The Heart of Nature:
Howard Hersh depicts the pure energy of the natural world in his powerful abstract art
by Jo Ann Baldinger
Focus Santa Fe
Vivid memories of the forests surrounding his childhood home inspire Howard Hersh’s oil paintings, monotype prints, and collages. “I spent a lot of time exploring those woods, and I still remember every path,” recalls the artist during an interview in his vaulted, light-filled studio in Pojoaque, New Mexico, north of Santa Fe.
Lately, though, Hersh has chosen to depict nature more abstractly. Delicate leaves and tendrils remain a central theme in much of his work, but many of the new oil paintings and collage/monotypes look completely abstract.
“I think representational painting is a more surface response, while abstraction captures the energy inside,” he comments. Hersh’s view of nature is a very broad one: as he points out, “We’re all swimming around in the natural world: we are the natural world.”
Mostly self-taught. Hersh has painted all his life (“as a kid I drew obsessively -hot rods and monsters. that kind of thing”), but it was only when he relocated to New Mexico in 1984 that he committed to art full-time. Within six months, he was making his living as an artist. His work has been shown in galleries in San Francisco, Chicago, Atlanta, London, and throughout the southwest, and is part of numerous international corporate collections including IBM, Westinghouse, Hyatt, Marriott, Sheraton, and Disney.
Hersh starts by applying a thick ground of gesso that creates a textured, swirling base on the canvas. “I pour it on really thick and push it around with a big wide brush. When it dries there are a lot of cracks, and I sand it down. Then it’s a process of applying lots of layers of paint-dark to light and back again.” Each layer is partially sanded down before the next begins, and new imagery becomes visible at every step. The cracks in the gesso lend a sense of antiquity to these elemental compositions, some of which look like water while others resemble fire.
Painting in layers is central to Hersh’s art. “Layering is not only visually exciting; it’s also a metaphor for life and nature,” he explicates, “Everything is layers of matter. The world looks opaque to us, and separate, but at the molecular level, there is no separation; everything is connected.”
To gaze into the translucent layers of an abstract oil painting is, to use his own words, “like seeing past, present, and future together. By looking within, we can remove ourselves from the mere present and enter into the bigger picture.”
Hersh uses brushes, trowels, and scrapers to apply paint, achieving shapes replicating nature, that would be almost impossible to draw intentionally. “Of course there’s a great deal of intuition in this process:’ he notes. “When I’m pushing paint around it seems totally haphazard, but actually there’s a lot of right-brain knowledge coming out. An artist is like a cook who knows subtlely, from experience, how much of each ingredient to use. The beauty of working this way is that it really is out of my hands. I’m not drawing those forms; I’m using tools that help the paint end up in those shapes.”
Hersh also makes monotypes on rice paper and creates collage pieces combining prints with paintings. For monotype, which he loves for its spontaneity, he uses a technique known as a double drop. “I ink up one plate and print it, then ink up another plate and print it on top of the first. It’s like alchemy: the inks, the pressure of the press. all the variables unite; and once again the result is out of my hands.”
The many new canvases lining the studio walls and the monoprints stacked on a work table are evidence that Hersh is prolific. “I love working with my hands,” he confides. “For me, it’s partly this craftsman aesthetic I have. The rest is a spiritual quest. Making art is part of my process of living in a way to find out what my life is all about. I’m creating it, but I’m also an observer, seeing who I am as it unfolds.”
Hersh prefers to keep new work for a period of time before it leaves for the gallery or a collector’s home. “Partly so I can enjoy it, but it’s also to make sure that it really holds up,” he explains. “I tend to be in love with my work immediately after I finish it. But. just like any relationship, it takes time for that honeymoon period to wear off so you can see a painting objectively. I might rework it then, or even reject it. If it continues to excite me. then I know it’s good.
“That’s why I tend to do series instead of individual items. Each piece grows out of the previous one. The strongest, the best, will reveal itself and inform all the others; it brings the whole series up to its level. I look at the one painting, the one print, that is really working, and I learn from it.”
To Hersh, art is process, not product. When asked how long a painting took, he responds by giving his age—”because my whole history is in that painting. It couldn’t exist without the hundreds that preceeded it.”
There is another sense in which he honors what came before his grandfather, who was apprenticed as a child to a portrait painter in Romania, emigrated to the United States at the age of 12, and earned his way through the school of the Chicago Art Institute. He also married and opened a tailor shop, working so hard his health was threatened. “His doctor told him he had either to quit painting or close the shop. So he quit painting, and died when he was 44.”
Hersh tells this story as a parable about the importance of following one’s heart. “I never knew my grandfather,” he regrets. “but I feel I am carrying on for his spirit.”