Valerie Hird is a graduate of RISD (BFA) and Vermont College (MFA). A native of Vermont, she has traveled extensively in the Middle East and Central Asia. Her work, which spans a variety of media, examines the roles of cultural mythologies in Eastern and Western societies. For more information, visit her website. Her Origination painting series will be on exhibit at the Nohra Haime Gallery from October 22 through November 15, 2014.
Helen Dwork: You’ve split your life between extensive travel and a home in Vermont. How do you juxtapose the two experiences, and how is that balance reflected in your work?
Valerie Hird: Balance in my work and my life remains elusive. I travel to feed my practice, to inform and inspire. When I’m in the studio too long, my work can start to lack substance. It becomes more formal and less specific. When I’ve been traveling too long, I become nervous and cranky without the studio time to sort through the jumbled warehouse of imagery and ideas that accumulate daily. Since life is seldom perfect, I tend to bounce between those two poles. Sometimes—during the painting process—I have the irrational feeling that I have found what I was searching for without ever being consciously aware that I was looking for it. My best work is, therefore, an organic struggle, centered in my desire to understand what I’ve seen and edged by enough studio hours to be able articulate an image effectively.
HD: How do your interactions with Eastern cultures and nomadic tribes reflect your perception and portrayal of Western culture?
VH: I was originally trained to be an archeological illustrator with a twinned passion for anthropology. I also grew up on a small family farm in rural Vermont. So I have a hard-wired interest in other cultures, and an appreciation for those who struggle daily with the vagaries of the natural environment. That said, I often feel like a stranger in a strange land. Viewing my own Western life though the lens of another culture is initially dislocating. It tends to shatter those cherished preconceptions we carry with us daily and makes room for a fresher focus.
HD: You’ve noted previously that your work made a shift from landscape to personal subjects. Recent works, however, have tended toward the biological, geological, and cosmological. What has influenced this shift?
VH: Actually, my recent work is the most personal work I’ve done. The decade of figurative work was dedicated to perceptions of Western heroic mythology. However, the perspectives of age nudged by disenchantment with the politics of the Middle East, pushed me to consider mythology from quite a different perspective. A bigger picture than the human-centric one that occupies the current media. After a lifetime of collecting creation narratives from different parts of the world, I found I had a few ideas of my own—inspired by my studies—but filtered through my own personal root of age and experience. I’m still based in Vermont and awed by the natural world and my uncertain place in it. I decided to create a myth that doesn’t rely on humanity’s relationship with the heroic, the gods, or religion. Instead, freed from moral narratives, I chose to focus on the natural world, and a more fundamental story of matter and energy endlessly interacting in space and time.
HD: Whether on a small or grand scale, your work explores and integrates diverse cultural narratives. What are your creative inspirations with regard to this approach?
VH: My mind is an evocative jumble of myths, facts, and fictions. I view and articulate my world through narrative. I read different books for different times of the day. I listen to contemporary fiction, and biographies on audio tape while working in the studio. When reviewing my painting, bits of dialogue will drift by in recollection as I peruse a brushstroke—even years later! My teaching method is based on metaphorical stories. So the integration you refer to is bone-deep and diverse. I’m particularly drawn to the works of A.S. Byatt, Hillary Mantel, Margaret Atwood, Gabriel García Márquez, Naguib Mahfouz, the Shahnemeh (Persian Book of Kings), the Morgan Beatus, and the Spanish Las Huelgas Apocalypsis. When traveling with nomads, I was sometimes gifted a new version of an old myth, like the Golden Fleece—told in a wholly original way. I love to tease a tale from a stranger. I can put up with a lot and travel far for a good story!
For a few years after posting the Maiden Voyages Project online, my inbox became the repository for unsolicited diary stories from all over the Middle East. And when I presented the project as a workshop abroad, students added their stories. I often feel possessed by layers of nesting narratives multiplying and conflating in my unconscious.
All of these different narratives influence my work at different times.
HD: You work with a vast range of concepts and media. Can you tell me about the process that leads from a work’s conception to its realization?
VH: The idea dictates the medium. It takes me about seven years to go from concept to realization. I seem to spend most of my life trying to simplify—to edit—my ideas. The editing process—the process of digging in and distilling an idea—can take me through quite a range of media. I wish I were a simpler person. But one form of media will never satisfy the hunt for effective articulation. I need access to a full vocabulary of visual media. As I approach my idea, I tend to metaphorically hold it, turn it over, and approach it from a number of different angles as I try to penetrate its essence. Which, as I said, can take a number of years and can result in a number of iterations using a variety of media
HD: What was the impetus to get an MFA nearly three decades after your BFA?
VH: They didn’t invent the MFA for studio art until long after I’d graduated. I was talked into it for its teaching credential. But honestly, going back was so good for me! I left art school at a time when empirical experience was the only essential to developing concept. I re-entered the world of academia as a student to find that that concept alone was the defining dictate. I got a crash course in critical thinking and learned a whole new vocabulary for discussing art. It’s like the aesthetic side of my brain got a total refit.
HD: You pursued your MFA while holding your current adjunct faculty positions at Saint Michaels College and the Community College of Vermont. How did the parallel experiences of being a teacher and student affect one another?
VH: Well, amusing on the one hand and totally dislocating on the other. I was much older than the usual MFA student. So on the one hand, I felt I was a bit sluggish mentally, not as up to speed on popular culture and current art trends as my younger MFA colleagues were. But fairly quickly the experience made me a sharper and more perceptive instructor back at Saint Michael’s and CCV… and a bit more appreciative of deadline pressures.
I will say, those two overlapping years spent pursing the MFA and teaching full time, were the most exhausting and exhilarating experiences of my life. I longed for a millennial-length nap and a comforting chocolate chip cookie the size of Nebraska.
Valerie Hird recently taught the workshop “Magical Realism in Watercolor” at the Art Students League. The League holds a number of weekend, evening, and week-long workshops, in which League instructors and prominent visiting artists work with intimate groups of about a dozen students. Workshops focus on a particular aspect of art-making or specific medium or techniques. A current schedule of upcoming workshops can be found here.
Valerie Hird, Beatus Garden, 2005. Gouache, watercolor, asphaltum, gesso, on BFK paper, 11 1/2 x 8 1/2 in.
Valerie Hird, Eternal Knot, 2013. Oil on linen, 48 x 60 in.
Valerie Hird, Yggdrasil, 2013. Watercolor, gouache, gesso, ink and gold on BFK paper in plexi box, 24 1/2 x 16 1/2 x 2 1/2 in.
Valerie Hird, Happy Picnic: Together in Paradise I, 2010. Oil paint on gessoed BFK paper, 16 x 16 in.
Valerie Hird, Third Day, 2011. Oil on canvas, 72 x 96 in.
Valerie Hird, Origination I, 2014. Oil on canvas, 96 x 120 in.