DESIGN IS ubiquitous. Design in its graphic manifestations is, well, frankly overwhelming. Streams of printed ephemera constantly assault us, from cherished journals, to the slumping pile of unread newspapers shoved behind an easy chair in the corner, to the blur of billboards, fliers, bulletins, and posters cluttering our horizon. The democracy of digital invention compounds this bombardment, glorifying the most amateurish efforts: now, everyone designs (Monstertemplates.com); everyone publishes (iUniverse); everyone exhibits photographs (Flickr). In sum, everyone assumes greater aesthetic competency by appropriating the boilerplates of anonymous designers, who remain as nameless as Romanesque stonemasons. Even scrapbooking demands its due, valorized by its sincerity as a vernacular art form, accessible to anyone with scissors and a fresh glue stick.
This glut prevents us from really seeing much of the design that crosses our visual cortex; we can’t possibly take it all in. The sheer overload forces us to do some censoring. In such a context, how do specialists in the graphic arts generate impact, confronted, as they are, by the double dilemma of democratic, non-juried design, and the nonstop drubbing of visual stimuli? What distinguishes the labors of the professional?
Kathy Hettinga’s works tend to defy simple categorization, cycling among mass-produced print design, digital mediations of the photograph, and the relatively new terrain of artists’ books. She has been called a graphic artist, printmaker, digital designer, photographer, and, somewhat waywardly, an installation artist. Not even her own description of her calling, as a love affair with pixels, quite captures it fully. Her achievements as artist, educator, and graphic designer bridge a period of art history characterized most by its revisions of traditional forms, spanning the era that philosopher Arthur Danto called “the end of art” and that others consider the beginning of “Altermodernity”—a term coined in 2005 by Tate curator Nicolas Bourriaud as a rubric for the latest moment in art, which defines art-making as a relational process rather than an object-oriented activity with fixed ends.
Hettinga’s career began in 1979 at the Greeley Tribune in Colorado, near her birthplace, at a time when compositing equipment amounted to hot wax, razors, steel pica rulers, and endless nimbuses of cigarette smoke. Dissatisfied with the job’s limitations, after undergraduate studies in art at Calvin College, she completed a master’s degree in printmaking and photography at Colorado State University in 1985, and immediately accepted a teaching post at Indiana-Purdue University. After expanding the graphic design curriculum at Indiana-Purdue and receiving several impressive accolades, she found herself at an awkward junction between professional goals and confessional faith. At this time, the chasm separating religious expression from mainstream art yawned to a cavernous extent; transgressing it amounted to a dangerous gamble. People virtually perished in the gap. So, when a small, inter-denominational liberal arts college unknown to Hettinga called her “out of the blue” to develop the first specialized graphic design program at a Christian institution, she was impressed, but wary. Her colleagues sternly admonished that any flirtation with the Christian scene would effectively bar her from future jobs in the mainstream. Conscience dictated a different response.
Hettinga had encountered entrenched anti-religious attitudes before, at Colorado State in 1985 during her defense of her thesis, which surveyed Christian themes in contemporary printmaking. Nevertheless, she could not ignore the unusually progressive spirit of the proposal, at a time when few Christian colleges supported graphic design courses, let alone a dedicated curriculum. The prospect of inaugurating such a program seemed irrefutably tailored to her strengths and desires. After many deep breaths, with a temporary leave from Indiana-Purdue to test the waters, Hettinga opted to join a cadre of talented, accomplished, culturally astute colleagues at Messiah College in the rural fringes of south central Pennsylvania, where she has explored her field and her faith since 1988. Along the way, she built up a national profile in design and book art, garnering awards and recognition from competitions that include siggraph’s Visual Proceedings, Graphic Design: USA, and American Graphic Design. She has exhibited widely in the continental United States, as well as in Poland, Italy, England, Palestine, the United Arab Emirates, and Australia, and shown her works at leading book-art exhibits, such as the Pyramid/Atlantic Book Arts Invitational and Action/Interaction: Book/Arts at the Chicago Center for Book & Paper Arts. Her artists’ books and prints reside in significant collections at UCLA, Berkeley, Yale, Harvard, Iowa University, the New York Public Library, the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, and the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington, DC. After more than sixteen years of meticulous documentation and refinement, she finally saw the publication of her culminating life’s work, Grave Images: San Luis Valley by the Museum of New Mexico Press in 2009. It received an honorable mention from the Association of American Museums [see Plates 5 and 6].
