“New Life for Dryer Lint: When cancer forced Stroudsburg artist to stop heavy metal work, artist found joy a fluffy medium”
Stroudsburg artist Heidi Hooper has been recognized with a 2017 Niche Award, an annual recognition of American and Canadian achievement in fine craft sponsored by Niche Magazine.
Hooper, a twice-recipient of a Niche Award in the Fabric category, won this year for a piece called, “Magritte in Dryer Lint.” Like Hooper’s most prominent work, the aptly named piece is made of dryer lint — a practice the Stroudsburg artist picked up from interesting circumstances.
Hooper was diagnosed with a rare form of rapidly-moving cancer that, over time, ate away at the radial nerve, biceps, triceps and nerves of her right arm. At the time, she was a metalsmith who frequently designed suits of armor. Her cancer and radiation treatment cost her too much to continue working with metal.
Her mother-in-law came to take care of her during treatment — though she herself was suffering from lupus at the time. Her ailment caused her sense of heat to become dulled, so she would often leave Hooper’s laundry in the dryer for too long.
“I had huge mounds of mixed colored fluff, the size of a collie dog stacked next to the dryer,” Hooper said. “I decided I needed to do something with it.”
Hooper had spent years during her battle with cancer searching for doable forms of art. She found success — and catharsis — working with dryer lint.
“When you’re really sick with cancer, you’ve got to give yourself daily goals to get your mind lifted,” Hooper said.
Hooper’s work was dedicated to old masters of art, and often feature her influences. Her piece called “Andy Warhol in Dryer Lint” won her a first Niche Award in 2014. Fittingly, she was once dubbed the “Andy Warhol of Dryer Lint” by Consumer Reports. After a period of numerous rejections from galleries, her pieces caught on. Much of her current work is of pets and animals.
Hooper’s cancer stopped in 2012 when just one and a half tricep muscles remained in her right arm. Through extensive re-wiring, she has control of her fingers still. But cancer has costed her.
“Basically, an hour standing up means an hour of having to lay down because of how exhausting it is,” Hooper said.
Her work remains her newfound art. Though she was shocked to hear Niche had recognized her again, it was hard work due.
“I just wasn’t going take no for an answer,” Hooper said about her craft. “I just kept at it.”
PROFESSIONAL ARTISTS MAGAZINE (February 22, 2017)
Heidi Hooper has a bachelor’s in sculpture from Virginia Commonwealth University and a master’s in metalsmithing from the Massachusetts College of Art. She was recently receieved her fourth nomination for the prestigious Niche award and has won twice. Hooper is known as “The Dryer Lint Lady” — believe it or not! Her unusual art is featured in Ripley’s Believe it or Not museums and books.
READING EAGLE (May 29, 2015)
Heidi Hooper of Tannersville, Monroe County, has a master’s degree in metalsmithing and a bachelor’s degree in fine arts. Years ago, she began to create artistic works using dryer lint and now has an entire gallery of works available to purchase. On her website, HeidiHooper.com, you can view a virtual dryer lint art exhibit.
She explains to visitors that she now sorts her laundry to get the color of lint she desires for her works.
“I have shelves full of sorted lint to choose from when creating a new piece,” she said.
Stroudsburg artist Heidi Hooper has won the 2014 Niche Award in the “recycled” category for her piece “Andy Warhol in Dryer Lint.”
Hooper was previously nominated in 2012, but this is her first win in the competition, in its 25th year.
Hooper is a cancer survivor who needed to find a new outlet for her art when she could no longer make the sculptures in which she was trained. She found the unusual medium of dryer lint. Her work has since been found in galleries all over the country. She was featured in a Ripley’s Believe it or Not book, and Ripley’s has purchased dozens of her dryer lint work, which display in their museums all over the world.
After Consumer Reports did a side piece about her work and called her “The Andy Warhol of Dryer Lint,” Hooper made the large piece that won her this award.
“Many galleries refuse to take the art seriously because of the medium, so it was especially nice to be recognized by such as prestigious art award,” Hooper said.
The Niche Award program recognizes the outstanding creative achievements of American cart artists who produce work for galleries. Judging is done by art professionals and professors, and is based on three main criteria:
Technical excellence, both in surface design and form
A distinct quality of unique, original and creative thought
Winners of the 2014 Niche Award were announced recently at the Pennsylvania Convention Center.
