A familial approach to art
Kevin Hetzel art exhibition

Work from Landon Upper School Art Teacher Kevin Hetzel is featured in an exhibition this summer at the Anne Bryan Gallery at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia. In this Q&A, Hetzel talks about the show as well as his approach to teaching and painting during the school year.

Tell us about the show.

It’s a group exhibition called Meta-Morph: Phase II. It’s the continuation of a show I was involved in last summer. Because of the pandemic, the work was hung but not open to the public last summer. For Phase II, some artists have shown only new work, and some are showing some of the same pieces, and it’s great to see people walking through the gallery.

I’m exhibiting cut-paper collages in one space of the exhibition, and another area is showcasing some of my oil paintings. Through my art, I’m exploring the fabric of my own individuality and experience within the world. I was born into a working-class family, which has enabled me to appreciate the labor-intensive means to have a sustainable life. This has shaped the way in which I perceive myself as well as others in relation to society.

What do you focus on in your art?

My work attempts to restructure the Eurocentric tradition of portraiture as, historically, only royal and wealthy people could afford to be honored, depicted, and remembered through portraits. I challenge that notion and create portraits of everyday individuals through drawing and painting. I also use collage to describe the individual and challenge the traditions of how a portrait is created. I combine brushstrokes, mark making, and cut photographs to connect with working class traditions of production. My hope is to attain a broader perspective of culture, society, and life by challenging the boundaries of an identity.

Who have you depicted in this show?

All my works in the exhibition are of various relatives. One piece is entitled “Distant Relatives,” and it consists of 12 frames. Eight depict family members of mine—great grandparents and great-great grandparents in monochromatic oil paintings. The remaining four frames are intentionally empty because we have no documentation of those family members.

The other piece is a life-size painting of my father. He’s depicted in oil, on top of a collage of financial statements that my parents have held onto for more than 20 years. My dad is a welder, and I depicted him as he appeared every day to me: dressed in dirty jeans and a t-shirt, with burns on his arms. We never would have thought a portrait of someone like him would be displayed in a gallery, and that’s exactly the kind of work I’m doing.

Art by Kevin Hetzel

Can you describe your creative process?

I start everything digitally by sketching ideas in photoshop. That platform is easier to edit on, so I can drill down quickly to something I like. I was brought up with an illustration background, so thumbnails help me to examine composition and work through good and bad ideas. I’ll then work through the most interesting ideas to find one that I think is most promising aesthetically and conceptually, technically sound, exciting and personal to me, and most likely to engage with the viewer. Sometimes I seek feedback, but now I’m at a point where instinctually I know which pieces are ready to go forward. Then I dive headfirst into creating it.

How do you know—and how do you advise your students—when a piece is done?

I always say to my students “is the piece finished or are you finished?” Fatigue does set in at some point if you keep working and reworking. You can always tweak, but after a while you are overworking and exhausting yourself and all the possibilities. So, it’s a fine line to determine when a piece is done.

You’ve taught for two years at Landon. How would you describe the art program here?

It’s really great. Arts have the same emphasis as all other courses in each student’s schedule, meeting just as often each week as others. Students learn key concepts and technical skills to develop their own pieces and personal voice. They enjoy that they don’t have homework in our classes so they have to use their time efficiently. It provides a nice balance with the rest of their schedule. Plus, students here know that art classes provide a time to think in a different way—to create and to be more personal to their own experiences. It’s always a fun time in the painting studio or drawing room. Students really seem to enjoy it—I know I do.

The art program also succeeds because of the co-curricular approach at Landon which allows students to learn that they have to practice and develop skills to get better at anything. It’s not just what you see at the end of the process that matters. Often with art, we just see the end result but instead students here learn to appreciate the stages of the process in creating art: the thought behind it, the skills it takes to turn an idea into a piece, and the journey that takes place to get to that end result makes everything more manageable. Perseverance shows through and helps students in school or any facet of life.

Do you work on your own material during the school year, or mostly in the summer?

In the summer, I can spend all my time focusing on my work, but I also make sure to find time for it during the school year to have my creativity flourish. I need it. It’s interesting to balance teaching, coaching, and my own work, but if I didn’t do it during the school year my mental health would suffer. In fact, the majority of the work created for the show was done during the school year. In the summer, I get to experiment, pursue ideas further, and stay up as late as I need to without worrying about getting up and being ready first thing in the morning to teach.

Do your students follow your professional work?

From time to time, I talk with students about my work. They saw the painting of my father as it was in progress because I worked on it in the painting studio during breaks in my teaching schedule. Allowing students to see it’s not just something I teach is important to me, because they see art is something I care deeply about and do professionally. It allows them to make more connections with their own art and to see the significance of what they’re doing and to realize that art is something they can pursue and develop, in many ways, throughout their lives.

Learn more about Kevin's work on his website.

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