Annie Hejny is a local painter, residing in St. Paul and working in the Casket Arts Building here in Northeast Minneapolis. Major themes in her work include shorelines and water, and as mixed-media painter, Annie often incorporates materials from local bodies of water into her work. Annie is a member of the Northeast Minneapolis Arts Association and the Women’s Art Resources of Minnesota and has also volunteered extensively with many local arts organizations. We recently visited Annie at her studio just down the road to learn more about the challenges and successes she experiences as an emerging artist.
Why art? What led you to become an artist?
I have always been creating in my life. I feel like that’s true for a lot of artists. I have very specific memories of me as a kid growing up and wanting to be alone and make something.
Going through school, I was on the path to becoming a teacher. I went to the University of St. Thomas to study elementary education, and half-way through that program I was told I had to add on a second major. Considering my options, I wanted to check out studio art. St. Thomas does not have a fine arts program, but through the consortium of schools in the Twin Cities, I could go to St. Kate’s, meet with an advisor, and talk about doing classes there. As soon as I started talking about it, it became very clear that art was going to be a good choice for me. I went through school in 5 years and completed both degrees. At St. Thomas, I have my elementary licensure from the state, and I have a studio arts degree from St. Kate’s.
I love the St. Kate’s art department. There are some excellent professors there that really encouraged me to find my own voice and do my own work, which has then led me further along.
After school, I did a short internship out in L.A.
What were you doing there?
I was working with Tom’s, the one for one company. It was really wonderful for the summer, but not something that I was going to stick with.
What were you doing for them?
I worked in the community and grassroots department. It was a very alternative, very small niche in Tom’s, and it was about working in communities and such. Really great, but I came back to the Twin Cities.
And you grew up here?
I grew up here, by Stillwater.
When you were at St. Kate’s studying studio art, did you know you wanted to do this type of painting or did you dabble in other mediums?
They require you to take a variety of classes – 3D design, photography, a color class, art and technology. It was really great. At one point, I was welding and working in a wood shop and then going into a computer lab and learning how to use Illustrator. But painting and drawing were very much what I wanted to do.
I came back after L.A. and set up a studio in my dining room and started painting, little by little. I was working small, and it felt really good.
Did you pursue teaching at all, or did you start as an artist full-time?
I started at a restaurant. I was waiting tables, which was something I had done before. I didn’t pursue teaching. By the time I was done with the tests to the licensure, I was like, “Done. I have it. Great. I am not going to use it in a classroom.”
Why is that?
I don’t think that that was ultimately the way I wanted to connect with kids or teach. I don’t think the classroom is the right setting for me. Public or private school – it would need to be a more alternative setting.
There are so many other ways to teach and way to get involved – so many cool programs out there.
I loved, loved working with kids, but it was time to turn inward and make art for me. I think about it a lot, teaching, and what it would involve if I were to go back.
You have the licensure, so it’s always a possibility at some point, right?
Okay, so you were waiting tables, painting, and then what happened from there?
I shifted things. I moved to Chicago for a year. I had a friend going to grad school, and I packed up my easel and tagged along. I took another job at a restaurant but was also interning at a gallery down there. That relationship is still very active in my life. I have artwork there.
Which gallery is that?
It’s called the Jackson Young Gallery. It’s in Wicker Park, and they show a whole mix of artists. They have a really neat focus on Chicago-based artists but have included me.
I am someone who’s curious, like let’s just going somewhere new, let’s try it. I’m going to paint and figure it out. I did a lot of life-learning there, a lot of self-reflection. It’s a new environment a new city, who’s Annie here?
What did you figure out? ….or is that a longer story?
That a longer story (haha), but what I did figure out is that if I am going to choose art, I am going to be serious about it. When I came back to the Cities after that year, it was a matter of finding a studio, finding a mentor, figuring out what my home was going to look like, who are people that support me in my art.
How did you go about that? How do you go find a mentor?
I had heard of this program called WARM – Women’s Art Resources of Minnesota – and there’s a really beautiful history of WARM and how it was founded to bring women together in art and get attention there. Bring them to the forefront. WARM today is really highlighting a mentorship program. So I went to the website and some of their panels that promoted their mentorship program, and I just knew I had to do this. I had a really good feeling.
So you interview professional artists who are the mentors, and they interview you. Then you’re matched, and it’s a two year cycle commitment. I am going up to my final few months of the program.