Niche Magazine is published by The Rosen Group, a Baltimore-based arts marketing, publishing and advocacy firm. The Rosen Group produces the Buyers Market of American Craft, the nation’s largest craft show for American and Canadian artist-made merchandise, in which galleries and artists from all over the US and Canada attend.
BUCKS COUNTY HERALD
(August 9, 2012)
“Former Sculptor Finds New Way to Express Herself by Turning Dryer Lint Into Works of Art”
by Jodi Spiegel Arthur
When Heidi Hooper was a little girl, she used to sit in the bathtub, turning soap into works of art.
“I used to get in trouble for carving bars of soap,” she said. “My mom hated it because she was constantly having to buy soap. I was a bad kid,” she said, laughing.
As she grew into adulthood, her art evolved from soap carvings of cows and ducks to bronze and silver sculpture and wearable art costumes.
Hooper’s sculpting career was cut short in early 1999, when a cancerous desmoid tumor was discovered in her dominant arm. Multiple surgeries and radiation to combat the cancer, which recurred twice, resulted in the removal of her right upper arm muscle and severely diminished her arm strength, forcing Hooper to change the way she expressed herself.
“I wasn’t going to take it lying down,” said the 1981 graduate of Virginia Commonwealth University, who worked on her master’s degree in metalsmithing at Massachusetts College of Art.
It was by chance, and a great deal of trial and error, that Hooper hit on a new way to be creative: turning dryer lint into art.
She shows her work, most featuring animals, at galleries within a 100-mile radius of her Tannersville home, including A Mano Galleries, in New Hope and Lambertville, N.J., and customers also find her on the Internet.
Hooper’s art is so unusual, it was featured in “Ripley’s Believe it or Not” in 2010, and Ripley’s bought a number her of dryer lint creations, which are showing in their Odditoriums around the world.
Ana Leyland, owner of A Mano Galleries, said she was impressed by Hooper’s art and her attitude.
“When Heidi approached us about her work, we were fascinated, not only by the remarkable technique but the warmth, whimsy and vitality which radiate from her pieces,” Leyland wrote in an e-mail. “Of course, visitors are impressed by an artist who uses dryer lint, but as they ‘really’ look at the pieces, they get a sense of Heidi’s deep connection with the subjects.”
Faced with an overabundance of dryer lint after her mother-in-law washed colorful chenille throw blankets while she was helping to care for Hooper during her illness, the artist decided to find a way to use the fuzzy material.
She tried molding it by mixing it with paper mache, but she didn’t enjoy working with the gooey substance.
She also tried using the lint to make paper, but drying it was problematic. “I set it outside to dry and it flew away,” Hooper said, adding drying it in the house wasn’t any better: Some of her four cats ruined it.
With inspiration and input from other artists, and a suggestion from her husband, Mike Ventrella, Hooper hit on the answer – making pictures of animals, using lint instead of paint. Since she is allergic to the smell of paint and can’t use it, Ventrella asked Hooper to try applying the lint to paper as if it were paint.
Developing a technique for creating the unusual art form required practice and patience. “It was a lot of trial and error, back and forth, until I got it right,” she said. Since she is right-handed, Hooper had to adjust to using her left hand to sketch the pictures for her lint art.
“It took me forever to get it through its thick skull that it had to draw,” Hooper said of her left hand. The etchings are “very chicken scratchy,” she said. “I don’t have the control.”
Hooper said she erases everything except for the main lines of the drawing and then goes back and reinforces those lines before applying the glue and lint.
With her right arm resting on a pillow, she works with tweezers because she doesn’t have control of anything other than her pointer finger, thumb and the top section of her middle finger. She has no feeling in the rest of her hand or arm, she said, and can only work three-to-four hours a day before her entire arm goes to sleep.
Ninety percent of the work – basically anything requiring physical strength – is done with her left hand, including pulling the lint apart, folding it and laying it on the art piece.
“Most of what I do is animals because that’s what sells,” she said. “Also, unless I cut every (piece of lint) with scissors, it naturally looks fuzzy, which works best for animals.”
Hooper uses animals to illustrate her favorite genre, which is fantasy, and she creates a lot of portraits of customer’s pets. She donates 10 percent to 15 percent of everything she earns to an animal rescue shelter near her home or to the pet charity of an owner’s choice when doing a pet portrait.
She depends on friends, customers and other fans of her work for her lint supply. What she has at her disposal depends on what they send her.
“Colors are how I get them in the mail,” she said. “People all over the country send me their lint.”
