I was finalist for a mural in Washington DC, an inner city middle school. I've always been interested in movement and dance, because I want to be those people moving, I want that energy. I was even drawing soccer players, at one point football players. They’re always from the news or any sort of paperwork I could get from Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival. I was finalist for the mural for the middle school and I used all hip hop dancers or street dancers. And maybe one young woman was white, but the rest of them were black. And I didn’t really think about that, those are the people that I draw all the time anyway. And I made a model of this; it was a stairway in the hall of the stair with a landing and then another stairway up. I made a model and [chuckles] and I wheeled it on a cart and this one woman looked at me and said “You mean you're not black!? I'm surprised! You're not black and you do this?" Again it was just interesting to be confronted by that. I said “No, I just love the energy, I love the dancers, you know?” In some way, I chose specifically maybe for that school, I knew that they would want kind of hip dancers, street dancers. It would appeal to middle school kids. Unfortunately, I didn't get the commission [laughs], ’cause they were worried that kids were going to get so energetic from the images that they'd leap over the bannisters. My idea was that, what I think was that if that person can leap like that, I ought to be able to do what I need to do in my life. So I was thinking, maybe that could be transferred to the kids, the middle schoolers, but anyway, so it’s just an interesting aside about the issue of like segregating ourselves from each other and why does it have to happen? And maybe it doesn't have to happen and [pause], so anyway that was the mural and then there was a mural the year before that at a Montessori school in Key West, which was lucky. I mean January in Key West, where else would you want to be? [laughs] I mean I worked really hard, it was a sixty foot mural and I didn't really have that much time. I went to the beach once one afternoon, but it was great. What I did, I started with a couple of images of children running and jumping on the wall. Once the kids in the schools saw those drawings, they were outlines and then I painted in the outline, they said “Christine look! Take a picture of me running across!” and I said “Ok, great!” I'd take pictures and then at night I'd process them and get them ready to project the next day. Then we started talking about colors. The kids went from one part of the school to the other for classes, and so I'd say “Look at that green! Do you have anything pink you could wear tomorrow?” Or “Look what you have on, you have that yellow and look how it goes with the blue. If you could just run by that guy in blue and I'd get you,” so it was really fun. It was a lot of work, because I had to hustle for the images and compose on sight. It was a little tricky, a little stressful that way ’cause I don't work from a drawing that I grid out and then fill in. I like it to be sort of dynamic. I just do that, that's how I like to work. It's sort of high stress. It's like a performance, but luckily now when I do these things, people see them, people see me doing it. Because in the old days when I did installations, I used to think setting it up was the performance and when the opening came, the performance was over with. I think the excitement for me is over with, it's finished, all the questions have been answered. Now working in public, people come by and say things and it's fun because you say, “What do you think about this?” or I might be stuck on the composition like “how am I going to fit this in?” Although with the refugee mural I painted maybe a third of the space in my studio with the same color paint, the gray background, and the height was ten and half feet. So I got a stretch done, so I had a sense of how big those faces had to be. But, then when I got on site, I mean the ceiling was lower than in my studio and it was a big foyer with people walking and chairs for the students to sit around. So I had to scale up a bit, I had to make some changes on site, even with the small part that I had sort of prepared. I find that interesting. That's what’s so exciting about murals, it has to work for the site. You know, you're not just slapping a painting up that you've already done, you might as well just put that painting up, what's the point you know? And there's something about drawing on the wall that is just incredible. I mean, you saw it in my studio, I think, Brittany, last week when we went down to the big studio. When you're in the presence of these huge images, the space in front of the wall is activated somehow and becomes-it's not three dimensional, it's two dimensional but it feels alive. If I were to do the same images and on canvas and then even hang them up, not stretch them, but hang them up or on paper that could unroll, it wouldn't be the same because your eye would say, “Oh yeah, she did that on paper and it's just two dimensional.” But when it's painted on the wall, I don't know, to me it's almost like magic. There's something magical that happens that makes it feel so different and so alive. Even though some of my murals get painted over, I still like to do it. And then sometimes I'll talk to my husband, Marc, after and I'll say, “Maybe next time I ought to do it on canvas so I can bring it home and don’t have to leave it there.” We always talk about this, but I haven't found anything that I really like to use that would satisfy my urge to do it on the wall. And I love being on ladders [laughs]. That's a lot of talking, so I don't know if you have any questions in all that, Brittany. I can just keep on going you know, but you might have some questions, specific or from your sheet.

