By Marsha Mack, Fresh A.I.R. Gallery manager
AJ Heckman is a Columbus-based artist who in recent years has used art to cope with his diagnosis of bipolar, post-cancer and PTSD symptoms. Through his artistic practice, he is able to bring light and positivity to his invisible struggle. His solo exhibition Bipolarity: Clarified Mania, will be on view at Fresh A.I.R. Gallery June 9 – July 14.
Marsha: AJ, your upcoming solo exhibition with Fresh A.I.R. Gallery is called Bipolarity: Clarified Mania. Can you explain why you chose this title and how it relates to your artwork?
AJ: My work has become more open and direct about my mental health challenges, which I believe has made it more honest. I need an art practice — it’s always been a need for me — so the connection I feel with the material and the process has to be real.
Early last year, with the urging of my family, I checked myself into the mental health hospital because of the mania I was experiencing. During my stay, I expressed this amazing gratitude I was feeling by making drawings with crayons and copy paper, gifting them to people I had met. The doctors were pretty amazed at the way the drawings showed my progress, how each drawing became more ordered and harmonious.
In the hospital, I was inspired to use my art to manage the changes happening fast, to memorialize moments or words said, like I do when I write songs. I was inspired by the doctors to share my experiences in order to normalize getting help for mental health issues. That sounded pretty cool. These drawings would become known as Clarified Mania. Each one tells its own little story, and giving them as gifts was my way to connect with those around me.
BIPOLARITY is the name of the largest painting at my show at Fresh A.I.R. I worked on it solely for six months. It allowed me to immerse myself into the work and focus on its possible pathways, the symbolism of each color, the movement of the strokes, they all have meaning. Painting it over time gave me this space to better understand myself and my relation to my bipolar disorder, how I want to view things, how I want to live.
Marsha: Are they any specific ideas or concepts you are addressed in this exhibition that you can explain?
AJ: Art is healing. Having an art practice has down wonders for me. Over the years, facing my issues head on with writing and art making, I believe this gives me purpose, strength and a release of weight that helps me to ride the ups and downs of my life. Hopefully people will leave the exhibition inspired to talk about mental health, think about their own channels of expression and what they can do for them in terms of increasing positive mental health outcomes.
Marsha: Your artwork is primarily abstract. What informs your choices with color, line and composition? What is your process of creating a work?
AJ: I enjoy starting with a simple line composition that I then cover with countless brushstrokes, building layers, playing off the underlying line. There is a structure, and within that I paint intuitively, I improvise and follow wherever the work wants to take me.
Color is of great importance for me determining a mood or energy on canvas, and I usually spend time thinking about color or color pallet before I begin a work. I will plan a painting for weeks, and paint it in 30 minutes. Or I paint the same work for six months, layer after layer, fine tuning.
Discovery of the unknown is a big driver for me. Experimenting with line, texture, color combos, it goes on and on. I love how open to interpretation abstract art can be; it’s perfect for reflecting and creating my own languages to process mysteries and life.
Marsha: What kind of music, film, art, etc. are you interested in right now? Does it affect your work at all?
AJ: Music. I am a musician, as a singer and songwriter I have led a band for over 10 years, though I started only as a listener and devoted lover of music, all kinds. Music, creating and sharing songs, has been a wonderful outlet for me over the years, for which I am extremely grateful.
In my studio I usually play music or have silence. In the past six months I’ve been enjoying Pharaoh Sanders, Gorillaz, Cymande, Squirrel Nut Zippers, Alan Vega, The Pretty Things, classical, Kraftwerk and Sylford Walker. These days I hear new music from Iggy Pop Confidential, a weekly two-hour music show. That gets me motivated for my mental health walks.
Music affects my work in that it helps me relax and focus. A song can help me locate a feeling I am trying to paint, I immerse myself in the mood of the painting with the song and it can be kind of magical.
The last film I watched was the Mario Bros. movie in the theater with my wife and kids. In 3-D! I don’t make time to watch enough movies like I used to, but I love going to the theater.
Marsha: What do you like do when you’re not in the studio?
AJ: I spend time with my family, my kids, I go for walks and hikes. Writing and reading. If I can read some, play the guitar and record some music, that’s a really good day. I am a preschool music and arts teacher working with kids with special needs — that keeps me busy.
Marsha: What do you hope viewers take away from this exhibition? Do you have any advice for people struggling with mental illness?
AJ: I hope the exhibition inspires some conversation, and ideally, some reflection. Creating the work has helped me, and now we will see if the work can help others. For those brave souls struggling with mental illness, I can only offer what has worked for me. Write, paint, dance, write poems, write stream of conscious ramblings, externalize your feelings, emotions and thoughts, especially the scary bad ones.
Get out of your head, regularly. That’s why I suggest an art practice; over time things change. You grow along with the material and the flow. Art lets us build purpose into our lives — it’s magic.
Last thing I would say is practice releasing through any means feels right to you, like meditation, art, prayer and so on. Releasing and trusting when it’s time for help made a big difference for me. Everyone is different.
AJ Heckman’s solo exhibition Bipolarity: Clarified Mania, will be on view at Fresh A.I.R. Gallery June 9 – July 14, 2023. Join us for the artist talk June 9, 5-6 p.m., and the opening reception, June 9, 6-10 p.m. The exhibition is otherwise viewable via appointment. Fresh A.I.R. Gallery is located in the Chromedge building, #21, 289 W. Walnut Ave., Columbus, OH 43215.
This article is part of a bi-weekly column brought to you by the Greater Columbus Arts Council as part of the Art Makes Columbus campaign. Explore a calendar of events, public art database and artist stories at columbusmakesart.com. To learn more about GCAC grants visit gcac.org.