Be Prolific Series: Rod Heiss

This month’s interview was very special for me. I got to interview my Uncle Rod, an artist who has inspired me for years. I am so excited to share his passion and extreme talent with all of you. I have written about him before here and here but even those felt like I was skimming the surface. When I first decided to start this series, I had my uncle in mind. I had to know how I got my creative gift, something that has seemed to skip my immediate family. I wanted to know what was in his head, if we created the same. I’ll tell you. What I learned from him during our interview has changed and inspired me and I cannot wait for you to read him.

Rod is a painter based here in Salt Lake City, Utah. His work is incredibly vibrant and emotional, the kind of work that is almost overpowering. Watching him speak about his art, his love of surfing, his near death experience, anything at all is amazing because he has an overwhelming vulnerability and passion for every single aspect of what he speaks on. Read on for a discussion of life, death, and the destiny of artists.

*All photos and videos in this post used with permission by Rod Heiss.

Me with one of my favorite pieces, “Dedication”
How would you describe your style of art and painting?
People have told me I’m an abstract expressionist but I don’t like that term, it was used in the fifties and sixties. I like to say I’m an emotional expressionist. I like to be abstract, I suppose, but my painting doesn’t feel abstract to me. It’s more emotions and feelings. So I don’t know how to describe my paintings except for emotional expressionist.
What themes do your paintings usually have?
Usually the themes are what I’ve gone through during the week. The colors will change dependingo n how the week has gone or even how the day is gone. When I do paint abstractly, but I’ve been delving into more realism now, I don’t even have a plan in mind. The theme is that the actual canvas is my palette. Most painters have a palette to mix the colors and my canvas is the palette. The theme starts with the fist color I chose and then it evolves from there. I don’t have a theme, I choose colors and then it turns into a point where you can tell my mood is based on how I chose the colors. They work and flow together. I try to keep myself free of themes. There’s a Daoist quote I love that says, “Clay makes the pot but it’s the emotions within that make it useful.” That’s what I do when I paint. You empty yourself of emotions that I get during the week. You’re tired from work, you have a lot to think about and your vessel is getting full so when I paint it’s getting emptied.
Number 17
At what age did you discover your love of art?
I don’t know if you know the story behind it, Emma. I never was interested in anything creative, going to plays and museums was boring to me as a child. All the way until I was about 24, I wasn’t even interested in drawing or anything. I even went to the Van Gogh museum in Amsterdam when I was 12 and I wasn’t interested. I started noticing architecture in San Francisco where I’m from; I started noticing some interesting styles that the buildings had. My grandmother and I were talking about my interest and she said, “next time you come, let’s go to the Marin County Civic Center.” She had lung cancer at the time and couldn’t walk very well but she said it was free to walk around the Civic Center as much as you want and she told me to walk around and enjoy. I fell in love with the building itself. Every time I go back to Marin County I go back to the building itself and I go to the cafeteria in homage to my grandma, your great grandma.
This triggered something in me, the lines and flowing in the building triggered this creative need. That winter I came to Salt Lake City and I couldn’t sleep one night. It was two in the morning and I found a PBS American Masters series with a documentary of Jackson Pollock. I never knew who he was before and so for that hour and a half I was mesmerized by what he did and how he painted. There is actual footage of him painting and that’s the moment I said to myself that when I got home in a few days, I would buy art material and I’ll start painting. I did my first painting when I was about 24 or 25 and I knew I had something. I was even able to see the painting that inspired me at the MEt and I sat down and looked at it for an hour and a half.
You have moved through a lot of artistic mediums. How do you decide which area of art to take part in?
It’s all feeling. I’ll give you a brief story about the switch from sculpture to painting. It was a drastic stop. Right now I don’t do any sculpture, it doesn’t even pop in my head. I was doing scuplture for around three or four years strictly. They would pop into my head at night, as many as 4 or 5 fully designed sculptures that I just needed to build. I took a trip driving a friend of mine to Virginia for grad school and while we were sleeping one night, I had this idea to start painting. And once that idea came, I was painting again. It was fifteen years since I did my last painting and that idea to get back to painting came back to me five years ago in June. I haven’t touched sculpture, I just sort of stop.
