One of our Wind Fellowship recipients, Kevin Hetzel is an artist who examines his identity through the context of family history. This exploration takes the form of evocative portraits, using oil, charcoal, and most recently, collaged photographs to by turns reveal and obscure the true essence of the individual depicted.
Kevin Sun: What made you decide to get into art?
Kevin Hetzel: My parents could probably answer that better than I could. I know why I still do art, but I most likely got into art from watching cartoons as a child and trying to draw what I saw. I can’t really remember a time when I wasn’t drawing or creating something. Once I picked up a pencil, I never put it down. I just never really saw myself doing anything else. The idea of creating something that never existed or conveying an idea that couldn’t be easily explained with words I always found appealing and fascinating.
KS: Your work includes both collages as well as drawings and paintings. Why do you choose to work in these mediums and how do they interact with each other?
KH: Creating collages is a much more recent venture for my creative practice. I started making collages about 2 years ago as a departure from painting since I was getting burnt out from the inefficiency of my painting process, which has yet to change. But I found that I really enjoyed making collages and it added to what I was trying to convey. While my work always begins with my initial concept, I am now thinking about what the best way and material is to convey that idea, rather than defaulting to drawing or painting. The medium becomes a part of the message. All my work is a form of portraiture that attempts to restructure the Eurocentric tradition. So, if I am looking to reflect on the historical connotations of portraiture through physical aesthetics of the individual, I will choose to do a drawing or painting. If I am looking at challenging the ideals of what a portrait is while conveying the interiority of the individual, I will create a collage. A portrait does not have to be an observational depiction of an individual to be a portrait. While I work in collages as well as drawings and paintings, they work in tandem to depict my general underlying idea to historicize individuals who otherwise would be disregarded or unknown to gain a comprehensive idea of that person.
KS: You’ve stated that you’re attempting to “restructure the Eurocentric tradition of portraiture.” Could you elaborate on what you mean by that?
KH: The Eurocentric tradition of portraiture is based around depicting those of royalty or the upper-class through realistic oil paintings. However, this creates a false narrative and limits who is worthy of being historicized as well as how a portrait can be depicted. My work looks to challenge, restructure, and expand upon the traditions of portraiture to depict those who would otherwise be unknown. Currently, my work looks inwards at my own familiar experience and attempts to capture the physicality and interiority of distant relatives. I use drawing and painting as a direct correlation to the traditions of portraiture, but to depict those would otherwise be unknown. Whereas I use collage to challenge the traditions of how a portrait is created through a new means to describe the interiority of the individual.
KS: Your work investigates your own family’s financial history and heritage. What kind of research do you do in the process of creating a piece?
KH: It is much easier to research my family’s financial history than my family’s heritage. When it comes to money, the banks, businesses, and government do a really good job of having everything documented. My parents had a cabinet in their home where they would keep every bill they ever received, so researching that is quite easy. When researching my family’s heritage, it is a little more difficult, but it always begins with an old photo album that my grandmother who we all called “Mam” had put together. I will flip through the book and when I find an image that is compelling, I fall down the rabbit hole. I will try to find other photos of that individual and any notes written about them. Unfortunately, any internet search I do often provides very little insight if any, and since many of my relatives who may know anything have since passed away, I rely heavily on what my parents know. The research is continuing, but now I am documenting everything I learn so that there is some account of it all.
KS: How has this research, as well as your artistic practice overall, influenced how you view your own identity?
KH: My identity will always be an ongoing investigation, as I continue to grow and learn more about my family’s financial history and heritage. But it has become clearer to me how the historical context of cultural influences and genealogy have shaped my interiority of identity. My parents, grandparents, great-grandparents, and great-great-grandparents were all manual laborers. So being born into, growing up in, and living in a working-class family has enabled me to appreciate the labor-intensive means to have a sustainable life. All the research has allowed me to gain a more comprehensive idea of my relatives’ upbringing as well as my own and begin to understand why I perceive the world the way I do.