Grave Images celebrates the funerary art, culture, and landscape of Hettinga’s native Colorado, surveying a human geography that has always nourished her. In the midst of the Rockies, the San Luis Valley spreads magnificently over a hundred miles, incorporating more than 11 million acres of high desert. The valley nestles amid near-mythical topographical features such as the Rio Grande, Saguache, and the high mountains of the San Juan and Sangre de Cristo ranges. This setting gave Hettinga natural metaphors for fragility and hardship, beauty and cruelty. She observed how the thin, waterless air brought objects closer, and how tenacious blankets of golden sage and silvery gray chico clung to the hardpan ground. Its environmental quirks appealed to her love of paradox. For instance, plunging nighttime temperatures, low enough to make the area one of the coldest in the country, accompany 360 days of sun. It is a hard land, where hardy people scratch livings from the white alkali outlines of former lakes, getting by on ten inches of yearly rainfall with vast reservoirs hidden beneath the surface. The result of thousands of hours of labor, Grave Images brings together the full cycle of Hettinga’s love songs to this region.
Hettinga is by all accounts a successful artist. The intensity of her drive, however, has occasionally distanced her from other people. Themes of death in her work have mystified some and repelled others. From a superficial standpoint, her recurring allusions to folkloric funerary art, intimate scans of dead animals, and breathtakingly desolate landscapes might appear to indicate an unseemly preoccupation with death. This would be inaccurate—at least partly—but her life seems freighted with suffering and striving after elusive resolutions. Grave Images discloses some of the sources of this energy.
The first time Hettinga told me about the most pivotal event of her life, over a lazy morning cup of coffee in 1995, hot, unexpected tears spilled. In 1980, a runaway feed truck crushed her twenty-four-year-old husband, Duane, as he tended to his daily round of chores at a six-hundred-head Holstein dairy farm. At first, well-meaning relatives prevented her from seeing Duane’s maimed body in the hospital, but eight days after his death, she finally broke through their barricade to gaze on his face for the last time. Undone by this cruel, abrupt separation, she witnessed something that had all the gravity and intimacy of a last rite: as she watched, a single tear of blood ran from the corner of Duane’s eye, cutting a path through the strangely orange makeup the undertaker had sprayed on to mask Duane’s bruised pallor. A passage in her introduction to Grave Images, “Narrative (Death),” describes the moment with stark simplicity: “I lift the veil. I wipe away his tear. I use his handkerchief with the initial D sewn in bright green thread by his mother.”
In the book’s foreword, retired Yale philosopher Nicholas Wolterstorff describes her depictions of vernacular grave memorials as loving gestures that protect the memory of the lost “from the acids of forgetfulness.” These acids constituted a real threat to Hettinga, whose early prints featured fading pentimentos of Duane and allusions to weather-bitten barns and outbuildings. The Wolterstorffs had also lost a loved one unexpectedly, and violently, when their twenty-five-year-old son died in a climbing accident. In his book Lament for a Son, Wolterstorff addressed the odd particularity and universality of death, and described how lament becomes a love song—sentiments that provided immense comfort to Hettinga. As an undergraduate at Calvin, together with Duane in Wolterstorff’s theological aesthetics class, Hettinga had read unpublished chapters from his classic, Art in Action. In 1994 she reacquainted herself with Nick and Claire when she took a sabbatical at Yale, gaining new patrons for her artists’ books in the process.