I sort of find for me when my life… well… my sculptures are very structured and fine tuned. My painting is so organic but my sculptures almost look planned and when my life is in chaos and my life has no structure, my art tends to go into sculpture. I put form to the chaos. And then I met my wife, Marie, five years ago and my life became very structured and I wasn’t use to where I ahd to be someplace at a certain time or home for dinner, I couldn’t do this or that. I had to express differently. Now that I had this structure my art became free; I break away from this structure because I have structure in another place. It’s the yin and yang of my creative. when I don’t have structure, my art is straight forward and when I have structure I need to express it more freely.
Do you have a favorite medium?
No. It goes from place to place. I experiment. I’m a mad scientist. To paint sometimes I put paper down and I tear the wet paint on top of it to create texture. I have no set medium. The only thing that’s really set is that the paint itself is acrylic but they way I apply it is different every time.
When did you learn to surf and how did that affect your art?
It all came together from the years when I was about 25 to 30; they were my years of creating and when I opened my mind by studying art. I went to art school and it changed my life. That moment I went to school and started to paint the structure in my life dissolved and I saw the whole world, no blinders or anything. I didn’t ignore anything and I wanted to experience it all. I was in the San Francisco Bay Area and there is a surfing spot for large waves called Mavericks in Half Moon Bay and I read an article about a Hawaiian surfer who came to surf there and he drowned. When I read that article I knew I had to surf. I was doing surfing, ski racing, sky diving, just to experiment with life.
Are you still as adventurous? 
Yes but I’m more cautious. Pain hurts more now that I’m 48.
Are you working as an artist full time?
That’s the goal but I actually build and design furniture and cabinetry for people’s homes. That has been taking over my life for the last two years and art tends to be on the weekends but I am considered a professional artist because I’ve had shows and exhibitions around the country. I’ve had shows in New York City in Chelsea, in LA, Laguna Beach, San Clemente, here in Salt Lake City. I’ve had a lot of exhibitions here and an art show on the internet as well.
How long do each of your paintings take?
A few yeas ago when I was painting a lot because I had more time, on average the paintings took maybe half an hour. The way I paint doesn’t take a long time but it creates something interesting. Recently paintings, because I’m getting into realism, takes me three or more hours. It also depends on the mood or the style. Sometimes it takes longer to mix the paint than to actually do the painting.
What is your creative process like?
My process starts with seeing what’s around me. I’m from the San Francisco Bay and I love going to the art galleries there. Once when I was really struggling with my creativity in this two month period of no painting, I saw this painting and it was incredible with these wonderful colors that were blending each together. I wanted to make it my own version, with acrylics instead of watercolors. My process goes from me having an idea and then sometimes halfway through a painting I see something and I change it right then. It’s an evolution I think, something triggers something new. That’s whre it starts. I need to paint and see how it all evolves.
What other artists inspire you?
Pollock of course, Alexander Calder. I can name off some of the old ones. I’ve studied art for almost 25 years, reading the history. Picasso, Van Gogh, all of them. There is a recent artist and she is to me the most incredible artist. Her name is Jay Defeo. I saw her in New York and really, you don’t see very many women abstract expressionists and for me, she is one of the most incredible I’ve come across. She lived in San Francisco and there is this beautiful painting she did called The Rose that I saw in the Whitney Musuem. It’s 12 inches thick of acrylic paint. She painted it in her flat in San Francisco for four years. To get it out, they had to tear off the wall of the house to get the painting outside. She’s astounding.
Can you tell me a bit about your near-death experience and how that influenced your creative drive?
Oh I knew that was coming up. It’s a long story but I’ll try to keep it short. There was a storm coming in to the Santa Cruz area from the Gulf of Alaska. We watched it for three days; surfers are very much weathermen. It was December 31st, New Year’s Day. We decided to go surfing and when we got to Santa Cruz, it was completely flat. We searched all of the spots and finally we found a spot with semi decent three to four foot waves. It was mellow at the start but soon they turned from 4 fee to about 7-10 feet and when the currents changed I got stuck. I got hit by a very large wave and I got stuck in a space where the waves dig a hole in the sand that was about sixteen feet deep. Waves were hitting me every 15-20 seconds and they broke the leash that attaches me to the surfboard so I was stuck with no flotation device.
The water was about 52 degrees and a wetsuit can only keep you warm for so long. I was losing all of my strength when a large wave came and held me under for a very long time. When I came up, I tried to take a breathe right when the net wave came and I breathed in all of the water instead. Every time I came up, I was just coughing as the next wave hit. I couldn’t swim anymore after the 5th or 6th wave and this complete fear came over me and I still remember that fear and then the peace that came after it. They were so different. The fear of death when you know you are going to die is hard to explain but you have this total fear, not paralyzing. I kept thinking, “My friends will find my body in the morning.”