BB:
Sure, do you think that because one of your images is on a mural, that it has an especially profound impact, especially when dealing with bigger issues such as the refugees?

CH:
You mean versus as being a painting, like a small painting or even a larger painting?

BB:
Yeah and in a public place, and what are the different impacts depending on the medium?

CH:
Yeah, I think it's great to be out in the world with it and out in the public space, ’cause sometimes we talk about galleries and museums as sort of rarified places, you know. When I was at Roanoke College, the gallery and art building was way off from the main campus. Because I had a meal ticket, I could go to the cafeteria and I slept in another place. I walked into the cafeteria building, I guess it was the student center, and I thought “This is where I should be doing the mural, right in the middle where the kids are standing in line.” They could be looking, there was a stairway there. It just would have been even more alive and so many people would've seen it. I was really stuck way off toward the edge of the campus. A lot of classes came. They worked really hard to coordinate classes to come over, and I spoke to drawing and painting classes. I even taught a couple of drawing classes so that pulled in another group of people. I didn't teach it in the gallery, which would've been another interesting thing too, you know? That's something to think about, and this may be something you guys think about, like is how do you get more people involved in shows and also these topics that are sort of timely about environmental crises, or this refugee crisis. In SUNY Oneonta, when I did the refugee faces on the wall, that forty-two foot mural, some students didn't really know about the problem, so that was helpful for people. I don't know if that answers your question. I think it is important to be out in the world with the art, and I think artists can make a difference by focusing on some of these really difficult issues. Does that answer your question? I almost forgot what the question was.

BB:
Yeah it does.

CH:
Ok, good.

BB:
Can you talk about when you make art, are there any goals that you're aiming to achieve or wishes for reactions to the art?

