Kathy Hettinga has received many awards and honors for her artwork, including an Indiana Arts Fellowship, a Research Fellowship at The Institute of Sacred Music, Worship, and the Arts at Yale University, and the very first Scholar Chair from Messiah University. Her work is in the permanent collections of UCLA, the Armand Hammer Museum, the New York Public Library, and the Art of the Book collection at Yale University. She is the design director for CIVA’s publications and an art professor at Messiah College. Karen L. Mulder wrote about her work in Image issue 66. Hettinga spoke to us about art as a means of justice, and why she is drawn to photograph cemeteries.
Image: Your work deals with death in very direct ways. You photograph funerary art and the bodies of dead animals. Does that influence how you look at the world around you on a day-to-day basis?
Kathy T. Hettinga: Perhaps it is just the opposite—the way I see the world is reflected in my art. Widowed at the young age of twenty-four, I was thrust into the maw of unbearable pain and unanswerable questions about death and loss; this sparked a steady and consuming response of creative work.
Shortly after my husband died I read C.S. Lewis’ A Grief Observed. I came to realize the cathartic power of art in dealing with loss and grief, and in making sense of a world gone awry. Lewis’ address “The Weight of Glory” explicates 2 Cor. 4:17: “For this slight momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison.” This sets death and suffering in their appropriate place in a life, in the world, in the cosmos—very comforting.
Over the last fifteen years, I have been photographing and documenting the cemeteries of the San Luis Valley located in Southern Colorado, where I grew up. The Valley is one of the poorest regions in the nation, but one of the richest in terms of place. This high mountain desert is encircled with the San Juans to the west and the Sangre de Cristos to the east, blessed with 360 days a year of cool sunshine—a desert sitting on a basin of underground water from which spring artesian wells and mineral hot pools. The big sky, cool sunshine, and rolling sagebrush create a place of rare beauty. It is here that the predominately poor Catholic Hispanics have created handmade grave markers—a fragile and evocative folk art. The resulting book, Grave Images: San Luis Valley, “reveals people living and dying in the profound reality of place.”
In my work I am continually looking for ways to explain loss, suffering, fragility, and death. In the beginning, my life/death experiences shaped my art, and now my art shapes my thinking about life/death. Death always remains unresolvable in life. We keep forgetting, we see through a glass darkly—and live on without knowing when death will come.
Image: What are the best and worst things about Christian subculture, for you?
KTH: I am of two minds about Christian subculture. It has lagged behind in gender equity. And the smallness and meanness of broken humanity seem magnified in Christian communities where expectations for wholeness exist. However, I can’t imagine experiencing the vitriol of what I heard in a smoke-filled meeting room at Indiana Purdue, where I witnessed a colleague telling another colleague that “I want to cut your heart out and put it in a basket.”
But whether we’re at a Christian college or a state university, when we forget to call on God, when we forget to engage the positive, fear invades our spaces. Small Terrors, a series of mine featuring scanned Go-Devil bugs, fishing flies, charred fledglings, assassin bugs and much black, expresses how we have so much, yet choose to live in terrified spaces, in our own created smallness.
When I came to Messiah College twenty-two years ago I was excited to build a graphic design/digital art program. I had set up a four-year program at Indiana Purdue, and chose to leave because I was interested in a vocation that encompassed not only my passion for visual communications, but also embraced issues of faith, allowing me to explore the spiritual depth of visual culture in my own work as well as that of students. My experience with this fuller vocation has been so rich and satisfying. I can’t imagine that the work I’ve accomplished, and my experiences with the students that I have mentored and cared for so deeply, could have been possible outside the Christian community.
The struggle for all professional Christian artists is to overcome the real prejudices against them in the art world. The work of Christians in the Visual Arts (CIVA) and Image has made good inroads in the culture, which, as a whole, is beginning to seek the spiritual much more fervently.
Image: How much attention do you pay to new technologies and equipment?
KTH: I try not to be eaten alive by techie jargon and the hamster wheel of the constant upgrade. I want to use technology to serve the vision, purpose, and the content of my work.
I was at the forefront of the digital revolution in 1985 at Indiana Purdue. Before the word multimedia was coined, I had students output to film with music and sound, taught 3D modeling with wireframes, and had students design their own fonts in the font craze of the ’90s.
Amazingly, an early program, Lumena, could do everything that Photoshop, Illustrator, and InDesign do now. Just like a Model-T in comparison to today’s cars—both will get you where you want to go, but now they’ll get you there faster and in more comfort. After the first invention, the core idea doesn’t change, just the multitude of capacities—and that’s true with software as well as with cars.
Image: What appeals to you about the book arts?
KTH: I have come to realize that my true love in art is text and image together. I don’t see any definitive, divisive lines between artist’s books, graphic design, published books, digital imaging and printmaking. All deal with word and image, shaped for their various audiences and modes of dissemination. The artist’s book can travel beyond the web of an individual life—they provide an intimate and expansive form of communication.
Called the “quintessential twentieth-century art form,” artist’s books draw on several traditions–the craft of the book, fine press printing, independent publishing, the conceptual idea of multiples, activist arts, computer/digital arts—and synthesize these into a new tradition, a new form. Women especially have claimed the field of artist’s books—embracing narrative and delighting in the egalitarian prospects of a medium that does not require the consent of publishers. Activist artists often create inexpensive multiples in order to get their messages out to the masses.
Nicholas Wolterstorff’s Art in Action greatly influenced my thinking about the purposes and functions of art. While a student at Calvin College, I was part of a class that responded to his text-in-progress. Art in Action provided explanations and answers to the errors of forced hierarchies, and alternatives to the closed communities of elitist Modernism. It freed me to think of art as having potential beyond being set in a museum for contemplation, and laid the groundwork for my work with text and image.
Image: What do you think is the most important thing student artists have to learn?
KTH: The most important things are to care deeply, to work hard, to live a life of integrity, and to risk real content in visual form.
I have enjoyed being a mentor to many of my students, walking beside them in the classroom and into their professional lives. My passion in teaching is design as service. I’m involved in Design Studio, a service program that links students to area nonprofits and on-campus design needs. Students appreciate working with clients and creating designs for churches and other organizations—a total of over 120 projects have been completed, including two award-winning viewbooks that have received national awards.
Image: What are you working on right now?
KTH: Photographing cemeteries is a passion of mine. There you find the collision of faith and death, tragedy and hope, mystery and physicality. On my travels I have photographed cemeteries in Australia, Russia, Azerbaijan, the Bahamas, and Colombia.
Another project, a book of prayers, is in its beginning stages. Many prayers reveal the universal human pattern of hope in the face of tragedy, and also show the frequent fragility of the human condition—each of us, at any given moment, so near to any number of ailments or predicaments. An artist’s book is the perfect medium for the cancer experience, too—as it can show the scientific wonder of cells and chemotherapy, along with the dark side of balancing contradictory medicines; a wide range of human pathos, evoking pity and compassion and humor in the objects and photos.
I collaborated with an arts group and a social justice organization to design Middle East Baltimore: Stories, Words and Images from a Displaced Community—a book that provides a visual and audio record of a Baltimore neighborhood that endured eminent domain being placed on it by a private corporation. The book tells the stories of the over 800 poor, predominately African-American families whose homes the developers took over.
The work that I am making and pursuing crosses the boundaries of printmaking, photography, drawing, and collage. I have long been interested in new ways to work with digital prints to increase the rich surface in a way that is integral to the work, not just a scratching of the surface.