The warm weather was a pleasant surprise for a typical January afternoon. I had dressed in my coziest sweater and jacket, prepared for the standard foggy and cold January days I had become accustomed to in San Francisco, but the sunny weather forced me to peel off layers of outerwear to reveal the cool white blouse I had on underneath. My walk from the 16th Street BART station to the Ritual Café, where I was meeting Heike, felt more like a brisk walk on a sunny spring day than a wintery afternoon. It was bizarre weather for this time of year, but I perceived it as a good omen for the interview I was about to have with Heike Seefeldt—a German artist living in San Francisco.
I reached the Ritual Café, located in the Mission District of San Francisco—located just a few blocks away from the hustle and bustle of Mission Street with its lively Mexican restaurants, fruit and vegetable grocers, and trendy restaurants and bars. This popular local hang-out was filled to the brim with stylish twenty-something Mission hipsters sipping on cappuccinos, and others taking a break from their hectic work schedule to have lunch. Notebook in hand, my eyes searched the room for Heike, who was meeting me there. I spotted a woman outside the cafe that fit the description she gave me, and matched the picture on her Web site, so I casually went outside to greet her. Her tall and slim frame was clad in a comfortable cotton shirt, casual jeans, and a fuzzy purple scarf that complemented her blue eyes flawlessly. Her shoulder length hair was perfectly wavy and a pretty, deep brown hue. Her inviting smile made me feel at ease, and my nervousness dissipated amongst the noisy sound of coffee grinding and indie rock playing in the background. We made small talk, ordered fresh lemonades and warm bacon cheese biscuits, and searched for the quietest table to talk at.
Heike casually took out a neatly bound portfolio of her work, which showcased her many talents in scenic painting, small scale painting, and her interesting collage techniques. The first thing to appear in her portfolio was a series of fashion magazine covers that she had reworked with marker pen. The faces and bodies of beautiful models were deconstructed and drawn over with bright markers to form new faces brimming with colorful Tribal type markings, larger sized bodies, and different color skin tones. It was a clever twist on what a real woman is—not just thin and beautiful bodies clad in skin tight dresses or skinny supermodels with tousled hair prancing around in tiny bikinis. Her deconstructed magazine covers were fresh, interesting, and contained witty commentary about the plastic and superficial qualities of fashion magazines.
“After a lot of time spent going through magazines, it started to bore and annoy me and I found them really repetitive. It manipulates women to spend money and tells you what you should and shouldn’t buy. It’s basically saying you should be beautiful and look young, be successful, and have kids. It’s not possible. The marker is sort of a destructive thing. You can no longer recognize people on the covers. The women in magazines are symbols of beauty in our community. It promotes eating disorders and promotes women to spend lots of money on unnecessary surgeries. This was the idea behind the marker as well.”
Heike recently started working with a group of German American artists. For their next project, they are utilizing the theme “frauline,” a German word for a woman who is not married. At their next exhibit, she may display her magazine pieces again. “The artists’ group is nine German artists and they were founded about two years ago. We are probably going to exhibit together every month,” she tells me.
She has also done a series of collages made from magazine cutouts of models that she may showcase at the “frauline” exhibit as well. “It is a collage making fun of women’s magazines. I thought, why are models pin-up girls? I played around with the idea of pin-up girls and placed jumpers, sweaters, and underwear that you could play with. I also did some drawings of women of different sizes in magazine underwear. Magazines don’t consider that women are different sizes, and it’s not natural how the models look. So I did these making fun of that idea,” she explains.
Heike has worked as a scenic painter in San Francisco for a number of years. She has worked for a number of notable theatres like CalShakes, The Berkeley Repertory Theater, and A.C.T. Her scenic painting includes a number of different forms. Sometimes it includes painting murals on walls, and other times it is working on a large canvas. “For theatres it is different—what they provide depends on what the set designer wants. Sometimes we paint on walls and sometimes they are canvases. We usually paint on the floor and move it. Picture the stage of an opera set, the background for that is the usual size. Sometimes we also work on flooring where we create wood floors and tiles. Usually as a scenic painter, you have to work more with texture and structure, and recognize the lights on the stage will affect the color.”
I was intrigued—to say the least—at such a unique career choice for an artist. Her path to becoming a scenic painter is truly inspiring and interesting as there have been many turning points and chance meetings that led her there. She started out with an apprenticeship as a carpenter, which led her to an internship with a theatre in Braunshweig, Germany—the town she grew up in. “During the internship I jumped around from one department to the other. All of a sudden, I found myself in the painting department, and thought Wow, this is really what I want to do. It is kind of a fine art but it is also connected to theater, which I loved because I was really into theatre at that point.”
During that internship, she met a friend who had studied scenic painting in the eastern part of Germany in Dresden and introduced her to the school. At the time it was the only school in Germany that had scenic painting as one of their majors. She decided to attend The Dresden Academy of Fine Arts to study scenic painting and theatre arts. Being in Eastern Germany a mere four years after the Berlin wall came down formed a great creative change in environment for Heike. “It was really interesting for me to be there, as there wasn’t really a lot developed since the wall came down. It was interesting to see the kind of opportunities they had on that side. It was very valuable to see the architecture and the city developing.”
During college, Heike came to America for a few months to get professional practice as an artist. “I started going from theatre to theatre. I started with the Intersection for the Arts and it was a really good contact for me. I had such a good time, and I was really sorry that I had to go, but I had to finish my graduation. After a detour through Switzerland for four years, I decided I wanted to be back in San Francisco. I always wanted to continue what I had started. I think that people are more passionate about theatre work here.” She has now been in San Francisco for two and a half years, with no plans of returning to Germany soon.
Heike realizes the hardships and struggles an artist faces on a daily basis, but relishes in the joy of creating. “You need to be very resilient. You should always encourage yourself and go on. You get a lot out of doing art and I think it is really worth it to study art. It opens your eyes to a lot of things. For me it’s like if I don’t feel so well and just want to be by myself, I go to my workshop and play my music loud and work on art. It makes me feel a lot better, and I have created something that I can show people. It’s kind of like a meditation for me.” She seems to create for the sake of creation and passion. It goes back to the age old adage of pursuing what you love, regardless of the hardships. Eventually Heike wants to open her own studio and gallery where she can work and exhibit her art—an attainable dream for such a multi-talented and creative woman.
Art by Heike Seefeldt