CH:
The goals and reactions... I guess one of the goals is by working large, it may be to try to pull in some people who may not [pause] be involved in art. To me there's something really exciting about large. I mean I know when I was a younger artist, I did those big installations. I think it was to prove to myself that I was really an artist. Now, I feel like it just has an impact, the size. So the goal may be, especially on the social justice issues, the refugees, and now I'm working on suffrage, the centennial of the vote for women in New York State. The drawings that I made for that are small and they're framed. Then there was a series of prints made from the Mylar drawings, but for one of the places I showed, it was the History Center in Ithaca, they wanted a mural and they had a wall, eight feet wide by ten feet high. I like ten feet. That's good because it's easy; ladders are great up to ten feet. I think it made a difference in there. I had two big faces of local women, Louisa Lord Riley, who was unknown completely outside of the Ithaca region, but she worked really hard and then there was a state leader who also was a national leader, Matilda Joslyn Gage. The two of them were sort of facing each other, and I think it was right at the doorway. So people are just like "Whoa, look at those women." I painted it over when I left, like two months after I put the work up, but I felt that it [the mural] gave these women a certain power and recognition because one thing about working with the suffragists, so many of them are completely unknown. I mean Louisa Lord Riley, the archivist knows who she is, she got me the picture, there's one photograph of her. Matilda Joslyn Gage was we call “the forgotten suffragist,” because she was fairly radical. She felt Christianity really kept women down, that [it] pushed women down, [it said that] men are more important, men should be out in the world, women should be in the home. So she was basically written out of the history of suffrage, so that was satisfying for me to have her really big. And Louise Lord Riley who basically started a suffrage club in Ithaca. She came from New Jersey when her son was at Cornell. She said “Hey, there's no suffrage group here,” so she started a group, but there was a backlash because people were against women voting. I guess men didn't want their wives out in the world. So she compromised and said, "We're having a women's club, but every few weeks we'll talk about suffrage on the side" [laughs]. It seems funny now, but it's true. Anyways, so one of the goals is like those two images of those two women really brought attention to the rest of the work so I thought it was quite useful to have them in the show. At the Arkell Museum in Canajoharie, it was the work alone, but that was a beautiful show and gray walls. It was a wonderful show and it was a great place to work. I guess that's one of the goals and to connect with people and basically a lot of it is on the spot when I'm working. I usually give a talk when I put up a show, so that's another way to connect with people. I guess with the suffrage work, the people who show up are older, they're probably voters. I guess a goal for this particular work is to connect with younger people, high school students, college students, anybody up to like age 35. Like this is what these women did and how long they worked and how hard it was. I think they're sort of relying on us to vote as women. I feel like when they're staring at me, because the images are so intense, they're looking at me all the time like "Are you keeping up our legacy?" and I say "I'm trying, you know?" [chuckles]. So that is a goal, trying to get out in the world with the work and connect with people about the vote and how difficult it was and how contemporary those issues are. It doesn't seem so dead history, I mean what they were working on is so alive. Some of the things we've achieved, but a lot we haven't as women. For example, the ERA, the Equal Rights Amendment, was, they started working on that, Alice Paul, right after the Nineteenth Amendment was passed and ratified in 1920. It was never passed and ratified, it got into the seventies, early eighties, I don't know how many states were onboard with it but it ran out of, the momentum was lost. I don't understand it and I should know that. You know, like what happened then? I feel like if we could've worked just a little a bit harder it might've been achieved. And the other thing I'd like to covey to young people, especially because I've heard young women who don't vote they say, “Well my vote isn't important" and I'm thinking "Oh my God" because I know at least on the local level, we just had an election where one woman won by five votes and somebody else lost by eight. We worked really hard to get somebody in, it's just a local town council person on a write-in candidacy in the Town of Middlefield, which is to the east of Cooperstown. So that's sort of a goal with this particular work is to try to get people engaged and interested in the vote and the electoral process, like what is all this. Because they wanted to get the vote for women, so women could then change divorce laws, get property rights, get custody rights, stuff that wasn't available to them. But the other thing is getting women in office, it's really important. Women approach the world differently, and their approaches are really important and essential I think, to work collaboratively with other women and other men. So that's something in this particular work is a goal, is to be out in the world with it or out speaking to students. I met the principal of the high school at one of the suffrage programs that CGP and League of Women voters organized, so I'm going to speak to the students during Women's History Month, so that's exciting. I'm excited, I like to speak to students. I tell them any question is good, I don't mind any question, it doesn't matter. I usually get a lot of questions. I guess that's the answer to that question about goals.

[START OF TRACK 2, 30:00]

BB:
Can you talk more about some of the connections you've had while working on portraits or through talking to students and things like that?

CH:
Some of the connections?

BB:
Yeah.

CH:
Let's see… That's an interesting question. I mean, at SUNY Oneonta I did speak with several classes. They were all art classes. I wanted to connect with other departments, but it just didn't work out. People I guess have a syllabus set up and I mean I thought “God, I’m a living artist, I'm on site, come on! Bring me your students,” you know? So that was a connection I sort of failed in and I felt like I wasn't able to get traction with other departments. Let’s see, that's an interesting question, because sometimes the connections last sort of while I'm on site and then it's over with. But any connections that I make with artists, sometimes those live on because we help each other connect. Like the show I'm going to next month, I'll take the work to Time and Space Limited in Hudson. And the women who run that, it's an art center. They do films, they do the HD Opera programs. They do a lot in the neighborhood. There's a Bangladeshi population there. They do a lot of things. They have lots of children's classes and they invite all the children. There are lots of races and ethnicities there. They're so great with the kids. I know because my daughter worked their one summer, so I saw it from that point of view. Because I never really worked with the kids there, so that's something I will be talking to them about. Can I get those kids? And even if they're little, I'll just change the talk so I engage the littler ones too. ’Cause there's all sorts of great stories about the suffragists. I guess that’s to answer that question.

BB:
I'm really interested in hearing more about your thoughts, earlier you mentioned the surprise reaction when they found out you were working on pieces of art for different ethnic groups. I'm wondering, how you felt about when people asked you about that?

