Samantha Van Heest: Artist & Art Educator
Samantha Van Heest is an artist and art educator with work spanning mediums of paint, drawing and multi-media and resonating around subjects of modern still life. We're drawn to her photo-realistic understanding of the object, her ability to appreciate what is right in front of her and memorialize meaning into it's form. A selection of Samantha's portfolio can be seen here.
Below we get to know Samantha beyond her work - through reflections of her growth both personal and professional, get insight into what has been inspiring her lately, and the challenges of pursuing your craft in a post-pandemic world.
How has your work and practice evolved over the years?
I have always been drawn to creation, and I was the kind of kid who would suggest drawing time during playdates. I would use up all the printer paper in the house, I spent hours working on designs for new inventions, and I joined every afterschool opportunity that allowed for a creative outlet. I began college with expectations of pursuing a career in Psychology. I had grown up always wanting to be an artist, but felt pressure from the social stigma around working in the arts. However, after my first college-level art class, I made the decision to fully submerge myself within the visual art world. It was inspiring seeing incredible professors be able to work on their craft and do so successfully. It was such a fantastic opportunity to explore a variety of media, as I was primarily experienced in drawing during highschool but not much else. I started truly painting my sophomore year of college and it was such a transformative experience - I felt like I had the perfect outlet to express my thoughts.
My style and technique has certainly grown and changed in the last few years, and I credit much of this growth to experiences that have pushed me beyond my comfort zone. I had the opportunity to study Impressionist plein air painting in France, as well as work under practicing artists (such as Amy Sherald). I studied the aesthetic qualities of 2D media and learned that I gravitated towards figurative realism with minimal background elements. One artist that particularly changed my trajectory is Meleko Mokgoi; he uses the raw canvas as the background for his figurative work, and that is something that I have adapted into my own pieces as well.
Currently, my practice explores minimal realism, utilizing still life as a vehicle for addressing memory, grief, and the human relationship to time. I gather so much inspiration from other creators, and I am learning how to narrow and define my own style (while also allowing room for experimentation). I work as an art instructor when I’m not in the studio, and it has made me appreciate the hard work and vulnerability that goes behind being an artist.
What specifically draws you to Still Life art over other depictions?
I am the type of person who holds on to everything that reminds me of special moments; I’ve got small collections of bottle caps from picnics, every note written by friends, and tiny mementos from my childhood. There is so much that can be said with a singular object, and I’m especially intrigued by the stories each object carries. Does it show physical signs of wear? Is it surrounded by other objects or elements? Does it have symbolism for a greater topic? My work as a whole focuses on the complexities of memory and the realities of impermanence. Still life feels like the perfect way to create a physical representation of the brain’s selective memory, while leaving space for individual interpretation.
Could you share with us any specific works of art, literature, music, etc that have been inspiring to you recently?
This past October I decided to go on my first ever solo trip, where I took a week off of work to explore New England and the US Northeast. There were many reasons for the trip; I was feeling exhausted, heartbroken, burnt out, and I was looking to reconnect with a sense of self I hadn’t felt since before the pandemic. I stayed with an incredible friend named Johanna (who is also a friend of the Phosphene family) for the first leg of my trip, and being with her was a great opportunity to reflect on the pain and refocus it into my art practice. I made absolutely no art on this trip - instead I focused my energy on consuming as much of the experience as I could. I hopped in and out of buildings that I felt drawn to, I walked miles through storming weather, I collected paper mementos, I cried my heart out in a quiet museum hallway. It was the release I needed, and I have felt much more inspired and dedicated to my practice than I have in years.
In addition to this trip, I have spent much of the last couple years absorbing all sorts of media, and it has thoroughly helped me appreciate the creative process and how many forms it can take. Here are a few albums, books, and artists who have been inspiring me lately:
- Sling, an album by Clairo
- Below the Salt, an album by Haley Blais
- Laurel Hell an album by Mitski
- Devotion, an essay and short story compilation by Patti Smith
- By the Light of My Father’s Smile, a novel by Alice Walker
- Normal People, a novel by Sally Rooney
- Americanah, a novel by Amamanda Ngozi Adichie
- Spencer Harris, artist
- Shannon Cartier Lucy, artist
- Anna Weyant, artist
- Sara Hagale, artist and illustrator
What has been the most challenging part of graduating during the pandemic and pursuing your craft?