Anyone interested in sending lint from laundry sorted by color can find Hooper’s post office box address on her web site. Shipping it flat, with different colors separated by old newspapers or magazines is best, she said.
Hooper runs a contest and awards the top three senders of lint from well-sorted laundry with a piece of her artwork.
She said her own lint is mostly monotone, since her wardrobe consists of a lot of blacks and browns. “I tried dying it at one point,” she said, “but it actually stains the glass (used in framing).”
She used to store the lint – sorted by color, in plastic boxes from salad greens purchased at the grocery store – on shelves over the stairs leading to her basement. She outgrew that space, and the 457 boxes now have a new home on shelves in her guest bedroom.
“I put the (donor’s) name on the bottom,” she said, “so I know who to ask if I run out of it.”
(April 7, 2011)
“When Life Gives You Lint, Make Dryer Lint Art”
Heidi Hooper has 457 boxes of lint in her house and she’d like more. The Andy Warhol of lint, Hooper scavenges the fuzz and errant strings from the dryer to make portraits of Marilyn Monroe, Ray Charles or even your favorite pet. You can’t make this stuff up and today at the Ripley’s Believe it or Not! Museum in Williamsburg, VA, where Hooper is appearing, you don’t have to.
A former metalworking artist, Hooper was forced to look for a different, lighter medium after suffering health problems. Then one day her dryer broke. “When I went to look there was this Peter Max-colored lump of lint about the size of a puppy on top of the dryer,” she told the Virginia Gazette. “I saved the lint because people had given me these things as gifts.” Ten years later, Hooper has several pieces on display at Ripley Odditoriums and she runs a contest on her Facebook page each year in which she gives a prize for the best lint.
Hooper would be glad to take your lint, the more colorful the better. And because lint is more apt to spark fires than creativity, it’s a good idea to remove it anyway. Each year 6,900 dryer fires cause five deaths, 220 injuries and $91.0 million in property damage, according to the Consumer Product Safety Commission and United States Fire Association. And 70 percent of those fires start in dryers that haven’t been cleaned. To reduce your risk, empty your lint screen after every load and clean your ducts at least once a year. Rigid metal ducts are less likely to allow lint build-up than flexible metal or plastic.
In Consumer Reports dryer tests we looked at the performance of built-in vent-blockage indicators, and found most to be unreliable. But we recently tested the Lint Alert, a $40 pressure sensor that you install in clean dryer ductwork, and found it was good at detecting low air flow and sounding an alarm.
That alarm would be music to Hooper’s ears. “When you’re an artist, you have this monster inside that needs to get out somehow,” she told the Gazette.
THE VIRGINIA GAZETTE
(April 6, 2011)
“Dryer Lint as Art, Believe it or Not”
by Steve Vaughan
Sometimes art can help overcome life’s difficulties.
That’s the case with Heidi Hooper, an artist from Pennsylvania whose work created from dryer lint will debut at Ripley’s Believe It or Not! on Richmond Road.
Trained as a sculptor at VCU, she made a name for herself with jewelry and costumes created from metal. She also made dolls.
“I was a master costumer. My jewelry was showing in galleries all over, and I was making a pretty good living at that,” she said. “Then I got cancer.”
She’s right-handed and had to have much of the muscle in her right arm removed, leaving the hand too weak to work with metal.
She found her new medium by accident. “When I was very sick with cancer, my mother-in-law was staying with us to take care of me. A lot of people had sent me these multi-colored chenille throws to cheer me up,” she said.
One day the dryer broke down.
“When I went to look there was this Peter Max-colored lump of lint about the size of a puppy on top of the dryer,” Hooper recalled. “Needless to say, the chenille throws weren’t chenille anymore. They were burlap rags. I saved the lint because people had given me these things as gifts and they’d been ruined.”
Later, she was looking for a way to continue her artwork.
“When you’re an artist, you have this monster inside that needs to get out somehow. Then my husband, Michael, reminded me of these pieces I’d done in college out of handmade paper. I tried that, then remembered why I hated handmade paper. Then I thought of the lint.”
That was around 2001.
“The first couple of years, they were horrible,” she laughed. “I was just relying on my own dryer.” Now she gets dryer lint in the mail from all over the country.
“I run a contest on Facebook every year where the person who sends me the best lint and the second-best get pieces of art in the mail. I?guess it’s part of the recycling that’s becoming so popular.”
Although her work looks to the eye like painting, it’s actually a kind of sculpture since the lint is placed by hand. “I’ve never really thought of it like that, but it is sculpture,” she said. Just in a softer material.
