Heidi Hehn didn’t set out to do a Halloween-themed show. It just kind of turned out that way.
“I like to work sometimes in just one or two colours,” the Whitehorse painter explains. “I started doing this series of landscapes around the Yukon in the summer that were just in oranges and this sort of maroon colour that goes really well with orange.”
Realizing the work was different from what she usually created, Hehn decided to pursue the idea of orange a bit further.
“Then, when they gave me a show at YAAW (Yukon Artists at Work) and it was dated for October 28, I thought, well, orange is definitely the right way to go. Halloween’s coming.”
The result is an exhibition of 17 new paintings with a title drawn from the punch line of an old knock-knock joke, Orange You Curious. It opens this Friday at the co-op’s gallery on Industrial Road.
Hehn admits her first solo show in two years didn’t materialize without a struggle. After doing a few paintings in July, she hit a patch of artist’s block.
“I dried for about a month or two, and then when I went back to it, I didn’t want to work with the orange I’d been working with before,” she says.
“That’s when I started getting really crazy and pulling in all kinds of oranges – reddish oranges, burnt oranges.”
Once she learned the gallery had scheduled her show for late October, Hehn began adding other thematic elements.
“Some of the paintings are a little bit mysterious, they have mysterious figures in them. And then there’s also the ravens,” she hints.
“There’s about three raven paintings. One in particular is a little bit spooky. Maybe not so much spooky as mysterious.”
That painting, she calls “Raven Gothic”.
“I thought people might have fun with it. I certainly did.”
During her summer dry spell, Hehn began questioning why she was focusing on a single colour, especially one as limiting as orange.
“But the fact is, it sort of forces you. It challenges you, doing something like that,” she says.
“Having to put orange, or use orange in every piece, I kept asking myself, ‘What is orange? What’s orange around me?’ And I obviously didn’t want to use the fruit too much.
“So, things like furniture, hair, flowers – things like that popped up. Moons. And that’s where I went from there on.”
Her exploration of orange also started Hehn musing about what might eventually become the theme of a future exhibition. Chairs.
“I wanted to do an orange cat on a chair. And it was a beautiful chair. It was a real mess; the paint was flaking off it, it had so much character,” she recounts.
“So I put the orange cat on there, and I loved it so much that I went on to do another one. In this case, the wall was orange, because that was quite a popular traditional colour in the 1800s, the pumpkin-orange wall paint that they used. It’s more or less like a lady’s boudoir, or her front room.
“It has the beautiful little straw hat, and the shawl, and the old button boots that a lady would have worn, and a lovely window to look outside of.”
As Hehn describes the painting, called “Sunday”, it seems fitting that she is at work in her Pineridge studio on a Sunday afternoon, two weeks before her show is set to open.
“Today I’m starting a third one, and that will be it for now. The one today will be sort of Gold Rush themed.”
Hehan also collects and restores chairs, and sees a lot of potential in these everyday objects to tell stories in paint.
“They represent different eras. They represent different cultures. They represent different tastes. They represent different kinds of people,” she enthuses.
“Like a judge, as opposed to a gold miner, or even a teacher. The way I think of a judge, for instance, I think of a high-backed brown leather chair with a wine table beside it with a brandy snifter and a cigar burning. That kind of thing.”
Even an empty chair can tell a lot about its owner.
“It’s kind of a mystery. It’s a sketch of a person in an era, and maybe an occupation. But without giving it all away – letting you, the onlooker, determine in your own imagination what you think you see there. For that, it’s kind of fun. I might do more.”
Then, as someone whose work often features stands of birch trees and other iconic Yukon landscapes, Hehn makes a quick mental leap.
“Actually, the Dempster with a chair in the middle of it… That would do it, eh?” she laughs. “Yeah, chairs have a lot of possibilities, alright.”
As she speaks, it’s clear that the exercise of concentrating on one colour has broken Hehn’s dry spell.
“I don’t know if I’m going to use orange in future, but I might try the whole colour thing again, so that I can force myself again to come out of my ruts,” she says.
“This actually pulled me out of a two-year rut. I had no idea that would happen, but it was worth it.”
Orange You Curious opens Friday, October 28 at 5 p.m. and runs until November 11.