A born painter

Nightfall Study, Karl Heerdt, oil on linen panel

When I called Karl Heerdt last week he’d been out in his garage working on some sheet metal for the ’65 Mustang fastback he’s been restoring. I had no idea he did this, and to hear him talk about it filled me with instant envy. He loves simply getting under a hood and replacing pistons and rocker arms and carburetors. Yet he also doesn’t mind reselling what amounts to a completely new classic American car he’s put together with a little help from his friends. He did this recently with a Shelby Cobra replica, which is about to make its way back into his garage for a few more tweaks before his buyer takes delivery.

“Oh you bastard,” I said, but I’m not sure he heard me, because he was laughing at the fact that he was glad to come inside to answer the phone and get warm again. An upstate New York March can be as cruel as April, both here in Pittsford and down the turnpike in Tonawanda as well. “I’d love to have the tools to tear down an old 70s car and rebuild it. You’re living my dream.”

“It doesn’t take all that many special tools,” he said. “We got sheet metal replaced, hood and doors and things. It’s way more work than I expected. We completely tore it apart and did a complete rebuild on the engine and transmission and drive train. So everything is new. We updated the suspension, and we lowered it.”

You can get a glimpse of the car on his Instagram feed, still a dull matte gray from the primer coat. It’s one of the earliest Mustangs, a few years before the rumbling Highland Green menace Steve McQueen made famous in Bullitt. It takes us a while to get around to talking about his painting, because I go off on a tangent about how Dave Hickey wrote an essay in which he extolled car customization as a form of three-dimensional art. I couldn’t agree more, partly on philosophical grounds but also because it would give me an excuse to spend a year in my own garage learning how to take a small block V-8 apart and put it back together in a way that wouldn’t turn it into a massive paper weight.

Heerdt is my co-exhibitor at Oxford Gallery right now, in a show entitled Hushed Reverberations (Jim Hall borrowed it from a Santayana quote), though he might have just as easily entitled it Inside Out. In the show, my still life/interiors stand in counterpoint to Heerdt’s lush contemporary Tonalist. In some ways Heerdt and I couldn’t be further apart: I can spend months on a painting, while he is pure premier coup, laying paint down in bold, irrevocable strokes and then signing his name while he’s still ahead. The paintings look as if they take much longer. His ease and confidence give his work the aura of plein air mastery, but he draws mostly from photographs. Yet we’re both focused on conveying exactly how the world looks, how the light dwells in a certain kind of space.

Heerdt has contributed some wonderful work to the show, and one of my favorites, Nightfall Study, relies—even more than the rest of the paintings—on Heerdt’s ability to nail the exact tone, the value and color, of a scene by thinning some paint enough to provide a translucent coat on his support, enabling the white ground to reflect light back through the paint toward the viewer. To do this, he has to get the color exactly right and evoke everything in a few hours of work at the easel. It’s closer to watercolor than traditional oil painting, and the result has many of the strengths of watercolor, without losing the rich complexity of oil’s pigment. The painting’s sense of spontaneity and gesture, its luminosity, and vibrant tones hold their own even when Heerdt is showing you a landscape at dusk. Here he quickly and easily conveys exactly how the landscape looks across Western New York, but especially in the Southern Tier as you drive south toward Pennsylvania, cresting a rise and seeing a gentle valley slope down ahead of you as if you are taking to the air and floating over it. As with most of his paintings he offers just a glimpse of water, a stream or a visible sliver of river, glinting briefly with a streak of gold that lines one of the clouds above it.

He finds that water needs to find a way into his paintings more often than not—the way it mirrors the light and color around it. Even if it’s simply a streak of white late in the day, that glimpse of something shining, feels like a necessity. When he heads out to find images for his paintings, like Ishmael in Melville’s novel, he gravitates to water because it revives and energizes him and drives him to paint.

“I go south to swampy areas, Silver Lake, marshes. It can be a ditch even. Nothing spectacular. Water is essential. I love the mountains as well. West Virginia,” he told me. But he rarely sets up to paint on the spot. He prefers the predictability of working indoors. “Sometimes I set up and paint, but I prefer to take a lot of pictures and my work is usually back in the studio. I like the controlled conditions. I need to get into that zone to do good work. It’s a level of concentration you get immersed in. That’s when I do the good stuff. If I can keep that level of immersion for a while I can really do good work.”

When he gets into a zone, he will rarely wait to finish a painting beyond his first sitting. The momentum and hunger to see the image evolve and emerge can begin to wane—and the doubting mind can intervene. Better to ride the work out and make his choices without doubting his instincts as he works with the entirely wet paint. If it goes back and begins to rearrange or add multiple layers, the life begins to drain from the image and he muddies the original vision. And if the work doesn’t crystallize in the first sitting, he’ll likely trash it and start something else.

“I love it when things turn out in one sitting. That’s my goal, one sitting. If I keep going back I kill it. I don’t want to lose that main idea. If it’s successful, great, if not I toss it.”

What’s perhaps most remarkable about Heerdt is that he’s been teaching successfully for many years, he never finished college nor took a degree in art, though he did absorb instruction early on. He’s a born painter, a natural—except for the fact that he spent many years doing work he’s embarrassed to describe now, finding his way forward and developing hard-won skills that give his work an effortless, almost infallible quality.

“I always drew in school. I didn’t really get into painting at first. I think in high school my grandfather gave me a set of oils. I did some fantasy art. Some wildlife stuff. But didn’t take it seriously for a long time. I was working in construction, building houses, but always painting. Around 2000, I got serious about it, and I started to get into galleries.”

He kept bringing work back to Meibohm Fine Arts in East Aurora, one of the oldest and most respected galleries in the state, with over a century in business. Finally in his third offering, Grace Meibohm saw qualities she liked. It was a fortuitous connection because she has sold a lot of his work since then, and she connected him eventually with Oxford.

“Around 2000, I had a studio in Lockport for about eight years and honed my skills and there were some really awful paintings and showed them in the frame shop in Lockport. After that I started submitting into the galleries. My first big gallery was with Grace. The first two times I approached her she refused me. Instead of getting down on myself I kept coming back to her. Meinbaum Gallery was my first good gallery. The third approach she accepted me and she’s done really well for me. She recommended Jim at Oxford and then a couple places out of state.”

His career is an encouraging example of talent, determination and love: in everything he paints he’s reaching back into his past, his childhood, to connections he made with nature, exploring caves in Virginia, wandering along spring-fed streams in Florida and exploring around his home in New York. Some day he may return to Florida where he spent a brief time. Every painting is a reaffirmation of the connection he made with the natural world as a kid.

“I was in St. Petersburg as a kid for a little while, when our dad moved us there before he came back to New York. It wasn’t long but I enjoyed it and the winters get longer here every year.”

For as long as it lasts, Western New York is lucky to have him.

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