New, maritime-themed art exhibit opens year for students

Published by Brendan Howe, Date: September 9, 2019
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Hertel's colorful artwork was displayed in the Auckland Maritime Museum.

Presented by the Martha Gault Art Gallery, Kia Ora, a collection of sailcloth artwork created by Heather Hertel, will be on view in the Maltby Center through September 19.

Hertel, an associate professor of art at Slippery Rock, took a sabbatical as a visiting scholar in Hamilton, New Zealand, at the Waikato Institute of Technology’s media arts. As part of an art residency, the school, also known as Wintec, lent her a spacious studio for six weeks.

While in the country, Hertel was invited on a retreat with the Wintec art faculty to a reserve housing Maori, the respected native Polynesian people of New Zealand. The Maori’s colors—red, white, and black, are prominent in the artwork and the name of the exhibit. “Kia Ora” actually means “welcome” in the peoples’ language.

“If you’re talking with people, it means even more than that,” Hertel said. “It means, ‘I bring my best to you and I wish you your best life.’ And [in our culture] we just say, ‘Hello.’ It is a very heartfelt hello.”

Hertel also noticed a connection between the beginning of the school year and the theme behind her work.

“That’s why I wanted to have this show be titled that,” Hertel said. “Because this is the welcome for all our students and faculty back to campus and it’s the first exhibition welcoming. We have a whole year to come.”

The collection both drew inspiration from and appeared in the New Zealand Maritime Museum, located in Auckland. Hertel enjoyed the setting, as she grew up in Erie learning sailing from her dad and being competitive in the sport.

The show was only supposed to be up for a week or two in Auckland—a pop-up show, as Hertel describes it—but the museum received such a positive response from it that it was up for a month and a half. It was then shipped home so that Hertel could install it last month.

“I like sailing and I love boats, so I get a little bit excited when I’m surrounded by them and I’m in a place where I can investigate the history and lineage of what I’m interested in,” Hertel said.

Walking into the museum, Hertel noticed bright, shiny red columns outside of the structure. Once inside, she felt that the splash of color would be interesting compared to the drab, brown metal walls.

“I thought, ‘Perfect, red hanging sculpture,’” Hertel said.  “I’m a painter. I don’t come from sculpture. I’m a two-dimensional artist. It was huge for me to branch out and learn and challenge myself to do something that I couldn’t even fathom making.”

To bring the idea to life, she got ahold of red spinnaker sails, which usually hover over the front of a sailboat, and interlocked them. Two of them are hung across the gallery from each other, to show transition, Hertel says.

Another interactive piece, named “Harbor,” was created in mind for the museum’s children’s area. It is made of fabricated layers of spinnaker sail, sewn together in a stained-glass, chapel pattern. Kids could pull on the line, or rope attached to a sail, and raise the piece. Symbols from large dinghy boats hanging at the museum, such as a Polynesian lisi canoe, adorn the back of the sail.

“Wind,” which sat in the museum’s second floor corridor, or breezeway, and in-between galleries, encapsulates the wind and water current of the North Island. The piece also has figureheads painted on each side, from the vessels Barque India and HMS Orpheus, the second of which was the worst wreck in New Zealand to date.

The last creation, “Imagination,” was made when Hertel came back to the United States. It is inspired by her young daughter, Sofia, and her growth over the two-month stay in New Zealand.

“When I came home and unrolled it, my studio is not-so-big, unlike Wintec, so I worked on a section at a time,” Hertel said. “I couldn’t even see the whole [piece] until I got here.”

The exhibit, which Hertel says is a research about wind, water, imagination, and growth, had its opening reception on Thursday night.

“I think it’s a celebration of the actual elements,” said Kurt Pitulga, an assistant professor of art history at SRU. “The Earth, the water, the air. And the Maori certainly appreciate these elements, too. And I think she’s trying to convey that, in a certain sense, through the work she’s produced.”

In continuing collaborations with the sailcloth wearable art, five dancers performed at the opening reception; Ursula Payne, chair of department of dance, Lindsay Viatori, an assistant professor in the department of dance, and three alumni of the department.

Hertel will be giving an artist talk on Thursday, September 12 at 12:30 p.m. in Room 107 of Art Building 1. She will share both the studio and travel aspects of her experience in New Zealand.

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