Want to go? Heidi Hooper will be at the Ripley’s Believe It or Not! Museum 3-5 p.m. Thursday, April 7. She usually donates a quarter of the profits to a local “no-kill’ animal shelter.
THE VIRGINIAN PILOT
(April 2, 2011)
“Believe It or Not, Unusual Art is Worth the Collecting”
When did the facts of Heidi Hooper’s life skew toward what Ripley would dub the “unbelievable”? That’s hard to pinpoint.
Hooper graduated from the arts program at Virginia Commonwealth University. “I always saw myself as a sculptor,” she said. It was a reasonable expectation.
She still keeps 200 pounds of sculpting wax in her basement in Stroudsburg, Pa. It is more than 20 years old.
In 1999, she developed cancer in her right arm. She lost much of the muscle in her upper arm. She lost the nerves in two fingers and parts of another. Before one surgery, she was worried she would lose her arm altogether.
Since the surgery, her work has been displayed in Alexandria and Richmond and along the East Coast. Her art includes depictions of cats and dogs and Dracula. That is a level of accomplishment, but that fact, by itself, is not unexpected.
Without the use of all of her fingers and worn down by fatigue, Hooper has given up sculpting. For the past decade, lint has been her medium as an artist, and this is where the story turns unbelievable.
When I spoke to her by phone Wednesday, Hooper said she has 457 boxes of lint in her house. It is the exact kind of lint that comes from the dryer, that gets stuck in your belly button, that is composed of your bedspread, favorite T-shirt and, grossly enough, your hair. This has all the makings of a reality-show oddity.
She has so much lint in her Pennsylvania home because people send it to her in the mail. One woman from California, a complete stranger, sent her envelopes of lint with no return address for a year. The boxes are sorted by color. She has 30 boxes alone to cover the narrow spectrum from tan to brown.
Hooper sketches birds and cats and dogs and Marilyn Monroe and, as if they were paint-by-number worksheets, colors them in with pills of lint. When she first tried showing her work, the galleries she approached were disgusted.
“Dryer lint?” they asked? “Yuck. No.” That fact is 100 percent, absolutely believable.
At art festivals, Hooper would stand outside her exhibit as people guessed that her artwork was fashioned from acrylic or handmade paper, and she would watch their amazement when they learned that the detail work and texture came from the clothes they were wearing.
Today, her smaller works sell for hundreds of dollars. They have won accolades and judges awards at art shows and science-fiction conventions. But eBay has proven there’s a market for everything – so, again, that is believable.
Thursday, Hooper and her art will be on display at the Ripley’s Believe It or Not museum in Williamsburg. She will put on a short demonstration, until her right arm becomes too fatigued to work any longer.
There is something ordinary and expected about Hooper’s story, a familiar thread to the narrative that we take for granted. A woman with cancer survives and makes artworks from an unexpected medium and sells them for hundreds of dollars.
It doesn’t strike me as completely unbelievable. Bizarre, yes. Quirky, sure. A bit unhygienic, if your lint trap looks anything like mine. But it is plausible.
“The art culture has changed,” Hooper said. “So much more is accepted now than it ever was.”
And maybe that is what is most shocking about Hooper’s opening this week: we are not so easily shocked.
“There are things you can see on YouTube that are a lot more disturbing than what you’ll see in my museum. And I’m OK with that,” said Scott Hart, the general manager of the Ripley’s in Williamsburg.
A rendering of Ray Charles, made of threads scavenged from our dryers, from the smallest pieces of our socks and towels? Oh? That’s nice.
The unexpected, the unbelievable, the unthinkable happen every day, and we take them for granted. We believe it more often than not.
(November 22, 2010)
“Life as the Dryer Lint Lady”
For most people, laundry is nothing more than an everyday task. For Heidi Hooper of Stroudsburg, an excess of laundry has become more artform than chore.
Hooper is known as the “dryer lint lady” and is featured in Ripley’s “Believe It or Not” book, “Enter If You Dare,” for her unusual dryer-lint art, which she creates using only one arm.
In 1999, her career as a silversmith was cut short when she was diagnosed with a rare cancer called Desmoid Tumor.
She had to give up her work after her first big operation. Radiation treatments were so invasive that they ate away two tri-muscles (the skinny muscles under the bone) in her right arm, which was basically liquefied.
Ripley’s “Believe It or Not” features people who have “strange” and “unusual” talents, so Hooper has mixed feelings about being in the book.