Graduating at the start of the pandemic was undeniably very scary, and it has completely reshaped my expectations for my early 20s. I think one of the most challenging aspects has been adapting to the reality that so much of our life is out of our control. No one anticipated these past two years to unfold the way they did, and any five year goals or plans I had set are definitely no longer the same as they once were. There has been a lot of trial and error, figuring out what is best for me and my mental health at this stage. I am working on treating myself gently, especially when I find myself feeling comparative or beating myself up for not being as “productive” as I want to be.
What does an ideal day of rest and recharging for you include?
I am certainly introverted by nature, so I find solace in resting and recharging on my own (or with people I feel close to). An ideal day of rest and recharge at this point in my life consists of treating myself to little pleasures: sleeping in, eating intentional and fulfilling meals, and taking moments to catch up on personal activities such as crocheting or reading. Bonus points for if there is beautiful weather, because that always puts me in a better mindset. I feel as though I often struggle with the mindset of needing to be constantly productive, but I am working to change that mentality and allow myself to provide gentle self-care.
What are some of your favorite objects in your home?
This is a hard question, I have so many! I have a tendency to keep lots of little reminders around, such as dried flowers, postcards from trips, or knick knacks collected throughout the years. I have several ceramics made by artists I admire, many of whom are located in Fredericksburg. My mom is from Kyrgyzstan, so I keep felted pieces such as little figurines or purses visible in my spaces. One object that will always remain a favorite of mine is my teddy bear that I’ve had since I was a baby (appropriately and creatively named “Teddy”). I’m currently working on a painting where he will be making an appearance for the first time, and it’s very heartwarming knowing I will be immortalizing him on canvas.
However, my absolutely favorite thing at home is my dog, Adobe. Not necessarily an object, but he is a complete ray of sunshine in my life and I couldn’t go writing this interview without mentioning him. He is a 6 year old chihuahua corgi mix with a bit of a Napoleon complex. He is everything to me: my motivation, my studio assistant, my muse, my best friend. Everyone who meets him loves him. I cannot believe my luck that our paths came together, because every day is made better with him around.
How are you gathering/connecting with others these days?
Between managing my studio practice and teaching schedule, it has admittedly been a bit challenging connecting with others these past few months. As much as I am thankful for Zoom and FaceTime, I am equally exhausted by virtual conversations. While many of my friends are spread across the world, I am very lucky to have a group of close friends that live within an hour from me. We connect through shared meals or coffee dates, and if we aren’t able to see each other in person we will send videos and voice memos to update each other.
I’ve also been connecting with more artists in the DMV area and many have been gracious inviting me to their studios. I’ve missed a sense of comradery when it comes to having a creative community, so it has been super exciting meeting other people excited by the same things I am.
What is something that you’re proud of, personally and/or professionally?
Last year, I had the incredible privilege of being published in New American Paintings, which is a critically acclaimed art periodical - I grew up reading NAP in my highschool art classroom and used it as inspiration during my undergraduate career. It is a highly competitive juried process, and I had only applied with the encouragement of my mentor and former professor Chris. It still feels surreal, nearly coming up on its one year anniversary. It has been a consistent reminder of my capabilities, and the encouragement I need to keep pushing through the challenges thrown my way.
In regards to my personal life, I am very proud and appreciative of the person I am growing into. Having had a long history of anxiety, panic, and phobia disorders, I spent much of my childhood and young adult life feeling as though I had lost precious time being terrified of my own body. Looking back now, I think it shows incredible strength that I could take care of myself and persevere.
What are you looking forward to?
I am looking forward to traveling more in the near future! There is so much excitement that comes with exploring a place for the first time, and my list of dream destinations keeps growing. I have my mind on a few different ideas, such as hitting more national parks, visiting the US West Coast (I’ve never been), and traveling to countries where I have ancestral roots. It would also be incredible to have the opportunity of traveling for an artist residency or workshop; I’ve been spending a lot of time recently preparing and submitting applications to hopefully make that happen someday soon.