The physical process of creating art helps ceramics instructor Heidi Moller Somsen process the vicissitudes of life
July 4, 2019
Heidi Moller Somsen grew up in British Columbia, where she played regularly in the ocean and gathered items from along the coast.
“I remember collecting driftwood and making assemblages when I was really young,” Somsen recalled. “I literally dumped Elmer’s glue on bark and driftwood and stacked things on top of each other and arranged little pebbles and shells and moss.”
Her innate interest in the earth and materiality drove Somsen to become an artist, but it wasn’t until she took her first foundations class at BYU that she recognized her love for 3D mediums. Years later, Somsen said her artwork is a form of spiritual practice, as well as a way for her to process life “and all the big ideas in our human existence.”
When Somsen graduated with her BFA in 1995, her oldest child was three years old. Determined to keep making art in the midst of raising young children, Somsen created wherever she found space—“whether the kitchen table or my little basement studio”—and continued to participate in one or two shows each year. She also taught ceramics part-time at the Visual Art Institute, a nonprofit art program in Salt Lake City.
As Somsen’s children became more independent, she searched for a way to take her art practice to the next level. Ultimately she chose to earn an MFA at the University of Utah, where she now teaches in the Department of Art and Art History.
“When it comes to graduate school you make it what you want it to be … I really feel like I milked it for what it was worth.”
“When it comes to graduate school you make it what you want it to be,” she said. “There are people who want to go study at big name schools with big name people, but I really feel like I milked it for what it was worth.”
Reflecting on her creative process, Somsen said a new project always begins with the question,
“what if?” She then follows through on that initial thought—asking questions, researching, and working with clay until an artwork begins to form. As she spends more and more time with the idea both in and out of her studio, she starts to understand the work better.
“I must be a kinetic learner,” Somsen said, “because I have to move my body and that’s when I retain things better or when the ideas come better. Making my art is a physical act.”
This process recently led Somsen to make an abstract portrait of Deborah from the Old Testament. After reading in Judges 4:5, “she dwelt under the palm tree of Deborah,” Somsen sketched an image of a giant, black palm tree and then began to experiment in her studio. The final artwork is a mixed media representation of a palm tree and feet that sit on a chair beneath the tree.
For her MFA thesis show, Somsen researched the history of grafting in horticulture and wondered what it would feel like to have long limbs for arms. Her exploration morphed into a series of hybrid beings with actual tree limbs for arms, and eventually a performance piece in which Somsen became one of these beings herself.
Even as Somsen follows her hunches, she said it’s usually not until after she completes a work that she starts to understand what it’s truly about. In the case of her grafted series, she felt making the work helped her process experiences with family members who were struggling with mental health issues. She described the series as “an emotional body of work” that resonated with viewers.
Despite exploring a new topic with almost every show, Somsen said her work and ideas are always centered in a shared humanity and finding beauty in the quotidian. “I’m always trying to hone in on what it is I’m trying to say. It’s just a lifelong thing.”