“It reinforces the idea that I’m a ‘freak’ and not an artist,” she said. “There is a different artistic philosophy going on with what I do.”
She has a bachelor’s degree in sculpture with a minor in art history and a master’s degree in foundry.
Hooper received her placement in the book for being the only person in the world working with dryer lint using a flat picture.
First, a picture is drawn on a mapboard and dryer lint is slowly added. It is held on with tacky glue and eventually sticks to itself from the pressure.
“The lint comes from all over the country,” Hooper said. “I don’t know who most of the people are who send me dryer lint. They read about what I do online and send it in.”
She has 425 boxes of color-coded dryer lint in her house. Hooper said the boxes are lined up all along the hallway going downstairs, and also above her dryer.
“I am starting to run out of room,” she said, laughing.
The cancer has prevented Hooper from doing the silversmith work that she once loved. She explains that it gradually became more and more painful to hold the hammer.
“Right before the operation I wasn’t sleeping well because the pain was so bad,” she said.
Hooper goes to the University of Pennsylvania hospital for treatments.
“There was serious nerve rerouting in order to use my hand, and I am numb from the last two fingers on my hand and up,” she said. “Muscle was taken out of my back to protect the bone in my arm. If I were to fall, the bone would shatter.”
Hooper got started using dryer lint after some chenille throws were accidentally washed and there were huge piles of colorful fluff.
After trying several media to still remain an artist, she decided to separate the lint into cardboard boxes and give this a try.
“Being an artist is all I know, and there aren’t many choices for me, given my situation,” she said.
The limitations with her right hand due to cancer have caused Hooper to use long-nosed tweezers to make her art. One thing she found was if the lint gets wet, it sticks everywhere.
When Hooper brings her work to galleries, she usually shows between 12 and 15. The pieces generally fetch from $200 to $400.
Some proceeds are given to animal rescues, particularly Creature Comforts in Saylorsburg. Hooper and her husband live with several cats, and she says the cats have been a great comfort throughout her struggle with cancer.
“We always knew when the cancer was back,” she said. “I had a cat who would lay its paw on top of my arm and every time I turned around the cat was next to me. This happened every time the cancer returned.”
Despite her obstacle, Hooper pushes forward and remains optimistic.
“I was only able to take so much depression from the cancer before I forced myself to get up and continue going,” she said.
RIPLEY’S BELIEVE IT OR NOT: ENTER IF YOU DARE!
Heidi Hooper, from Massachusetts, uses dryer lint to create images of animals. The lint is taken from the cotton fiber in towels, chenille from throw blankets and feathers from down comforters that have been through the dryer. Unfortunately, the lint cannot be dyed to a specific color, as it is basically dust, so it can be a difficult task creating a color palette. Heidi will sometimes buy towels in the colors she wants to make her work a little easier.
ARTS IN THE VALLEY
(April 2, 2006)
“Stroudsburg artist aims for unusual, using dryer lint”
Stroudsburg artist Heidi Hooper, who makes photographic-like artwork using dryer lint, as well as sculpted dolls, sells most of her work in urban areas — such as Boston and New York, where art has to be different to find a buyer.
However, DM Studios in Marshalls Creek, operated by Donna McCartney and Jasmine Abrams, will change all that.
This new gallery is receptive to all sorts of art and will feature the work of Hooper as well as many established artists and fledgling younger artists trying to make a name for themselves.
“Jasmine has always been very honest and straight-forward in her interest in artwork that is not in the traditional norm,” Hooper said. “A lot of artwork here in the Poconos tends to be the same because you are selling to tourists, who are looking for the traditional. In the big-city galleries, they are looking for something different.”
Hooper also noted that people on vacation are more likely to spend $20 on an item than write a check for a pricier piece of art. This is another reason that artists cater to the tourist art trade to make their bread and butter, and this usually translates to traditional artforms, such as landscapes and florals.
“I’ve never been the one for the traditional,” said Hooper, who was a metalwork artist prior to a bout of cancer that limited the use of her right arm.
In the new gallery, visitors will be treated to many types of artwork as well as the owners’ murals and faux finishing services, and the custom framing work.
“I think they will look for more than what is going to sell, look for something different, unusual and cause people to go in and look to admire art,” Hooper said.
When Hooper’s illness limited what she could do as an artist, she tried painting, but quickly remembered how much the fumes bothered her.
Her mother-in-law’s laundry habits actually heated up an artistic idea for Hooper.