What does the program look like?
We meet once a month. It’s a professional relationship so I pay her. I pay for the WARM program, which includes other activities, options for critique, studio visits and such. When Deborah and I meet, I have an agenda set, I have questions, and we often talk about the art first. I’ll show her what I’ve been working on, etc.
That seems like such a valuable person to have, to help you. It’s such a tough world to navigate with no clear path. Having someone to help you must be very helpful.
I’ve turned to Deborah for all sorts of questions. She is so good at keeping me focused, keeping my confident, and continuing forward. She mentors 8 others, not all directly in this WARM cycle that I’m in, but we work together. She has brought us together. We do book studies, like The Artist’s Way or Art and Fear. With that, I have a built in community under a mentorship.
It’s unreal. We’ve been working together to do a group exhibition, and it’s showing right now.
Oh cool. Where is it?
It’s at the Bethesda Hospital Café Gallery, just in downtown St. Paul. It was a free venue available to us, so we thought “Great. Let’s put our show up and let’s see how it look. We can learn from this, shop it around, adjust, and decide from there.
Community is so important. Having people to turn to and learn from – it’s crucial. Especially as an artist. You’re on your own, there’s no boss telling you what to do or coworkers to turn to. You have to seek out things like this.
You absolutely do. Through WARM, there is a built-in community, but it’s a little more spread out.
After the program ends, are you still a part of WARM?
You can be. You can pay to have a membership annually.
Another great thing I did was last summer I took the Women’s Art Institute at St. Kate’s.
What was that like?
It’s a month long studio intensive for women artists of any stage. We had a woman who was an undergrad all the way ranging to a woman who was in her 70s. All different media again. Two instructors lead the class, and there were two teaching assistants. You have a designated studio space in the St. Kate’s visual arts building. So you work there, and there are visiting artists who talk, there are studio visits around the cities, you get a lot of one-on-one time, and then you get a final critique.
So you’re now a teaching assistant for that program this summer?
The instructor asked me back to be a TA. We just completed class and have our final show up at the Quarter Gallery at the Katherine Nash. It’s amazing, just transformational for all these women.
It must be interesting to go through the program yourself, and then come back a year later and see others go through the program. You probably learn just as much, just in a different way.
Absolutely. It’s like taking the class again, but instead of having studio time to make, I’m in the background supporting the class and the instructors.
Turning to your art…tell me a little more your work and how you have developed your style and technique.
About a year ago, at the Women’s Art Institute, I had a moment when I realized that I wanted to start painting with collected river water. I had been working on series at the time that involved shorelines and how in our lives, we come to these edges and these borders. What’s at a shoreline? I was spending a lot of time at the river, reflecting on this idea and wanted to make my work more intentionally involve these materials, rather than just tap water, which is the Mississippi River, but it’s filtered. So I collected big 5 gallon buckets. I brought them to the studio, and I started washing paint and water over the canvas. Then I started thinking about adding texture, so I collecting sediment and rock and incorporate that into painting, as well as river water.
My paintings are abstract. I use acrylic paint. I’ve used recycled latex paint before too, just trying to understand materials and trying to understand what works for my idea here. But my work is about the spirit of the place, bring awareness to the river, awareness of our relationship with water. Painting with that here in my studio, digging my hands into buckets of dirt and soil and parts of the river and land it’s really cool.
Do you use water from the river in all of your pieces?
Water from the river or Minnehaha Creek or I’m now collecting from the Minnesota River. I have bigger ideas of where this could go.
Well just considering any body of water that’s important to somebody. How is it that we honor that place. Why is this work that has very much an environmental undertone going to bring change or attention?
If there was one piece of advice you could give to other artists, what would that be?
If I am giving advice to a young artist, it’s find a mentor. Definitely. However that looks for you. Someone that you can go to with questions. It has really been so important to me. With that, it’s a lot of self-trust, giving it time. I think many young artists, and I’m included in this, but we expect quick turnaround, quick gratification, thinking “Ok! I’m doing it. Now I am going to be accepted into all these opportunities!”
No! There’s rejection. There absolutely is. Not everyone is going to look at your art and love it or appreciate it. But then there are the moments when somebody connects with it, and that is so cool and so worth everything else.
So, keep working. Never stop painting because you may never start again.