CH:
How I felt about people asking me about, like the Chicano question. I felt maybe it was just me as a white person, also I don't think the guy knew how old I was. He was a kid, he was my son's age. I had my sunglasses on and a hat. You know, he called me "Chicano chick" you know? So there's that thing too, about age, like different age groups. I think it's important to mix age groups and races and ethnicities. So, I don't know, maybe that was something for him where he saw things a little differently. I don't know. It's funny because, I wondered if Marco Martin as the owner, if he got some kind of negative reaction from the community because I asked him the following year if we could also get together and write a grant, and I never heard from him. And he's on Facebook too, and so I see him so it's not like he died or fell off the side of the Earth. I thought maybe there's some kind of backlash, that the community saying "Next time, can you please put a Hispanic or Chicano person in there?" And I don't blame him either, because he said to me and this is his words, "In the 70's, we were the N****** in Denver. There were very few blacks," but he said “The Hispanics were treated terribly, stopped by the police the way blacks are now." And they’ve worked so hard to make a place for themselves and Marco Martin, he was born in this country. His mother was Native American, his father was from Mexico, but he was born here. I mean he's as American as any of us. It's just sort of heartbreaking to know how they were treated, I mean my God. I don't blame people for wanting to have their own groups. When there was the open house for the mural, Marco's relatives came and they all have businesses and they all go to each others' businesses. I mean, why shouldn't they do that? They've been treated horribly and they need to be together and they need to succeed and they want their kids to succeed. That's really interesting. So I'm just standing here as this white person, you know, and again it's by chance. I mean I know that one of my great, great, great, great, great grandfathers was quote unquote "given" a Native American young woman to marry. There was some kind of a trade because my ancestor helped the Native American chief with something and he was so grateful that he offered his two daughters to the two sons of my ancestor, and that's how that happened. But that's gone, that link to that ancestor is so tenuous. There's one picture of this woman, but now there's talk that maybe it was another line of the family, so the story may not even be right. My feeling about world peace is that I think it's so important that we know other people, and I know it's difficult in Cooperstown because it is so homogeneous, that we know about other kinds of people and have other kinds of friends, that we open ourselves up, that people marry other races or people from other countries or other religions. I think that's the only hope [chuckles] because it's like gays. I think that's why the gays have been so embraced by the country, because everybody has a few gay people in their family. We all love them and so when it came time for the Supreme Court to discuss gay marriage, I mean everybody's "Oh yeah, I love my cousin. I want him to be able to marry his partner who he's been with for twenty years." I don't know how to speed that up, because it almost feels like sometimes people close down more, like right now at this time in history people are closed down and are sort of pulling back and becoming more tribal. But I don't like that all. I feel like it's we gotta go the other direction. So anyway, that way went off question [laughs], but that's just how I feel.

BB:
That actually, I was thinking about asking you too how you think we should approach becoming more open and inclusive and encouraging, kind of multicultural interactions and things like that.

CH:
I think that doing art projects together with kids. I know that the Hudson neighborhood has the Bangladesh kids, the black kids, oh I don't know, I’ve sort of forgotten. I remember my daughter was working there, she said there's this one little girl ran up and said "Where is Trudy?" and the other little girl said "Well, what color is she? I don't know Trudy, but what color she is?" because there were all the shades of dark and all colors, you know. And I thought that is so great! It's not like "Oh she's the Hispanic" or "She's the black kid." Oh, it's just like "What color is her hair?" but let's say it was referring to her skin, it was great. It was like it didn't matter as a group. I mean she had her own color, you know, whatever it was mix of whatever and I thought well that's the way it should be like, individuals. So I'm thinking maybe while I’m in Hudson, I can work with the kids and so I think they do that already ’cause they invite the neighborhood kids and they get the mix. But I think it's more difficult when the areas are segregated, so I'm not sure. I don't really know about that other than getting art out on the street. And getting the kids to actually take part in a mural out on the street. If they're neighborhood kids bring kids in who are from different areas of the world and everybody's working next to each other, that's the way to do it I think. You know, one kid next to another and they all see, "Oh yeah, this is not as easy or this is really easy" or "Watch out you might spill something" or "I'll clean it up for you," you know, that sort of thing. Because people are just people, that's what I feel. It's just heartbreaking when things break down. There are wars and why, you know. I guess it's about resources and maybe climate change now, but man. So the question is too, how can I as an individual in Cooperstown do anything about any of that? It’s a rhetorical question.