Her mother-in-law came to stay with Hooper to help out. Friends had given Hooper colorful chenille throws to add cheer to the day. But Hooper’s mother-in-law washed and dried the throws to the point that they disintegrated into dryer lint.
“I had these really nice primary colors in lint. I was cherishing the throws because it was such a nice thing for people to do for me, so I kept the lint in boxes,” Hooper said.
As the lint collection grew, Hooper decided to try working with the fluff to create abstracts and then human figures. Eventually, she settled on taking photographs, projecting the image on a board, tracing it and then coloring with lint by using tweezers to apply the lint.
The whole piece is held in place by the frame and glass, which means many projects blew away before she was able to finish the artwork.
Hooper told others that she would make a work of art if they would send her lint. Many sent lint and didn’t ask for anything in return. She now has 120 boxes of lint that are color-coded.
“I’ve got so many boxes of dryer lint that I can almost get painter’s shading,” Hooper said.
The toughest color to find is orange.
“People just seem to like it,” said Hooper, who is represented by A Mano Gallery in New Hope.
She knows of only two other artists working in this medium, mainly creating landscapes. “I think I’m the only one doing it at this scale,” Hooper said.
Many people commission portraits of their pets. One person gave her the lint from her dryer that included the pet’s fur that had shed onto the clothing.
“My view is to expose people to different kinds of stuff,” she said.
Her dolls, created from ProSculpt clay, are reflective of the people she meets. She sees an interesting face and asks the person if she can take their photograph.
“These are basically portraits of real people,” Hooper said.
With a clay face finished, she will create an appropriate costume.
She sells many dolls at the annual Renaissance Fair in Tuxedo, N.Y., during the late summer. Several of the dolls are in period fashions, which sell well.
Hooper said, “I try to make it as realistic as possible so that it seems that it is going to get up and walk towards you.”
(April 30, 2004)
“More than just a pretty face”
Strolling musicians, fine crafts and works of art, like this sculpture by Heidi Hooper, will enhance an Evening on Main, Stroudsburg.
(April 27, 2004)
Heidi Hooper of Stroudsburg was quite a sight carrying her sculpture down Seventh Street to the Monroe County Arts Council Monday afternoon in Stroudsburg. Rachel Cohen, a MCAC volunteer, helped Hooper tote her creation, which she calls Ralph. It is made from, among other things, steel, bubble pack, paper clay and clothes. Artists swarmed MCAC Monday to drop off their work for Evening on Main, which happens this Saturday.
(January 5, 2001)
The thing about a theme show such as Winter Blues is that it is a challenging, fun thing. Heidi Hooper has been showing her sculptures in bronze and polymer clay since 1975. Her entry is “Cat Blue” with cats climbing around on branches. She studied sculpting in college.
(September 24, 2000)
Only ones with a heart of steel will make it. Heidi Hooper, a sculptor and metalsmith, should know. She studied art and has degrees from Virginia Commonwealth University and Massachusetts College of Art.
As a child growing up in Virginia, she was sent to art classes where every instructor asked participants to do the same thing for every class. Drawing trees was one of the favored exercises.
“I don’t want any kids to go through that. It almost soured me on the arts. If I didn’t have that little monster inside me wanting to create, it would have,” Hooper said.
THE BOSTON PHOENIX
(May 24, 1991)
“Pretty” is not how local metalsmith Heidi Hooper would like people to describe her weird bronze creatures, suits of armor, and sculptured bones, all of which are meant to get the censorship squad’s blood pressure up. Her works are included in a show called “Off Color” at MassArt’s Huntington Gallery.
THE ENCYLCOPEDIA OF AMERICAN ARTISTS
BFA in Sculpture and jewelry from Virginia Commonwealth University. Presently showing in Boston galleries including Goldsmith Copley Place. Works are primarily in silver with precious stones. Each piece is designed with “my hand firmly on the torch and my tongue firmly in my cheek.” Works include pins, pendants, and boxes, each one individually designed.
“Heidi Hooper: Silvered Smiles”
At age 28, silversmith Heidi Hooper is still watching cartoons and playing Dungeons and Dragons. And when she misses the cartoons on Saturday morning, friends tape them. Along one wall stands a bookcase full of tapes — which also includes oldies of the Marx Brothers, or Betty Boop, Popeye and Fleischer cartoons — are in jackets rainbow colored by magic markers. Looking around Hooper’s third floor Boston Apartment — noticing a metal tray with youthful faces of the Beatles — it becomes easier to understand the source of her unusual art.