Recovering fitfully from Duane’s death, Hettinga tenaciously pursued professional goals and national recognition while raising a son from a brief, troubled second marriage, as a single mother in a couples-oriented Christian subculture. One might conclude that the violent event that stole her first love drove a nail deep into Hettinga’s view of the world, pinning her to an oppressive belief that life is at best a tenuous and arduous venture with few respites. This is only half true. Eventually, that nail became an iron rod, giving Hettinga resolve and sharpening her will to succeed, forcing her to reconcile the tragedy of loss with the promise of redemption. Hettinga’s refusal to surrender to the awful primacy of death reflects her active hope in resurrection, but her overt flirtations with the consequences of death supply her works with some of their most gratifying conceptual twists. The hope of resurrection can provide just enough strength to look death directly in the eye. In life, however, Hettinga remained marked, and often irritated by a constant interior dialogue that toggled restlessly between sorrow and grace. Her pivoting explorations of mortality distanced her from others and set her in stark relief against a culture that generally denied death, beyond its Romantic and literary uses. Lambs of the San Luis Valley (1994), for example, is a sweeping catalogue of loss punctuated by extreme beauty and poignancy, revealed in gorgeous shadows and searing highlights in Hettinga’s digitally altered photographs. Lambs mainly features children’s graves, commemorating the premature loss of young life in a hard land with an array of sweet, but not saccharine, images [see Plate 7]. The book is best viewed when arranged in a circle—a physical metaphor for the prospect of eternity. This is an eternity limited by physical boundaries on this side of life.
All Hettinga’s early images involve manipulations of photography, which in the primeval days of computer art demanded great patience and resolve. Long before desktop computing assumed its integral role in most American homes, Hettinga began dodging and fiddling with film negatives in relatively tiny 500-megabyte files. She took inspiration from digital pioneers like April Greiman, who wielded their rudimentary Macintoshes as design tools despite monochromatic 9-inch monitors, limited 512-kilobyte memory, and a delicate proclivity to crash. An image like Hettinga’s gift (1992), saturated with textures created by digital erasures, waxy thermal inks, and bumpy rice-paper surfaces, took days to scan, alter, and reproduce. Few artists had access to large-scale archival printers in the 1980s, and top-of-the-line scanners cost more than a million dollars and occupied half a classroom. Initially, Hettinga used Cone Editions in Vermont, the first commercially available printing operation offering larger sheet sizes. She chose archival papers and inks and had to ship tiny swatches from huge Iris prints back and forth for color corrections by snail mail. Eventually, she petitioned the computer department at Messiah College for a large-format Epson 9500, a massive rectangular monster that often required an entire night and day to reproduce images—if it didn’t crash midstream. In the early enlargements, scanning at the right intensity and resolution took so long that Hettinga often camped out overnight in the computer lab to babysit the process. Despite its cranky operational nature, the Epson’s availability probably shaped Hettinga’s art more than any other singular influence. The first finished pieces, Hettinga recalls, took her breath away and made her cry with ecstasy.
The conceptual inspiration for her monumental animal scans—such as the 4 by 7-foot Shrew (2001)—began as a vision to cover every inch of a gallery space with massively enlarged details from black-feathered birds. Hettinga recalls being in a phase that simply demanded black. Though this idea never materialized, the paradoxical monumentality and intimate detail of her animal scans anchored such exhibits as The Small Terrors and Into the Hands of the Living God [see Plates 8 and 9]. Their visceral impact can only truly be appreciated firsthand. Small Terrors trained a magnifying lens on insects—the main players in so many of our nightmares, useful stand-ins for the occasional terrors we face in life. In works like Go-Devil Bug, Fishing Fly, Assassin Bug, and Charred Fledgling (found petrified in a church chimney), huge enlargements emerge from a depthless black 4 by 8-foot ground. Composed directly after Hurricane Katrina, Small Terrors was meant to expose our fearful and claustrophobic reactions to hardship, and our occasional amnesia regarding the presence of grace.
Archiving such scans has posed other challenges, as storage systems have flitted from floppies, to SyQuest disks of 80 megabytes, to zip drives, to DVDs, and finally to flash drives with space for multi-gigabyte images. While current technologies produce the same results in far less time, with less aggravation, Hettinga laments that existing systems can no longer read her once cutting-edge digital files, since some outdated hardware actually provided higher quality resolutions. Trying not to be “eaten alive by techno jargon,” she says, “I simply use the available technology to serve my vision, purpose, and the content.” In fact, Hettinga religiously avoids what she calls “geeky” preoccupations with equipment. The cameras that supply her voluminous image bank serve merely as sketchpads—blank sheets that record raw impressions.
She eventually opted to display her gigantic memento mori directly on the wall, without frames or glass to block their impact and crispness. Wanting to exhibit smaller digital prints at the same time, Hettinga devised clear acrylic shelves that bisected the large works without interrupting them—a system that she has since used on multiple occasions, and one that helped her test the order of imagery in Grave Images. In Small Terrors, the Plexiglas shelves permitted another layer of visual dialogue by displaying smaller prints of the go-devil bug interacting with the fishing fly in ways that implied threat, collaboration, and the delicate dance of intimacy. The shelves ran around the entire gallery, creating a visual unity, and also protecting the prints. Except in one case.