BB:
Do you take kind of that question into consideration when you think about your next art subject or design?

CH:
Yeah, that's a good question because how does the next project come. Because stuff is sort of organic for me almost. Especially these issues of war and social justice. Something will hit me, like when I was doing a show at Emma Willard School in Troy and I had decided to show some of my older installations so I rebuilt some of them and then put pictures, photographs in of what it actually looked like when it was complete. And then the director, because the gallery, you had to walk through it to get to the library so that was great so people were seeing me work. Then the director of the gallery said, "There's also all of this, there's a hallway that turns left off this gallery, that goes to the tunnel, that goes to the cafeteria. So when the weather's bad, the students, they were all female students, could walk into the tunnel to get to the cafeteria," and he said, "you could use all that too." And at the same moment I saw, or the same week, I saw a photograph in The New Yorker of a young woman who had no leg because it had been blown off in the Iraq War; it was early days of the second not the Gulf War, but the Iraq War after George [W.] Bush became president or was president. And I saw this young woman and I thought, "Oh my God, this could be my daughter." It's like this visceral feeling, so from that I made an installation about the Iraq War and it was somewhat abstract because there were these cloth figures that were five to six feet high hanging, they looked dead or limp. It was called "America Comes Home" and it was about people coming home dead or maimed. So that's how that project came about and there were two more installations about the war, one about Iraqi children and how did they survive in the war. You know, there were no photographs of them. We weren't allowed to see what was happening with Iraqi children. They didn't want, because I think if a child with a bandage. I found little thumbnail photographs on the internet, but if some of those photographs had been on the front page of the Times, I think it would have really made a difference to the war, it might have helped bring it to an end. Well, I described how I came to the refugee mural, and the suffrage work. In the fall, Hilary Clinton was vying for the presidency and it was in October and I thought, "Wow, there must have been so many women who helped to get her to that point, and I'm sure there are people we don't know.” I mean there are hundreds of people who worked. We don't know who they are and they're sort of heroes and that's how I got involved with the suffragists. I started digging into that and then I realized it was the centennial, the hundredth anniversary, in 2017, of us getting the vote in the state. So that's how that project came about and I'm thinking now that there were so many women I wasn't able to draw or I started to draw or I did draw in the early stages before the project coalesced into New York State suffragists that I think I'm going start working on the women who were really important to getting the Nineteenth Amendment passed and ratified. I know a lot of these women I've done overlap into that group too because it just kept working. I'm hoping to find other women, because they were everywhere, every tiny village and hamlet. I would also like to think about the history of why did Colorado get the vote decades before we did here, and I sort of superficially know that some of those western states, Wyoming, they were a territory, they didn't have the number. They needed a certain number threshold to become a state, so they gave women the vote maybe as a way to get them out there. The ratio was one woman to six men. They needed women to make families with the men so they gave them the vote and I'm jealous. [chuckles] It was like in the 1870s. It was amazing! I mean we were in the forefront in terms of the 1848 Seneca Falls Convention. There's so much here that happened for suffrage but to think that those states out there, those women were voting it's like "Wow, unbelievable," so I want to dig into that, so that's where my work will go next. So there are these visceral things that happen to me and that sometimes creates a direction.

BB:
Yeah, that's super interesting. Last time we talked, you also mentioned your involvement in activist groups, I think especially in Colorado? I was wondering if you could talk about that a little bit more.

