Anna Hepler: Borrowed Light


This essay first appeared in the catalog Anna Helpler: Borrowed Light, published in conjunction with her exhibition by the same title at the Jaffe-Friede Gallery, Dartmouth College, from September 19 – November 12, 2023.

In a recent conversation with Anna, I asked her what she would like to do next, thinking her answer might inform her work in the current exhibition. “I don’t know,” she said, “I’ve always wanted to know more about death and dying and supporting or witnessing this process.” It was an unexpected and vulnerable response, direct and unadorned. It felt as if the curtain of some interior window had been opened, allowing what the Shakers call “borrowed light” to illuminate a part of Anna I had never seen.

I was driving across the country, somewhere in western Nebraska, with hours and hours to contemplate her revelation. Grasslands undulated into the distance, the front range of the Rockies rose into the first stars, and in the miles that followed her response I found myself filling with a certain awe at how it enriched the way I view her work and, for that matter, Anna herself. And now, a day later, as I sit on the north rim of Canyon de Chelly, I am again filled with awe as those thoughts seem to effortlessly merge and manifest with poignant and synchronous beauty in the environment itself. Anna has altered how I see my world.

An artist isn’t a riddle to be solved, but artists who are original—and Anna is a true original—often occupy realms at the periphery of or beyond our own comprehension. For the most part, we remain content with the virtuosity of their finished work and ignore the vast and often unconscious instincts or predispositions that undergird their work and by which these artists process the world. As a result, an Othering takes place between the viewer and artist; a chasm opens between the external world of forms they have made and the intimacy of their internal mind. I find myself wanting to bridge that chasm.

Mummy Cave, Canyon de Chelly.

Chelly is a Spanish phonetic rendering of a Navajo word meaning “inside the stone.” In this case, there is both a river that has carved the canyon to reveal stone’s interior, and a people who for thousands of years chose to make that interior their home. That interior was an aspect of their identity. It isn’t lost on me that as I look into this canyon, I am also attempting to look into Anna’s mind. And as if in answer, I see a human face embedded in the canyon wall, bathed in shadow and looking up at me. Rivulets of desert varnish drip across the sandstone and appear as bangs of hair across its forehead. Its eyes are two almond-shaped shelters filled with ancient stone and adobe dwellings made by the Anasazi a thousand years ago. Were you to walk into the ruins of one of those eyes, you would find one internal window after another still letting light pass deeper and deeper into the cave, perhaps relaying it to some optic nerve buried therein. I feel this stone being observe me as I write.

Aesthetic vocabulary influences the way we perceive our surroundings; often it is only after something is named that we can even become aware of that thing. That is why the struggle to find a vocabulary to describe fundamental qualities of an artist’s production can be so rewarding. Rather than relegating that artist to a category of separateness, once the vocabulary is found, we can understand what part of our shared continuum they are exploring and participating in. And this is why I loved Anna’s answer to my question: A door opened…

A word enters my mind as one of the underlying concerns of Anna’s work: ENTROPIC. It’s a word from Greek, the etymology meaning “internal transformation,” and is used to describe the gradual decline into disorder of a given thing or system. We are not immune to entropy. As we get closer to death, our bodies give way. I think of hospice workers and death doulas—aren’t they a form of artist? Artists who tend to the uncertainties one experiences in that decline, provide spiritual and emotional support to the person who is dying as well as to their family, and help maintain a person’s dignity through that process.

But with Anna, such a compassionate sensibility is not reserved for human death alone. Over the last twenty-five-plus years that I have witnessed her production, Anna has been documenting / generating volumes and surfaces specifically at those junctures where a given thing has reached a paralyzing complexity, or just before or after the moment where it has reached the end of its use, and where elements of it begin to fall apart. I think Anna recognizes the animacy of the materials she works with. They are living, even if many of us cannot quite see them as such. And I see now that she has repeatedly chosen to work with materials nearing the end of their lives. She is like an envoy, endowing them with a new austerity, isolating them in ways that allow us to see them, marvel at them, but also see the immense humor and dignity even in this final hour, perhaps most of all there.

This exhibition is different from those of the last two decades, I don’t know if it is an ending or a beginning. It appears to mark a new phase in Anna’s work. I don’t know how to describe it. I suppose it seems more human, relational. It’s as though Anna’s contemplative side is more visible. Earthly, with little shimmers of the unearthly (which is how I think of both Anna and our Earth). I see dancers and curmudgeons, selves and shadow selves, scientists and shamans. I see eros. I see logos. I see the labyrinth of our mitochondria writ large. Anna writes to me, “I am interested in the conversations that occur—both for the person dying as well as for their loved ones—when hope is lost for living.” I see shadows of those conversations in this exhibition. And, at this great distance, I try to listen.

Many of the conversations appear to unfold through languages of translucence and porosity, where Anna deliberately renders a given material so that we not only become aware of its internal three-dimensional structure, but also become aware of how light passes through it. The liminal qualities of each piece are often intentionally wrought so that the three-dimensional form becomes a play of two-dimensional light and shadow.

Holdfast (2022), lithograph on rag paper, 24 x 32 inches.

