Artist Richard Heller with one of the featured works (untitled, 20 in. x 30 in.) in “Paintings of Paintings” at Gallery in the Woods in Brattleboro.
Victoria Chertok/The Commons
Artist Richard Heller with one of the featured works (untitled, 20 in. x 30 in.) in “Paintings of Paintings” at Gallery in the Woods in Brattleboro.

Pushing himself

‘Putting yourself in a position to transcend who and what you are is what art is about,’ says artist Richard Heller, a longtime BUHS art teacher

BRATTLEBORO — Richard Heller's "Paintings of Paintings," an exhibit that includes 15 of his paintings and drawings, will be on display until Tuesday, Oct. 31 at Gallery in the Woods.

On Friday, Oct. 6, from 5 to 8 p.m., the gallery, at 145 Main St., will host an opening reception.

"I came into this by accident," notes Heller, a longtime Brattleboro Union High School art teacher. "By documenting my work, I thought, 'Maybe these have something else.'"

Heller, 65, has been making art for close to 40 years. He earned a bachelor's degree from Boston University and a Master of Fine Arts degree from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, from which he also has a master's degree in art education.

He moved to Brattleboro in 1995, and taught at the high school. Though he retired last year, "I have been subbing about four days a week this year, so I'm still there," he says with a laugh.

"It's quite an experience to see kids grow," Heller says. "It's amazing to see the awesome things that are going on in every classroom at BUHS. Exceptional teachers are there, and the students are terrific."

In retirement he is looking forward to painting a lot and traveling. He and his wife, Deb, like to travel and plan frequent trips to visit their son, Jackson, 19, a sophomore at DePaul University in Chicago.

Transforming and transcending

The art in the show is "not the work I usually engage in," Heller explains.

"A while ago I was documenting my work through photography," he says. "As I reflected on the photographs, I began to see them as means to other works explored through drawing and painting."

Along the way, he "became interested in how these were all different ways of looking at something and transforming it."

Heller wanted to show "how they ended up becoming paintings. I wanted to show it all together. It all came out of the same idea."

He liked working with the figure.

"The idea of flesh - it's human, it's our container," he says. "I think it's a recognizable image. People know when it's being distorted or in proportion. We see bodies and faces our whole life."

He then asked himself, "How can I transform it and transcend it? How can I do that creatively?"

"I also felt like when I saw some of these, they are surreal," he says, adding that he was drawing stick figures and paring things down, documenting them, and photographing them.

"I liked the photos and thought these could become other images," he says.

Heller was surprised by what he found.

"I started doing drawings from the photographs and looking at light and contrast and the images as well as the expressive aspects," he says.

"For example, using photography to bring me into some place by using a macro lens that you would normally not have your eye into. I enlarge my photos to 8{x}10," Heller says.

"Jasper Johns used to do drawings of his paintings and explore the image in other mediums, as well."

"I was always drawn to some form or gestural abstraction but began to feel I wasn't doing anything new with it," he says. "Committing to these works was a challenge."

So he pushed himself, and the result is this show.

"I have always tried to put myself in unfamiliar situations," Heller says. "It is a good way to grow."

He remembered a quote he liked from the artist Lucien Freud, who, when asked about his endeavor, said "I'm only trying to do what I can't do."

An exploration of the figure

When asked if there are reoccurring themes in his work, Heller says, "I am not telling anyone anything."

"My theme is an exploration of the figure and portraiture and what else it can be," the artist says. "I get to explore something that is down-to-earth for me."

He wants the work "to be experienced without alluding to something necessarily beyond the piece itself," he says. "The work should exist in the moment you are looking at it."

"Like much art they explore the human condition and a history of creating images through drawing and painting," he says. "I have always been drawn to how to make new pictures in new ways. That for me is at the creative core of making art."

He noted abstract expressionist painter Jackson Pollock, who said that "the artist no longer had to go outside themselves to make art. They could focus on the subconscious as the source of art."

That's one reason Heller has made art for four decades.

"Putting yourself in a position to transcend who and what you are is what art is about," he says. "The idea that you can be more in those moments of creation is the fundamental reason I choose to make art."

Heller says he has "always been interested in the painted image - that is the different ways we can see things through how an artist chooses to depict them."

"But ultimately I want to craft an image that will hopefully be remembered," he says. "I hope to entertain and inspire people with my art. Art is made to inspire more art or creativity."

Richard Heller's "Paintings of Paintings," is dedicated to the memory of his parents, Alan and Madeline Heller and is on display through Oct. 31 at Gallery in the Woods, 145 Main St., Brattleboro. For information, visit or call 802-257-4777.

This The Arts item by Victoria Chertok was written for The Commons.

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