CH:
Actually in Colorado, I wasn't involved because we weren't there for long enough. To be an activist, I think you have to be in the community. Well, after [Donald J.] Trump was elected, there were so many, well not elected, but inaugurated, there were so many things happening around here. Lectures about environmental issues and "We need to look at this" and rallies and marches. So I saw all this stuff coming in my email, and there were four activist groups that started Positive Action Cooperstown and there's one in Cherry Valley and so I joined those on Facebook. They're closed groups, you have to be okayed to be a member. So I started an activist calendar I call it and I just collated the various events that I saw coming at me from different sources. I just do that every Sunday, it comes out Monday. I have a listserv. I have these four Facebook pages. There's Sustainable Otsego, I give it to their listserv so it goes out too, I don't know who sees that. This is week forty-three [laughs]. I'm thinking, because there's like this deadline. And I've had a lot of shows this year, it's been a lot of deadlines it's been like "Whoa!" and then we had this huge Thanksgiving with fifteen people here from all over the country and Vienna, Austria and I'm thinking "Oh, man." But I'm so upset about what's happening. That fuels me. "Ok, so what? You had all these people for Thanksgiving and the house is sort of chaotic and they're still here" [laughs]. You know, you have to just keep going for my activist calendar, and the suffragists were such role models. Like, just keep going! When they lost the 1915 vote in the New York State legislature, they were convinced they were going to get the vote that year and they didn't. And one of them said "We're not falling back, we're falling forward," so in two years they got the vote, they got the New York State Legislature to vote for women to have the vote. I just think, we just keep going. Now, I was thinking "Maybe there'll be a break this week even" ’cause this week I said "No activist calendar this week! It's Happy Thanksgiving" and then a couple people wrote "You know don't forget next Wednesday, a week from Wednesday is this going on?" And I'm thinking "Oh wow! So people do seem to like it." And what I expect is that if people are really busy, to just delete it. Because you can't follow all this stuff all the time, but once in a while there are some people who say they read it. And I always put something at the end like some little special thing either to do or to call or a book to read like On Tyranny by Timothy Snyder. That's a great book about things we can do, simple things we can do right now to keep the country from drifting into fascism. It's about community engagement, a lot of it being involved politically on the local level, going to lectures at the library, films, or whatever, just being out. You know, it's easy here I feel because we're a cohesive community and I think it's easier. I know people who are in cities, I have a friend who is in LA. It's hard for her, she's sort of isolated in a way in her own little bubble. It's hard for her to kind of get traction. But there are local groups, like our local- my address is Cooperstown, but I live in the Town of Middlefield which is the township, I think you call it. So the activists got somebody elected for our town council by write-in vote, so that was amazing. We really worked for that. Actually, Marc [Heller, her husband] did more than I did because I was so busy with the suffrage stuff, but he was doing envelopes, and stamping stuff. That's how that calendar came about. I'm going to reassess when it's week fifty-two, but I'm in my forty-third week. It doesn't totally correspond to Trump because after Trump was inaugurated, I think for ten days I blasted out something to do, who to call, call our Congressman [John] Faso. Then after that, I thought "Wow I can't keep this pace up, something everyday" because I like to research. If I put something on the calendar, I wanna have the full address and phone numbers. And I don't like to have any errors, so I'm sort of compulsive about that. [chuckles] Anyway, so that's the whole thing about what I'm doing right now.

BB:
Can you elaborate a little bit more about some of the projects or activities that you guys are working on with the groups or focusing on?

CH:
We focus on like getting local people elected. So there was a huge amount of activity before the elections because there were all these different groups. And now we'll be working towards the 2018 election and Congressman Faso has his Congressional district, it looks like an octopus so it goes from here where it's sort of the western edge or the western arm of it and some arms go north, some arms go down the Hudson, so that's what we're really working on now. I tried not to do any email over the holiday, you know there was too much going on anyway with Thanksgiving but, I saw a couple things coming through like about next week we're going to have meet and greets for the people who have already declared their running against Faso, so these things are happening. People aren't letting up, which is good. There's no break between Thanksgiving and Christmas. When we had this great election night crowd gather at The Shack out on Route 28 and Richard Sternberg who has been instrumental in getting everybody going. He's a retired physician, and he said "Ok, great!" He stood up and said "Ok, you guys, this is exciting. We've made some progress, but tomorrow it's back to work" and he said “Just remember, it's like the Macy's Day parade," [chuckles] "the day after the parade, they're talking about what's going, who's going, what balloons are going to be in next year." So I thought that was great, because it's like "Ok yeah, break for a minute." And there's another group I'm involved with. It's called Cooperstown Gives and it's just a loose group of people, and it hasn't gotten any bigger. It's like twenty-five people who get together once a month at Stagecoach Coffee, 7:30-8:30 the last Tuesday of the month. And we choose the month before which group we want to give, we chip in for whatever group. So we have, let's see, there's women's rights, environmental, or it's I think we have categories like refugee issues. And people bring up groups they would like to support and we chip in whatever you want. So that group, actually we're having a little party this week coming up to celebrate the year but that's the night of, we're starting a Middlefield Caucus that night, which I don’t totally understand, but the caucus, I guess, is a group of people that will know what offices are open and we need to put these people up ahead of time and not get to the point where we're doing a write-in candidacy because that's way too cumbersome. So that's the idea of that. That we'll be sort of looking forward and not just picking up, running to get caught up. That we'll be ready for whatever elections come up. So that's sort of exciting. But that's the night that of Cooperstown Gives’ celebration, but it's ok. You know, it's ok. [Laughs]