If, as some critics believe, controversy implies a kind of artistic validation, Hettinga’s series Into the Hands of the Living God received its due at the Gettysburg Theological Seminary. There, her large-scale bird and rodent scans dominated small public spaces, causing some to boycott meetings in a boardroom papered with the huge dead animals. Someone even vandalized the prints, drawing an X on the nose of Mole and scrawling graffiti over the pristine scans. In retrospect, community members said that the exhibit provoked the best conversations on the arts the seminary had ever had. Hettinga, for one, feels mystified by negative reactions—especially in a setting where students are taught that death precedes another, better kind of life.
She approaches her subjects without squeamishness, like a forensic scientist. She is fascinated by the arrest of an organism that lived an entire life and perhaps knew its creator at some ontological level. Her media, dead animals, are found objects. “I had not killed any of them,” she says. “I could never do this. But each one presented itself to me, as a gift, for art.” Friends, in fact, have often augmented her strange cryogenic collection, sometimes mailing animals on dry ice from afar, to be stored in Hettinga’s kitchen freezer before their debuts on the scanner bed. Enlarging the smallest mammal on earth (a shrew) to a monumental six feet, or silencing one of the noisiest (a raven), allows the viewer to appreciate their glorious detail and unalterable deadness at one swift glance.
The inspiration for Into the Hands of the Living God came from an Ethiopian seminarian’s homily at Hettinga’s small Lutheran church. The sermon paraphrased a verse from Hebrews that asks, “What better place to fall than into the hands of the living God, though it meant judgment? What better place to fall than into the hands of the just and powerful and merciful God?” As always, a deeper meditation grounds Hettinga’s concept: “The dead birds and rodents enter into death in different ways, like we may: some gracefully, like the robin; some fighting it, like the thrasher. Some fall into it weightlessly, like the baby shrew. Some fall into it with dirt and blood on their claws, like the mole…. It got me thinking that although we are afraid, and do not know what to expect, it is better to fall into the hands of the living God, and rest there, than into the hands of anyone or anything else.” Hettinga relishes the ironies in the process—particularly the fact that the archival inks she uses to capture the departed have been tested to last for more than one hundred years, in time-accelerated trials.
Two conceptual pivots inform Hettinga’s process. She calculates the impact of digital images mathematically, demonstrating logically how a picture could literally be worth a thousand words: if a single letter in ASCI code equals one computer byte, and the average word is composed of five letters, then five thousand letters, or bytes, equal one thousand words. Five thousand bytes constitute enough data for a very small black-and-white image, roughly one square inch, at the low resolution of 72 dpi (dots per inch). A one-inch square image printed at the crisper resolution of 300 dpi (the resolution used in most print media, including Image) equals 250,000 bytes, or 50,000 words. Anyone who has witnessed her laborious creative process knows that she is probably intimately familiar with every byte in each work.
Additionally, and to her delight, Hettinga discovered a direct theological connotation for typography in Johanna Drucker’s 1989 artist’s book The Word Made Flesh. As Drucker, a Berkeley-trained art historian and artist, explains in The Alphabetic Labyrinth (1995): “The logos is the metaphysical condition of being, the very essence of God as the full extension of the universe—transcendent, absolute, and ultimate.” Taking Drucker’s wordplay a step further, Hettinga began correlating “word,” as an element in graphic design, to its Christological analog—Word as Logos. Perhaps this connection inflected another aspect of her approach: the notion of service.
Hettinga emphasizes that design, as well as art, is validated by its service to the recipient. Design, from her perspective, is an invisible membrane between the reader and the word/Word, and while it ought to conform to high standards, it can never advance itself as art for art’s sake in the manner of other art forms. The idea of design-as-service became formalized in Messiah College’s curriculum, which requires students to take on pro bono jobs for nonprofits, missions, ministries, and churches. Messiah students have donated more than 150 commissions to good causes, and several of their projects have received national recognition and awards. The process requires extraordinary effort and some risk: clients must trust that the results will be successful, and students must learn to assimilate clients’ requests, or occasionally to trump them. Hettinga won a leadership award for her passion and commitment to this project, donating the prize money to the Pennsylvania Council against Domestic Violence.