Hooper, with the playful imagination of an animator and the artistic training of a sculptor, is quickly becoming known for her whimsically humorous silver pins. The pins, which measure about two inches square, depict tiny scenes played out on a sterling silver stage.
“I try to make a portable sculpture — a piece of art within a piece of art, rather than something that is just there to look at,” says Hooper. “Most jewelry is just there to reflect something about the person wearing it, but I try to evoke something beyond ‘Don’t I look great in this!'”
One of Hooper’s favorite pieces is a pin called “Pork Roast.” In it, several tiny pigs stand atop a roasting pan, giving speeches from a podium. Often her characters are a mix of human and animal. The scenes capture a single, suspended moment of ironic activity: a cow stakes a furnace with a coke bottle; Fred Astaire dances with a turtle; a pig dances in a chain mail tutu; a man eats dinner with a rabbit; a crab tutors another crab. They are often very funny.
“I like things that seem normal but are not really normal at all,” says Hooper, who uses pigs, frogs and turtles most often in her work. “Anything that is tongue-in-cheek, I love.”
Hooper, who also makes silver earrings and silver boxes, produces about 50 pins a year, which are sold at the Goldsmith in Boston and in galleries in the south and west. The pins sell for $200 to $350, earrings sell for $12 to $30, and the boxes sell for $500 to $1000.
Raised in Richmond, Virginia, Hooper studied at Virginia Commonwealth University art school, majoring in sculpture. In school, Hooper first worked with matress stuffing to create larger-than-life human figures, a far cry from her current miniature silver pieces.
“During one semester at school,” says Hooper, “my work shrank from six feet to six inches.”
Toward the end of her schooling, Hooper began making decorative silver boxes. She decided three years ago to make wearable pieces. This decision led first to a series of pendants, and then to pins. The first pins, she says, were designed at puppet-show stages and were less imaginative than her current work.
In developing scenes for the pins — which are one-of-a-kind — Hooper began to draw on her fascination with cartoons and the human qualities given in them to animals.
“I always find — and maybe it’s because I am a vegetarian — that animals are very human,” says Hooper. She explains in a playful voice that in our strictly realistic way of looking at animals we impose unimaginative limits. “‘You’re a goat. You can’t do that,'” she mimics. “But if tis wasn’t real-life a goat probably could do that — whatever that is — if it had enough brains.”
It is that one step beyond “real-life” that makes Hooper’s scenes so unique — like a pig riding a bicycle. The second step is the actual moment she captures on the pin: a single, frozen moment, like one frame in an animator’s strip: a lady kicks up her feet as she dances with a centaur.
“I’m trying to make a freeze-frame that you wear,” explains Hooper. “That’s why they’re on a stage — it’s as if they are part of a play. And I try to incorporate some sort of movement so that it looks like they’re moving, even though they’re not.”
Hooper works in a small kitchen pantry which serves as her studio, but only some of the work is done there. In the studio she carves the elements of the imagined scene from wax. She then takes the wax pieces, attaches sprews, or small holding sticks, and places them into a cylinder filled with plaster. The cylinder then fits into a centrifuge at a friend’s Boston studio. In the warmed centrifuge a cast is made of the wax figures, which melt and drip out, leaving a hollow, fine plaster cast. Molten silver is then injected into the cast to form the figures for the scene. Back at her studio, Hooper arranges these figures onto a stage that she makes in advance. The figures are soldered into place, details filled in, and the piece polished.
Over the past three years, Hooper has seen her work become freer and more comical. She says she tries to draw casual observers into her pieces — and offer them more than something merely “interesting.” She wants to see them smile and enjoy the humor of the captured moment.
Hooper wants the audience to respond as if they were observing a live performance. She recalls the words of one of her professors who warned against the dangers of a metal, such as silver, which is naturally beautiful: “If you’re dealing with a pretty metal, then you have to work the hardest — you have to fight the ‘pretty’ to make it interesting. There has to be something to make you think about the piece after you’ve left it. Otherwise, you’re just making pretty objects.”
With this warning in mind, Hooper has set out to create engaging jewelry. having mastered the pin, she soon hopes to transfer the narrative scenes to earring sets and necklaces. For one future project, she plans to make a Romeo and Juliet jewelry set — earrings, necklace, and pin — of a rabbit and a goat at various stages of their wooing, romance, and late-life marriage.
