Sue Heatley: Abstract Focus, Intuitive Process

Complex layers of lines, biomorphic patterns, intense colors, and ornamental elements have long characterized her prints and, more recently, her paintings
Sue Heatley unwrapped some of the prints she will be showing in Richmond, Va., next week. Mark Segal

Although Sue Heatley had been making art for most of her life, the South Fork’s history as an art colony was not the reason she moved from Richmond, Va., to Springs in 2004. “I didn’t make much art the first year I was here, and I wasn’t connected to other artists. I was going through a divorce and trying to figure out who I was and what I wanted to spend my time doing.” 

Things changed in 2007, when she began working at the Drawing Room Gallery in East Hampton. Among the artists it represents are John Alexander, Jennifer Bartlett, Bryan Hunt, Dan Rizzie, Toni Ross, Jack Yougerman . . . and, since 2014, Ms. Heatley. A solo show of her recent work will open there on Friday, Oct. 20. 

The exhibition will include eight paintings and half a dozen works on paper. “I haven’t painted on canvas for as long as I can remember,” she said. For much of her career, she moved between printmaking and ceramics.

Ms. Heatley grew up in a small, middle-class town between Akron, Ohio, and Cleveland. She became involved in art early on in part through two neighbors: a woman who did decorative painting on objects and furniture and an interior designer.

“He had a pile of decorating magazines and exposed me to the design world. I would look at ads for fabric companies and furniture, just soaking it all up, and that was how, when I was 8 years old, I first learned about Jack Lenor Larsen,” the founder of the LongHouse Reserve in East Hampton, where she now works as inventory manager of INstore.

Her college experience was not typical. She first enrolled at the Columbus College of Art and Design, which provided “a very thorough, very skills-oriented foundation year. But my mother’s death from cancer that year rattled me, and I bounced around.”

She attended Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, which was “no skills, all content,” then Kent State, and, finally, Hiram College in Ohio, where she graduated with a degree in art history.

Because she loved her time at V.C.U., she returned to Richmond in 1982 and stayed there for 25 years, marrying Tom Papa and raising their son, Drew, who is now 29 and lives in Richmond with Cruze, her 4-year-old grandson.

“I just started making art on my own when I was there. I studied, but it was piecemeal.” Early on she became involved with the Richmond Printmaking Workshop, an artist-run nonprofit through which she learned printmaking and became connected with the local art community. She also began to work with clay during those years.

While both printmaking and ceramics are processes that can involve years of study, “I just wanted to know what I needed to know in order to do what I wanted to do. That’s the way I work.” And work she did, exhibiting, teaching, and programming for the Virginia Museum of Fine Art’s education department. 

She and her husband bought the house in Springs because Drew wasn’t happy with his school in Richmond. “The plan was for me to come up here with him so he could attend school in East Hampton. Within a year Tom and I decided to separate.”

Ms. Heatley has always worked abstractly. She was focused on ceramics when she first relocated to East Hampton, and for a few years moved back and forth between clay and printmaking before coming to a crossroads.

“I feel like I dabbled for many years when I was living in Virginia. I was having shows, but I was moving from thing to thing. The last 10 years or so I’ve decided I want to focus on one thing for a while, and I was ready to shift over to two-dimensional work, where a lot of the forms and lines and things you see in my sculptures definitely come out.”

“It’s a conscious effort to do enough of something that I can see what it is and where it’s going. It’s not that my work doesn’t change, because I think it does change a fair amount. But I do think there’s a thread.”

Complex layers of lines, biomorphic patterns, intense colors, and ornamental elements have long characterized her prints and, more recently, her paintings. The work in her upcoming exhibition represents a turning point of sorts, and not just because it’s her first show of paintings on linen.

“I work abstractly, but I do feel the imagery and forms I have in my work have been very much related to my environment. Sometimes it’s just the elements or the weather or the light or the shapes. It could be plants or it could be figures. This was the first year I felt it was more about the atmosphere emotionally and in terms of the atmosphere in the country.”

The newest paintings, many of which were started in June at Nimrod Hall, an “art camp” in Virginia, feature dense black bubble-like shapes that float and encroach upon other organic areas of blue, red, orange, yellow, and raw linen, faintly suggesting gathering storm clouds.

“These paintings are a real departure in terms of working very solidly,” she said. “A lot of my work in the past has been kind of this soupy world you’re floating in.” The black and some of the silver areas were painted with Flashe, a vinyl-based paint that gives a matte, velvety, opaque finish. She also works with acrylic.

Ms. Heatley doesn’t draw anything before or while she’s painting. “I’m not a real sketcher,” she said. “I just start and proceed.” She usually works in relatively short bursts on more than one painting at a time. “The way I work and the forms are always intuitive. You don’t always know what you’re doing when you work that way.” Everything, including the circles, is freehand, even though many of the forms are hard-edged.

She recalled the neighbor in Ohio who did the precise, decorative tole painting. “Watching her, I knew I would never make big, messy paintings. It’s not that I don’t like them, but they’re never going to come out of me.”

Next Thursday, the day before the Drawing Room show opens, Ms. Heatley will be in Richmond for the opening of “The Noise of the Day,” a solo show at Quirk Gallery.

“Getaway,” one of Ms. Heatley’s new paintings on linen
Sue Heatley uses Flashe, a vinyl-based paint, to attain a “very blacked-out black” in her “Pink Rumble.”