An additional benefit emerges when Messiah students run with the model and start their own companies, such as Carol and Jim Roessner’s Mission House Creative in Raleigh, North Carolina. Their internationally recognized team develops marketing strategies for paying clients, then uses the revenue to support pro bono projects for nonprofits. Another Messiah student attracted attention for her design service commission for Wisconsin Citizen Action. After graduation, the same student now anchors the design department at DC Central Kitchen, a highly regarded nonprofit that recycles unused food from local businesses, teaches food industry skills to the dispossessed, exposes college students to volunteer initiatives, and locates underutilized kitchen facilities to battle hunger. Hettinga herself participates in similarly generous projects. Since 1993, she has given many hours to designing materials for Christians in the Visual Arts, and the American Graphic Design Awards Annual has recognized her work on CIVA’s SEEN journal six times—usually selected from a field of eleven thousand entries.
Service, for Hettinga, extends beyond the physical printed object, because each project grows out of the social need of distinct communities. Her artist book Cupid’s Cay (2007) documents the effects of time on the homes of Eleuthera islanders in the Bahamas over a fifteen-year period. Beyond chronicling the grace and hospitality of Bahamians who live in simplicity and poverty, Hettinga’s actual project during cross-cultural courses with Messiah students involved cultivating relationships and documenting the island’s history as the first republic in the New World.
In Baltimore, working with the grassroots organization Art on Purpose and photographer Beth Barbush, she designed a book that publicizes the anguish of eight hundred low-income families battling the loss of their homes to eminent domain in Middle East Baltimore Stories: Words and Images from a Displaced Community (2010). Its recorded personal narratives and simple, elegant portraits protest the underhanded campaign of a private corporation to replace a historic community near Johns Hopkins University with a biotech park that would gentrify the surrounding area, forcibly relocating the present inhabitants to remote or nonequivalent homes.
In the late 1980s, Hettinga’s preference for serial forms dovetailed with the emerging codex or artist’s book format. The 1977 MOMA exhibit Bookworks heralded book-derived art as a “new genre,” superseding nineteenth-century livres d’artistes and luxury editions like Rouault’s Les Fleurs du Mal or Matisse’s Jazz. So-called crossover artists with international reputations in conceptual and performance art, including Ed Ruscha, Gilbert & George, Vito Acconci, and Sol Lewitt, relished their part in promoting low cost, high concept books in editions of three hundred to a thousand, often freighted with political or socio-cultural critique. This assertively democratic art form, however, was never fully validated in critical circles. As late as 1994, New York Times art critic Holland Cotter fretted over the persistent marginalization that seemed to afflict artists’ books. “Real art objects, as opposed to craft objects,” Cotter stipulated, “are supposed to just sit there looking pretty, but books invite engagement, often demand it…. [M]aybe the sheer range of the artist’s book is too wide for the market to grasp and process?” Cotter highlighted the genre’s ambivalent reception in his preface to The Century of Artists’ Books, Johanna Drucker’s landmark review.
Drucker, who mentored Hettinga during a sabbatical fellowship at Yale and now teaches at UCLA, calls artists’ books “intermedia.” The form nimbly intersects a broad swath of art practices from traditional to avant-garde, including printing, typography, letterpress art, book illustration, book fabrication, independent publishing, painting, concrete poetry, conceptual art, automatic writing, electronic art, digital design, performance art, virtual constructs, and even political activism. This suits Hettinga perfectly. “To me,” she explains, “there was never a boundary between graphic design and artists’ books and printmaking and published books, except for the practical outcome of where the work was going, and most importantly to my thinking, its purpose.” From the beginning of her career, she disparaged the “value games” and hierarchies that art historians imposed on contemporary media by placing “sculpture and painting at the top, followed by drawing, with photos and printmaking worth less due to multiples [or ease of replication], ceramics and crafts worth less due to their functional quality, and graphics worth almost nothing due to its multiples and ‘commercial’ or ‘functional’ role.”
