Letter from Hanau, Germany
July 17, 2013 — Features
By Merja Herzog-Hellsten ’91
Greetings and thank you for writing to me.
All of your questions raise extensive issues or fond memories of CLU and Thousand Oaks. Since we cannot discuss at length over coffee or tea, let me address this reply mainly to your questions about my art.
You ask about “Middle Sphere.” In 2011, I was commissioned to make a site-specific work for St. John’s Church (Johanneskirche) in Hanau. The pastor, Margit Zahn, wished to have an art piece which reflected the time around Erntedankfest, which means “harvest festival of thanks” and is the German Thanksgiving. My solution focused on the idea of transition and how transitions are connected to the past and to what is to come. I decided to suspend a sculpture in midair.
Built from all the parts of numerous old grape vines – roots, stems, branches – and washed in a chalk mixture, the sculpture dangled from the 10-meter ceiling of the church on a long wire. It was easy to sense both the weight and the weightlessness of this great pendant turning on its axis. Beneath the hanging form was a circular bed of wheat flour that acted as drawing paper for the shadow lines that the form traced as it slowly turned.
My art projects often take the form of installation art and are therefore spatial approaches, allowing the viewer to enter the visual situation. It is important for me to seek a medium and technique to fit the concept at hand.
Even before college, I was convinced of the importance of a broad foundation in both two- and three-dimensional art, and that was the way that undergraduate art studies were designed at CLU. I also valued the educational philosophy that made interdisciplinary liberal arts studies possible. Courses such as cultural anthropology have been useful to me in an international career in art, and they found an interested taker in me.
Most of all, I wanted to study abroad for the sake of broadening my perspective. As it happened, CLU’s Charles Brown arrived in Helsinki, the capital of Finland, to present about the curriculum in 1988, the year that I took my matriculation exams. I added Thousand Oaks to my list of choices and pursued a correspondence until I felt ready to try out CLU, for two semesters to start with.
By Christmas of the first semester, I had decided to stay. My late brother, Jukka, visited me during that first fall semester and chose to begin his studies as well the following fall!
I was lucky and extremely thankful to have professor Jerry Slattum as my adviser and professor of art history. I had John Solem for drawing and printmaking, Larkin Higgins for sculpting, design and photography, and J. T. Ledbetter for art philosophy. Each had a passionate dedication for the arts and for sharing their knowledge.
Some of my special memories include long talks with my piano professor, Dorothy Schechter, invitations for Scandinavian students by the Sons of Norway, tours of LA cultural venues, and moving off campus with my brother. Also, homes were opened with warmhearted invitations and connections made. On the other side, professor Slattum and the students traveling with him included a visit with my family in Finland on one of his famous European Culture Tours.
Toward the end of my undergraduate studies, I also met professor Joel Edwards, to whom I am grateful for his extensive knowledge in ceramics and high dedication as educator. Working as his assistant in ceramics paved the road for my master’s studies at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff.
Charles Brown first raised my curiosity about CLU by noting that students arrived from many nations, and in fact I made many good friends from multiple countries. The time was limited, but what was possible happened. I would be glad to get back in touch with those friends.
After earning the master’s degree in Arizona, I moved to work in Salzburg, Austria. Since 1994, I have lived and worked as an artist in Germany – first in Tubingen, where my husband, Marcel, whom I met in Arizona, was finishing his studies, and since 2000 in Hanau near Frankfurt. Parallel to my work as an exhibiting artist, I have taught sculpting at the University of Tubingen and, currently, in the adult education department at the Staedel Academy of Frankfurt.
Since 2005, I have been working on one of my most extensive series, named BIOGRAMS, which are visual investigations into rhythms and how rhythms relate to people, to society and to one another. We all deal extremely fluently with an array of rhythms that are integral to every action in and around us, often without taking any notice of this skill. Yet, when it comes to visualizing rhythms, we cannot. We do not know how they look. This synesthetic problem intrigues me, and I approach it with various artistic solutions.
My next work will be an outdoor sculpture. I received an invitation to participate in the annual sculpture festival Vogelfrei (“free as a bird”) in Darmstadt. If you are curious about this work – which concerns a particular situation in which human meets nature and what may result from the meeting – I will post images of it on my website in August. Please feel welcome to visit www.herzog-hellsten.de.
With warm regards to everyone
at CLU, past and present,