Heck exhibit shows subtleties of printmaking

One way to do a series of prints inspired by women posing as Frida Kahlo is to comb the Internet, where, for various and unrelated reasons, people have posted pictures of themselves in "Frida poses," and left them online for everyone to see.

That was how Austin printmaker Ellen Heck found the "Fridas" she needed for her latest show at Wally Workman Gallery. The only problem brings up an old observation about our online world: It's wide, but it's not deep. So it wasn't long before Heck's Fridas dried up.

That's when a writer for a Minnesota newspaper let it be known that Heck offers a print in exchange for a viable image. "Those were some of my favorites," Heck says from a Las Vegas textiles convention.

In the gallery, she's displaying (and selling) the original copper plates, the shimmering "Forty Fridas," which she used to create the paper Fridas of friends and strangers that line the walls.

Heck, who learned her craft at the Art Institute of Chicago, has been in California's Bay Area since 2008, where she's now an artist in residence at Berkeley's Kala Art Institute.

"To move from Austin to San Francisco is a pretty smooth transition," Heck says. And living in a new environment sparked some new artistic directions. One of the plates she etched was a color wheel with 120 sections, "Every color Crayola makes — in the biggest box." That was the starting point of a color study, she says. "But I still had the template."

The template proved that it had many more uses than a color study. So in one wheel, Heck records the colors of the San Francisco sky, from purpley blues and yellows at sunrise, to a day of foggy blues, marking each one with a timestamp until sundown.

And, as templates seem to do, this one invited creativity. In Heck's case, part of what emerged was an exceptionally beautiful diary.

"What We Would be Eating in Case of Emergency" is a list that speaks to all Californians: If disaster struck, Heck wondered, "What would we be eating for the next three days?" She opened the pantry and began to write.

"Our apartment was so tiny, they were always together," Heck says. After a few of these wheels emerged, it became clear that some were part of a single work, so there are a few triptychs ("Fog," "Antiques Fair"), and a group of nine with a gorgeously muted color palette, each with its own manipulations.

Part of her "Antiques" triptych reads like a calendar, with notes like "Your mother's birthday," "bike chain" and the word "circumspect."

The thing that probably unites all printmakers is a fascination with variations — how a tiny difference in color or a few subtle etches can utterly change an image. When Heck etched the famous image of Mark Twain, she used the same plate to track his life in five portraits, from young to old. By building on the same plate, a remarkable likeness of the famous author remains throughout.

Then there are the penetrating eyes of Eden, a girl whose mom sent Heck a picture. There is a bouquet in her hair from a famous Frida portrait, and Heck uses crayon colors to alter each bouquet in small but important ways, changing the tone with Crayola colors like "Melon" or "Sunset."

It is this fixation on the small details that inspires printmakers. "Everything is tactile in a way that is so satisfying," Heck said.

"The wood, copper, the water, steel — the paper, the cotton. It's just sensually very rich. It's a beautiful thing to do."

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