28 Jan Postcard from Paris – A conversation with Heather Hansen

A conversation with Ketchum fresco artist Heather Hansen, during her sojourn in Europe …. observations on frescoes in Italy and the artists’ community in Paris.

Heather Hansen is well-known in Idaho for her beautiful frescos.  She has been showing her work at The Open Room for the last five years, and her pieces can be found in private art collections around the country. Several of her frescoes are currently on display at The Open Room.  Artwork is such an important aspect in the enjoyment we derive from our homes, and a key element in interior design.  We encourage you to read on to hear about Heather’s observations of how art played a role in the lives of people centuries ago, and how fresco has evolved as a medium over thousands of years.  We anticipate that Heather will return from her extended stay in Europe with new inspiration and fresh ideas for her artwork here. More information on Heather Hansen’s work is available at her website and at The Open Room.


Heather-Hansen - Paris Sidewalk Cafe

Heather (right) at Paris sidewalk cafe

Claudia:  It looks like you are completely immersed in the artist’s life in Paris!  Hundreds of questions come to mind about that – but first, how was your time in Italy?
Heather: I did get to do a course in Italy after all: in Florence I studied in a small workshop on the same street where Michelangelo grew up.  Let’s hope some of his magic rubs off on me…wouldn’t that be nice?!  My friend and fellow fresco artist from London joined me in Italy and we did a tour of fresco sites. They were 3 short weeks, but wonderful in so many ways.
Claudia:  For those of us who are a bit sketchy on our art history and techniques, what exactly is fresco?  How long has it been around?
Heather: Fresco is the technique of painting earth pigments directly onto wet lime plaster; it goes back at least 30,000 years. The first examples were found on the limestone walls of the Chauvet cave in France.  In fact, frescoes can be found in many ancient civilizations. Some of the best examples of frescoes you can still see today are in Pompeii; they are so well preserved because they were buried for centuries under the lava ash from the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius.  The homes of wealthy people were usually pretty small and dark in those days and they used fresco as a decorative way of brightening their interiors and displaying wealth – or the illusion of it.  The ornate style of the Pompeii paintings is considered by some as an expression of the economic insecurity and fear of poverty of that time: an interesting way to create a harmony in your surroundings in the face of hardship! So, the desire to create a feeling of security at home contributed to the lavish decorative patterns and murals of landscapes, gardens, even fake windows painted directly onto the walls.
Fra Angelico Fresco Art

Fra Angelico

Claudia:  Kind of like a trompe l’oeil?
Heather:Pretty much. It’s a recurring theme.
Claudia:  Don’t you think that the concept of using artwork to help us get through tough times, and to give us a different perspective on life, is still very relevant today?
Heather:  Absolutely.  Surrounding ourselves with beautiful things and with the art we love is a wonderful way to create harmony in our lives. It can be a great antidote to the disharmony we face in the world around us.  It’s so important to have that kind balance in our lives!
Claudia:  I’d like to hear more about your fresco tour in Italy:  as an artist, you went right to the source for inspiration! How did you know where to start?
Heather: We started at the beginning with the Giotto paintings in the Basilica Di San Francesco in Assisi.  This is where Giotto is said to have refined his fresco technique to the method that is still used today — the reason he is considered the father of fresco painting.  His ambitious frescoes run along both sides of the lower Chapel depicting the life of St. Francis. They are absolutely stunning and the colors are still very clear 700 years later.  He is considered to be the first in a long line of artists of the Italian Renaissance.  He was a bit of a rebel at the time, breaking away from the Byzantine norm and striving to make ultra-realistic representations of the human form.


Assisi Fresco Art


In Florence my favorite frescos were a little more off the tourist track in the Chiostro Dello Scalzo.  In the small courtyard inside the building, the four walls are filled with the monotone fresco paintings of Andrea Del Sarto, created in the early 1500’s.  These paintings are surprisingly lifelike and sensitive and done entirely in sepia tones.  His work is a perfect bookend to what started with Giotto in the 1300’s.  Del Sarto’s frescoes don’t get as much attention, but they clearly mark another change in the art history, as he bravely brought things back to a more minimal or essential beauty.

Del Sarto Fresco Art

Del Sarto

Of course I very much enjoyed seeing the masterful Fra Angelico paintings from the San Marco.  The room of Botticelli paintings in the Uffizi took my breath away, and I was literally moved to tears at the site of my first Michelangelo!  Months later, however, my mind keeps dwelling on the paintings of Del Sarto and Giotto, the innovators of the medium.