Take, for instance, the conversation between Holdfast (2022) and Cataract (2021). In both pieces, Anna has cut cardboard into incredibly thin slices, like tissue samples prepared for a microscope, which she then carefully glued together layer by layer, so they look like fabric, like vestments unearthed from a tomb. She has then brought them into play with light. In Holdfast, she has revealed the structure by a direct exposure on a photosensitive lithograph plate. We are looking at the fixed shadow of an object no longer there; it is a memory of something now missing. Cataract, in an astonishing contrast, hangs from the opposite wall. It is utterly alive, erotic, draping around a single peg; the piece seems to defy gravity, defy anything we know about the tensile strength of cardboard. Anna has positioned the lights so that we can see the shadow of the piece through the very material of the piece itself. Our eye passes through. And something on the other side passes through to us.

And this leads me back to borrowed light. It isn’t neutral. When we open a door, what lies within is revealed by borrowing light from the outside. It is illuminated by the intelligence of that particular light. But something else occurs. Some of that light then escapes back through the doorway, but it’s changed by what lies inside. A double-borrowing occurs in the open air of our consciousness. This is the so-called observer effect in physics. What we see has an awareness of its own. Cataract is a liminal structure that both shapes and allows us to witness and participate in the conversation between the two sides.

The last rays of the sun cut the canyon into stone and shadow. For a moment, I see Anna’s shadow studies everywhere, see them at this hour as a swansong of a day that will never return. I imagine Anna cutting holes into the raw clay of a vessel so that light will pass through and be altered in its passing, and knowing that the clay itself is destined to be repurposed. The exploration of solid and void, surface and volume. The topmost ridge of ancient sandstone glows orange and gold for this last moment. For how long have people watched this last ray of sunlight extinguish into night?

Shadow Study (2022)

I look again at the face in the canyon wall. Two ravens fly out of the left eye, fly through the twilight toward me. They’re photons that have escaped, and I can hear the whistling of their wings. They pause, then turn and continue down the canyon, an augury I don’t know how to read. The being in the canyon has a name: Mummy Cave. It is an archeological site, named for two mummies found there. The mummies were carefully wrapped in a fabric woven of yucca fiber. They died over seven hundred years ago and are thought to have been some of the last cliff dwellers in the valley. Someone tended to their passing, weaving a form to hold their bodies.

Can we understand Anna’s works through the lens of grief? Anna responded, “I am interested in grief—the unsung companion to love—and making space to understand loss and sadness as part of life,” then paused, asking, “What do we do with our earthly identities?” I write Anna’s name, smiling at the palindrome. It is an astonishing juncture in an artist’s life when their ego begins to slough off into some other place, sublimate into the ether. So much of our life is spent striving for clarity, imposing one structure after another as a form of declaration: I am here. And then one day to look back and see that forcing of clarity as a kind of violence.

Room of a Hundred Doors (2022), steel wire, plywood, paint, 36 x 23 x 15 inches.

One of my favorite works in the exhibition is a recent sculpture titled Room of a Hundred Doors (2022). I recognize it as an image of the mind. But I also see it as a portrait of all who have reached that point in their life where they turn inward. The crystalline wire frame belies what lies behind each door, the blurry miasma of memory, the swirling depths of the unconscious. Open any one of them, and some light will escape. But perhaps we can let that be as well. No need to open or not open one of the doors. Just be present for what is unfolding. A poem by the late Jack Gilbert comes to mind.

               Walking at Night

               The blue river is gray at morning
               and evening. There is twilight
               at dawn and dusk. I lie in the dark
               wondering if this quiet in me now
               is a beginning or an end.

The moon pushes over the horizon and the open page of my notebook basks in its silver light. It’s so silent I can hear the graphite of my pencil as I draw it across the paper—the pencil’sdemise giving way to the written word, each word fused with its own shadow, reflecting back into this moment. When I look at Anna’s work, I often sense a similarly intense form of silence. Not of stillness or inactivity, but of intense concentration, something unstoppable therein. Like a river carving through centuries of stone. A silence, like that of feet stepping through soft ash. The ash saying, let me hold your own sounds so that they not disturb your thoughts.

—Ian Boyden
September 29, 2023. Canyon de Chelly.

Cataract (2021), corrugated cardbord, glue, 72 x 30 x 8 inches

Anna Hepler Bio

Anna Hepler (b. 1969) is a sculptor and printmaker based in Greenfield, Massachusetts. Her work, which is both hand-held and architectural in scale, overturns first impressions – wire forms flatten into drawings, clay impersonates metal, plywood coils like rope, plastic inhales and exhales. Hepler values embarrassment, uncertainty, blunder, and fragility as active agents in her studio process. A former Henry Luce Foundation fellow in Seoul, South Korea, she has completed residencies at the Roswell Artist-in-Residence Program, Tamarind Institute, Nova Scotia College of Art & Design, Archie Bray Foundation, Surf Point Foundation, Montello Foundation, and MacDowell. In 2016 Anna Hepler was awarded a fellowship by United States Artists, and more recently has received support from the Harpo Foundation, Nancy Graves Foundation, Gottlieb Foundation, and the Massachusetts Cultural Council. Hepler has exhibited widely, and her work can be found in the collections of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., the Tate Modern in London, England, and the Portland Museum of Art in Portland, Maine, amongst others.

Constellations of Humanity

Each luminous dot on this map represents one reader of this poem. As the number of readers increases, the stars begin to cluster and form an increasingly detailed constellation. My intent is to show how brightly a poem glows across our world. I welcome your light.

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