Strange Plants

Five questions for this Virginia artist.

(Photo by Ed Pollard)

Heather Beardsley is an American visual artist that creates mixed-media projects at the intersection of art, science, and environmental issues. She works primarily with embroidery, cyanotype, and air-dry clay, mixing the aesthetics of scientific illustration with craft and children’s art materials. She received her MFA in fiber and material studies from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in 2015 and her BA in studio art from the University of Virginia in 2009. She also spent a year in Vienna, Austria on a Fulbright Scholarship for Installation Art.

Her first solo museum exhibition, Heather Beardsley: Strange Plants, at the Chrysler Museum in Norfolk, runs until Oct. 29, 2023.

Virginia Living: What inspired this exhibit?

Heather Beardsley: This exhibit showcases a body of work I began after visiting the Chernobyl exclusion zone in December 2017. Months later I was doing an art residency in Budapest and began doodling plants growing over the city in second-hand architecture books using gel pens. From there I began repeating the imagery with air-dry clay sculptures in matchboxes and embroidery on photographs. When I left Budapest, I continued to add each city my work took me to into the series, so now cities like Vienna, Beijing, Las Vegas, Chicago, Kyiv, and Paris are also present. I’ve also expanded the media, after doing another art residency in Kyiv in 2019 I began collecting second-hand embroidered textiles from thrift stores and flea markets. I collage architectural imagery onto the fabric, then incorporate my own embroidery into the existing embroidery to form an anonymous collaboration. I’ve also increased the scale of sculptures to cigar boxes and suitcases and made animations of nature reclaiming Kyiv.

What do you want viewers to get out of it?

I hope that looking at this work will generate reflection about how human actions are impacting the natural environment, and what that means for future generations. I also want to challenge the perspective of humans being separate from other living organisms. Our actions are perhaps creating a world that is less conducive to human life, but there will continue to be life on the planet as nature continuously adapts and finds ways to survive. Can we follow that example and adapt to survive too?

How has the reception been so far?

It’s been very positive. Not only is this my first museum exhibition, but it is my first solo exhibition in Hampton Roads. I grew up in this area, visiting the Chrysler Museum of Art with my parents, and now a lot of people that watched me grow up are getting to see my work like this for the first time. It’s amazing to get to see a series that’s been developing for over five years displayed all together, and being local I have been able to visit and see how people are reacting first-hand. Since my work is so intricate and intense, Chelsea Pierce, the McKinnon Curator of Modern & Contemporary Art, had the brilliant idea to include magnifying glasses in the exhibition so people are able to look closely and take in all of the small details. Chelsea and the entire team at the museum have been super supportive and did such a beautiful job with every element of the exhibition, from the graphic design to the installation and print materials. It is open until October 29, which means there is a nice long window for people to see the exhibition.

How did you start your career as an artist?

I finished my MFA at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in 2015 and was awarded a Fulbright Scholarship for Installation Art in Vienna, Austria for the following year. I loved living in Europe and being able to focus on my work full-time, so I continued to travel between art residencies in Europe, China, and the US for another four years to meet other artists, experience new places and evolve my work until the pandemic unexpectedly brought me back to Virginia in 2020.

Where do you see yourself going next art-wise, what do you want to explore?

I’m definitely not finished with the Strange Plants series, I still have a lot of ideas for how I would like to keep expanding the cities, scale, and media. I want to experiment with making installations and more complex animation and video work. Having more direct narratives in the pieces would be interesting too. I saw the Bayeux Tapestry during a residency in France last year which illustrates the Norman conquest of England in the 11th century through an almost 80-meter-long embroidered textile, and I dream of doing an embroidered piece at a similar scale telling a story of the plant invasion. Now that I have shown this work at the Chrysler, I hope I can see it travel to other cities in the US and around the world, especially the cities depicted in the series.

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Star Gazing and Laser Nights

Virginia Living Museum

Star Gazing and Laser Nights

Virginia Living Museum

Star Gazing and Laser Nights

Virginia Living Museum