Waves undulate. Ripples swell in succession, reflecting varied colors as they are hit by light. But these are not the waves of Florida’s Gulf waters, not the art of Mother Nature flowing. It is the art of Eric Heitmann. And the paintings of his Wave series break free from traditional definitions of art just as the Gulf’s waves break free from the shore.
In addition to applying his vision atop the canvas, Heitmann also makes art of the canvas itself, folding and forming three-dimensional crests after the piece is painted. “I have always been a traditional painter,” he says. “I was interested in working with sculpture but never really dabbled in it. Many painters sculpt with heavy body paints. I turned it around in my head and thought, ‘I can sculpt the canvas.’ After a series of trial and error, working with my bright color palette, I came up with my first sculpted canvas painting. I felt like I had invented the light bulb! I decided that I would call them ‘waves’ because I try to achieve a natural wave of canvas as I am manipulating it.”
Heitmann is known for his vibrant colors and bursts of floral abstraction, and that bright palette is evident in the Wave series as well. But the process of creating the series requires not only a rainbow spectrum—folding dried paint into fluid patterns presents a particular set of challenges. Once the canvas is painted, it must fully dry before being laid out to begin the gradual manipulation. “The type of paint I use is essential to these pieces,” he says. “The colors, of course, must be very bright. But the paint must also be malleable when it is dry. It was hard to find this combination. Some paints would crack.”
The series also requires some serious space, as most of Heitmann’s canvases spread over 20 feet long before they are sculpted. After he paints, he molds the waves into shape. He then tacks the canvas onto a custom rectangular frame that can be hung horizontally, vertically or in patterns. “The wave paintings lend themselves to a more linear look,” he says. “The dimensions really don’t effect the painting. The most important thing to me as I am manipulating the canvas is to achieve a natural wave that is also random. When I stretch the canvas, it is important to keep it tight and secure it so as not to lose the wave.”
Heitmann’s muse is the spectrum of the natural world, at his homes both here in Florida and in upstate New York. “The bright sun and array of floral colors just shout out to me!” he says. “All around my studio are flowing grasses and the smell of the Everglades. It is the inspiration for all of my seaside marsh paintings. I am also inspired by my surroundings in New York. I live on a crisp, clear lake. You can really see in my paintings my love of water, sunshine and nature.”
Heitmann’s aesthetic has earned him legions of fans who follow him from art show to art show to see his latest creations. “One lady, Kathy, really stands out,” he says. “She had seen me at the art show at the Esplanade on Marco Island. Her friends already owned one of my paintings, and she really wanted one as well. She commissioned me to make her a blue seaside marsh. On the day that I delivered it to her, she had tears in her eyes. She was so happy to see something so bright and cheerful. Her husband had been very sick, and the painting was just what she needed to cheer her up. She had been having a very hard time and this was the perfect medicine.”
Heitmann’s work has also caught the interest of Collier County government. The particular piece was not of the Wave series, but instead a painting that embraces the theme “long may she wave.” Stand Beside Her is a more traditional painting but still unmistakably Heitmann’s. Trish Robertson, election communications coordinator for Collier County, spotted the abstract waving flag in Heitmann’s booth at a Fleischmann Park art show last year.
Robertson spearheads the county’s Art for Democracy program, which promotes and showcases “artwork that expresses what democracy means to our student artists in Collier County” in the hopes of encouraging young artists to be involved in the democratic process.
“We work with local artists and art curators during our yearly Art for Democracy contest, and we are often exposed to pieces of art that move or inspire us,” says Robertson, who works directly for the Honorable Jennifer Edwards, supervisor of elections. “Each year, we select a different painting with permission from the artist. Last year, we felt Mr. Heitmann’s painting demonstrated celebration of the American flag and gave a sense of openness and representation of the spiritual nature of what democracy means to the students who participate in our contest.”
The program leaders decided to feature his piece on all literature for the project. This power of this chance to inspire young artists is not lost on Heitmann, he says.
And while the abstract flag had one meaning for the Art for Democracy program, it could take on new meaning for another viewer. “I wanted it to not only look like a flag,” Heitmann says. “Some people would see it and think it was light shining on water.” The natural world is never far from his technique, whether it be ocean waves, waves of canvas or a waving flag he is bringing to life.
Perhaps it is a greater type of wave that motivates this artist: the waves of emotion inherent in his art. Sharing a recent story, Heitmann reflects on the power of color and movement in the life of one customer.
“The gentleman has been colorblind his whole life,” he says. “In certain conditions he is able to see a few colors, but mostly he cannot see any color at all. He has never seen the colors of a sunset, never seen a rainbow. He and his wife and children walked by my booth and saw one of my wave paintings. For the first time in his life, he saw every color! They think it had to do with the textures of the painting. They (and everyone around) were completely amazed. They were so moved that they bought the painting.”