Her most recent artist’s book, The Madonna Hears: Your Prayers, Your Petitions, Prejudicial Statements, takes a feminist stance to unfair hiring practices, juxtaposing evocative Madonna images from San Luis Valley cemeteries with quotations from real time [see Plate 10]. Dates and names accompany phrases like “We’d take you in a minute if you were a man.” These statements overlay attentive Madonnas and saturated scans of faded, tattered silk or plastic flowers from gravesites that underscore color stereotypes in pink and blue. Beyond this, Hettinga hesitates to express other perennial controversies that occupy her, hung up between reluctance to appear strident (since contention is often seen as particularly offensive in a Christian setting) and an inherent sense of justice. While she readily admits to witnessing changes in the way that the Christian subculture handles women’s issues, she harbors an acute sensitivity to the effects of passive-aggressive behavior, sexism, and extreme interpretations of male headship.
Ultimately, Hettinga’s desire to emulate the Holy Spirit as communicator and intercessor overrides her drive to critique, and this feeds her appreciation for the empathic potential of imagery. “I once happened upon a student viewing my Lamb books in the gallery, quietly weeping,” Hettinga remembers. “This was one of the highest praises this work has received.” Her penchant for cataloguing sorrow and loss, as an empathetic exercise, received its greatest outlet after a bout with cancer and chemotherapy in 2003. The unblinking directness of her self-portrait in Chemotherapy Patient is contested by the work’s obvious vulnerability as an unmounted piece, almost provisionally pinned to the wall, where its edges flutter helplessly as viewers walk past [see Plate 11].
If early widowhood gave her insights about the fragility of life, cancer illuminated her utter helplessness against a body that revolted without warning. In the face of daily fear about the unknown, Hettinga experienced an unaccountable sense of liberation. “When I got cancer, I just had to laugh,” she explains, “because I thought God was wasting the learning experience on someone who already knew a lot about it. Somehow it made everything funny in both an absurd way and also, in a good, letting-go, belly-laughing kind of way. My conversation with God went like this: ‘God, this is too funny. I already know about the shortness of life, the painfulness of it, the weird brevity, the unfair suffering raining down indiscriminately on the good and the bad. What can I learn from this? Shouldn’t someone else learn some things, here?’” As the poisonous aftermath of chemo abated, Hettinga received an unexpected wave of invitations to lecture, exhibit, and travel (to Russia, Australia, and Colombia)—and ended her lengthy singleness by marrying Nathan Sooy in 2008.
Ultimately, Hettinga’s drive to publish her ideas and images may spring from a deeper, subconscious activity of forgetting and remembering. After she had surmounted a long litany of life’s vagaries, cancer attempted to win the latest round. By the grace of God and nothing else, she says, “I threw myself into seeing the medical world and all of its imaging devices, and documenting the humanness of the medical staff, the workers. I took interest in them and photographed them, or had them photograph me. They responded and came alive. Then I came alive…. It freed me for joy.” Hettinga’s graphic excursions help her retain some sense of emotion and happenstance, and the deep resonances she feels with place. As she says, “unfinished work cannot just be done later. Because later, you cannot remember.” Soon, her adventures with cancer will enter the visual canon, worked out in her studio in the San Luis Valley, where her blood runs in the soil. There, in a studio home built of timbers from a Pennsylvania barn, shipped cross-country and reconstructed, she will complete her thoughts about surviving mortal threat during semester breaks.
Although she considers herself a reluctant prophet, Hettinga’s articulations of the shape of loss and longing remain fresh, because, as she freely admits, she has experienced the comfort of the Holy Spirit. She reflects: “From every tragedy, I emerged always ready to work. Everything simultaneously fell away and into place.” Like the short stories of Flannery O’Connor, Hettinga’s “large and startling figures” reach out towards the “almost blind,” never assuming that an audience believes or sees the visible form of invisible truths in the way she does. The carefully documented San Luis Valley grave markers, crumbling into anonymous dilapidated piles, form a landscape of remembrance. Not surprisingly, Hettinga appreciates historian Philippe Ariès’s statement in The Hour of Our Death that “Death loves to be represented. The image can retain some of the obscure, repressed meanings that the written word filters out. Hence its power to move us so deeply.” In an age characterized by amnesia, graphic overload, and constant change, Hettinga distinguishes herself with a stately art of elegy and eulogy, grounded by place, counted in the measures of time and eternity, and liberated by expectations of a realm beyond this one.
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.