Claudia:  What did you learn in your course in Florence that you can apply to your own work?
Heather:  Most of all, it was just reassuring to find that I’m using the correct technique in my fresco work and also that it’s fine to experiment and break the rules — as have many fresco painters throughout history.
Claudia:  Isn’t there a standard “formula” for concocting frescoes?
Heather:  Yes, but there is room for experimentation.  Of course at that time artists used materials that were more readily available locally, which lead to different recipes.  Some added red or gold ground stone to give the plaster a warmer tone, some used ground marble, or sand.  Da Vinci even tried painting with oil on the plaster for the Last Supper (though not very successfully). You see combinations of fresco and mosaic, and the plaster being used sculpturally etc.  I think I had a preconceived idea that it was a more rigid structure, when in fact most artists have developed their own recipes and techniques
Claudia:  OK – what about Paris?  What is the artists’ scene like there?
Heather: The artists’ community in Paris, from what I’ve garnered over my relatively short time here, seems to be very vibrant.  I think that what you have here is a culture that places a high value on art in general; there is a lot of public support for the arts. I think beauty is just very important to the French.  They don’t really seem to know how to do “ugly”.
Claudia:Would you call Paris an artist’s haven?


Paris pillow fight, on World Pillow Fight Day

Paris pillow fight, on World Pillow Fight Day

Heather:   I think so.  Even though Paris has a long and solid identity as an art city, it doesn’t feel as anchored to the past as, say, Florence or Vienna.  I think it can be very difficult for contemporary artists to find their place in the historical art cities like Florence, where the focus is clearly on the great artistic accomplishments of the past.  It’s difficult to compete with art that is both masterfully executed and historically important! Even if you are an exceptionally brilliant artist, you still don’t have history on your side.   Paris, on the other hand, feels a little more free in that respect.  There is a lively contemporary art scene, and although it’s less centralized than it was in the past, it is still a very important aspect of life here.

Claudia:  But don’t artists in Paris face the same problem as artists in cities like New York – being squeezed out of the housing market?
Heather:  Unfortunately, yes – it’s just about impossible to find affordable studio space in which to make art.  I know, because I am looking for space myself and have talked to many other artists who have had a hard time with this as well.  Currently I’m painting in our largish closet.  I’m hoping to come out of the closet soon, and get to work on some bigger paintings.  Almost all the grand Haussmann era apartments have been divided up into smaller apartments because of the inflation of property here.   Most of the original ateliers are now beyond the means of the average, or even successful artist, and have been turned into highly sought after luxury vacation rentals and loft apartments.  This leaves the new Bohemians a little less elevated than their predecessors!
Claudia:  So where do they go?
Heather:  Some end up in small, dark studios (what a cliché!) and artist squats around the city. Towards the Peripherique (edge of Paris) there are some old factories which have been developed as art spaces, such as “Les Frigos” where a large group of artists have taken over an old refrigeration factory from the 1930’s.  It’s very urban and industrial with graffiti covering nearly every inch of the building and every kind of bewildering conceptual art happening.   At the other end of the spectrum you have “le Centquatre”, a high-end art space located in the seedier area of the 10th Arrondissement, and is part of the city’s strategy to clean up and gentrify the more run- down areas of Paris.
One of Heather’s frescoes, “Infinity”

One of Heather’s frescoes, “Infinity”

Claudia: Isn’t that where you are applying for an artist’s residency program?
Heather:  Yes – the residency I’m hoping for is at “104” (Centquatre).  It was once a morgue during the war.  So it’s creepy in a way, but the building and concept are just fantastic.  It’s a huge space and has been re-configured with many studios and open spaces for artists to work in and interact with the public.  I think they are looking for artists who are experimental and sort of genre-bending.  Definitely stiff competition from what I’ve seen there, but it would be fun to pursue some of my weirder ideas that I would have been reluctant to try in Sun Valley!
Claudia:  What about the artistic neighborhoods the rest of us might come across when we are in Paris?
Heather:  Of course there is a tamer artists’ scene at Place du Tertre, and other areas around Montmartre.  It seem to cater mainly toward tourists who want to buy small representational souvenir paintings of rainy Parisian streets or of the Sacre Coeur, etc.
Claudia:  Don’t laugh, but I have one of those!
Heather:  You’re not alone.  The area certainly has great charm and historical significance, and many artists still live and work there.   But I think the true Bohemian spirit of the Belle Epoch has moved to other areas of the city and is alive and well!   As an artist, I find it quite easy to feel at home in Paris: its welcoming atmosphere and history, the numerous museums and galleries and events make this city an unlimited source of inspiration!
Claudia:  We can’t wait to see how your work evolves after this incredible experience you have had Europe!  Please keep us posted ……..