BB:
[Laughs] To find like a balance between-

CH:
Yeah, right.

BB:
I think we are running towards the end of our time.

CH:
Ok.

BB:
This is more of a final wrap-up question. How do you think attitudes towards social issues have changed over the years?

CH:
It's interesting because when I was in college in the seventies, like the first Earth day was 1970 and I thought "Oh this is so great" and you know we were fighting the Vietnam War, but I thought things were just going to go up chink-cachink-cachink-up, up, up. Like people would get more freedoms, more rights, and responsibilities with those rights, but it feels like this is a time of backlash to that era. Like, I mean it's been coming you know? And this is sort of like "Whoaaaa" so I feel like I like the idea of progress in these things but I feel that some people are threatened by that idea that everybody would have healthcare and I don't know what that problem is, but really, really wealthy people do not want to pay for people who are underprivileged. There's this zeitgeist now about "If somebody's poor, it's their fault" quote unquote and I thought like “Where did that come from? That is horrible.” That is so horrible. I just feel, I'm a little discouraged, [chuckles] a lot discouraged. But I just, like I put my head down and do the suffrage work and do the local stuff and hope that things will change. There'll be a turn, like the ship will turn, but it's going to be -you know it’s hard to turn a ship, it's gonna take some time. I feel like I'm really worried about my kids. Like the gun issue. You know, if I get shot, I’ve had a great life. I mean, I've had all sorts of problems, this and that, but, basically on balance, I'm just worried about them. My son’s in Colorado, I worry about the gun laws out there and my daughter's in Washington DC, I guess they're pretty good there. But that's what I'm worried about, is the next generation. I don't want to be a crabby old lady, I want to be generous to young women because when I was young—sometimes people can be nasty, women. And I just feel like, I don't want to be like that. I want to be nice to people. I want to try to nurture young people, young women, and let them know that they can do what they need to do or what they want to do and things are open for them and all you have to do is set your goal and work on it and try to find friends who support you and don't try to pull you down. So that's also a goal. I want to be a generous person as I get older and I don't know maybe if people get in pain or something they have to be crabby, but I would just like to be generous as I get older, generous to young woman.

BB:
Do you feel you try to reflect this through your artwork?

CH:
When I speak about it I think. That's what I try to do, I try to open up the question, take any question and then try to get yeah, I got a couple of Cornell students to come to the lecture in Ithaca, but I really wanted more people you know? And I met that woman here through a friend whose father lives in Ithaca.

[START OF TRACK 3, 60:00]

CH:
So that was fun for me, that connection. So I felt like I wasn’t the crabby old lady, I was nice to her [laughs]. My God, not that old yet, but I’m getting there. [laughs] I see the future you know? So anything else you wanted to know?

BB:
I think that is about it, but thank you so much for taking the time to talk to me today. I appreciate it.

CH:
Thank you, Brittany for listening, ’cause I feel like once I got launched, I just kept going and I hope you got what you need.

BB:
Yeah, it’s been great.

CH:
Ok, thanks so much.

Duration

30:00-Track 1
30:01-Track 2
00:36-Track 3

Bit Rate/Frequency

128 kbps
128 kbps
128 kbps

Time Summary

2:04, Art Inspiration
22:30, Suffrage
32:44, Ethnic Relations
47:15, Local Activism

Files

Citation

Brittany Boettcher, “Christine Heller, November 26, 2017,” CGP Community Stories, accessed April 23, 2018, http://cgpcommunitystories.org/items/show/326.