The peace that came after that was overwhelming. When you know you are going to die and it’s ok. It’s indescribable. I was content and happy and I was ready to die. I told myself that the next wave would be the last as I saw it build. I said i’ll take one last look at my friends who were laughing at me at the time because they didn’t know I was dying. I turned around and my friend was paddling out toward me. The look on his face was amazing because he saw how white I was with completely red eyes. He grabbed me and it took about a half an hour to get to shore. I wasn’t any help and I felt bad.
That changed my life, not just my art. I went through PTSD for about seven years. The thought of “Why am I still alive?” was always there. I would get depressed and I had to leave if I was watching a movie or TV program when there was a life threatening incident or serious accident. I had a very negative point of view and I didn’t do any art at that time. There was no creative because I was trying to deal with all of these issues. but it made my art and myself have even more of an edge that I needed. That accident still affects me to this day in my art. I want to look for the edge and I want to be on the edge of everything. I want to do something new, I can sit still and I think it’s because of that experience.
What is your favorite part of the artistic process?
The feeling. The excitement during the time of exploration. The adrenaline. I loved to put myself in dangerous situations because of the adrenaline. I get the same feeling when I’m in this creative mood. There is an excitement and adrenaline when I’m in the creative mode like something is going to happen. I’ve settled down a bit so painting is what does it for me now.
How do you find inspiration in the middle of a dry spell?
Whew. I took a class at The Academy of Art College in San Francisco and it taught us about breaking out of creative ruts. It was all improvisation. They taught us that if you’re in a rut, take something that you would not expect and start with that. Something you would never think of and start there. Like if I wanted to do a sculpture he would say, “How will you start?” And I said “Wood.” And he would say “What is the opposite of that?” And I’d say “Chewing gum.” And he said build on that.
That process has helped a lot. IT kicks your mind into thinking in the opposite of what you’ve had. I created a whole new style out of that trick. We start with something opposite and it ends up in your style. I’ve used that a lot.
What’s the hardest part of being an artist?
Fear. Fear of questions like is this creative mood going to stop? Am I going to get out of this rut? Is this painting going to turn out? I’m spending maybe $100 on paint, am I wasting that? I’m never afraid of rejection, it’s not the fear of selling or not selling. My biggest one is am I ever going to create again when I’m in a slump? I hear artists always say I can’t sell and I can’t do this or that as an artist. Rejection is not fear. Fear is everything to a creative type. I think it drives them. It drives me.
This is my favorite of his work. I like to think of it as an x-ray of my heart.
Do you have a painting or work you are the most proud of?
My wife asked me once, out of all the paintings I have (which is about 600), which would I not get rid of. Once I finish a painting, it’s done and I don’t really need to look at it anymore. There is one. It’s my fifth painting I ever did. It’s black and green. Once I painted it, I remember it exactly, after I painted it and saw it i felt “I am an Artist.” I would never sell that painting. That’s the only piece of work that really has sentimental value to me.
What do you want people to get from your art?
Feeling. I do not want anyone to be nonchalant about my art, or just pass it by. I want people to comment either if they like it or hate it. I was in my apartment laying on the floor and in the entryway I have a very large painting and these two women walked in to visit the woman in the other apartment. One of the women said, “This is the most awful painting I have ever seen in my life! Why would anyone hang this up?” and I listened the whole time with a huge smile on my face. I loved it.
There was feeling, it made them look at it and made them think. I love the positive comments and most of the people who see my work have positive comments. But I love the negative comments. At least you’re looking. It’s the not saying of something that kills me. I’d rather have you hate me and tell me you’d rather tear it off of the wall. I an handle rejections but I hate indifference.
What is your advice to young artists?
My advice is simple: Never give up if you have an idea. Experiment all the time. Find out who you are. An artist who doesn’t know who they are can’t create at all.
A thousand thank you notes to my amazing, astounding, captivating Uncle Rod. Thank you all for reading and for choosing to create and live and share yourself like he does. These are getting more and more fun for me each month and I hope you are all enjoying them as well. Til next time, please check out more of my Uncle’s work. He can be found through the links below:

1 Comment

  • Shadow

    I love the intensity of the CoLouRS he uses.


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