But for all her efforts to make engaging art, Hooper insists she’s not trying to make a statement. “I am interested in the arts because I enjoy doing it — I have never tried to make statements,” says Hooper. “Twenty years from now people will have a different opinion of the work, so why try to impress your opinion of it? Why not do it just because you enjoy doing it?”
THE CITIZEN ITEM
(April 17, 1987)
“Humor, Art Set Jewelry Apart”
A turtle dancing with Fred Astaire, a frog crooning to a voluptuous woman, and a cow stoking a furnace with a coke bottle are not the images that inspire most jewelry designers. And that’s just fine with Heidi Hooper.
To Hooper, a Brighton resident, the distinctiveness of her work — primarily silver brooches and pendants — is its most appealing feature.
“Everybody does jewelry that looks like jewelry,” she says. “But nobody does anything like mine. Twenty years from now people will look at it and say ‘Hey, that’s really interesting’ rather than ‘Oh, that was done in the ’80s.'”
She quickly adds with the hearty, self-effacing laugh that often bursts forth during her conversation, “But then, I like the weird things in life.”
She traces her affection for the offbeat to the influence of sculptor Joe Seipel, one of her art teachers at Virginia Commonwealth University. Her favorite Seipel creation is a tongue-in-cheek piece depicting what at first glance appears to be a fish with a hook in its mouth. Upon closer inspection, though, the viewer discovers that the fish is actually reeling in an old boot.
“His big thing was that if you’re using pretty materials, you’ve got to make the people notice the piece first,” she explains. “In most metal work, you notice the sparkle before the design.”
To add to the allure of her own designs, Hooper uses miniscule three-dimensional animals in unlikely postures. A cartoon aficionado, she asserts that the comic potential of animals in her creative wellspring and drawing from it adds to the visual experience.”
“I love using animals,” she says. “They’re really intriguing sculpturally. It’s normal to see a person on a bike, but when you see a big fat pig riding one, it’s different; it draws you in more.”
Hooper maintains that, once the eye is caught, the imagination flourishes. As she suggests, one has the feeling that the tiny figures stopped their activity when they realized that they were being watched, and that they might suddenly resume it. At times, this fantasy actually comes true — in one piece a rabbit’s oversized head jiggles as he eats dinner with a man, and in another, a well bucket rises with a tiny crank.
Nurtured by teachers who encouraged creativity of this sort, Hooper spent years developing her style. After graduating from art school, where she majored in sculpture and jewelry making, she moved to Boston and worked at a succession of jobs — diamond inspection, earring production, and jewelry repair. She tried with limited success to market her own line of “typical el-cheapo” earrings, but eventually decided to follow her art — and her heart — and began concentrating her efforts on less conventional jewelry. These efforts were hampered by a lack of retail know-how and the reluctance of gallery owners to take a chance on such unique merchandise.
“A lot of places in Boston cater to the easy sell,” she contends. “If they don’t know it will make them money, they are not interested. Others would say ‘Well, I’m not sure…’ and I would start packing up my things to leave. I thought the pieces would sell themselves; I didn’t know I had to make a sales pitch.”
Hooper’s breakthrough finally came when the owner of the Goldsmith, a Copley Place gallery, commissioned her to make ten brooches.
“I was shocked,” she recalls, punctuating the memory with a laugh. “I’m still shocked.”
Even more astounding to her was the price range he suggested — $125 to $200 wholesale and $200 to $400 retail.
“But people are buying them,” she says, the disbelief evident in her voice. “They seem to think the price is reasonable.”
Hooper explains that the special title she engraves on the bottom of each piece — another expression of her whimsical humor — has been an inadvertent boost to sales. The first piece she sold, which depicted a slightly inebriated elderly gentleman conversing with a chicken and a cow, was entitled “Uncle Bob and Friends.” A customer from New Hampshire thought it would be the perfect gift for her Uncle Bob who just happened to be a farmer.
Hooper’s work was recently highlighted in Prelude, a national fashion magazine, and it will soon be sold in galleries across the country. Despite the attractiveness of such notoriety and commercial success and the laborious, time-consuming process of casting the jewelry, Hooper is adamant in her determination to maintain the integrity of her art.
“These are my babies,” she says, fondly examining a brooch. “They’re really precious to me. I’ve never in four years made one that looked like another.”
She continues, “I feel good about what I’m doing. I still feel like I’m producing art and not just objects. I don’t think I’ll ever change — if anything, I’ll just get worse!”