Our Stories

The Rough Side of Fine Art

One can find Art Professor Heidi Preuss Grew most days by following clay-dust footprints down the stairs to her studio in the Art Building, where boxes of clay stack up against red brick walls and ceramic beasts huddle. Or you can find her work on exhibit through Oct. 8 at the 2006 Oregon Biennial in the Portland Art Museum.

As a child, Grew was captivated by her German mother's storybook. In the brooding Brothers Grimm illustrations, trolls and gnomes became almost human and humans merged into woodland animals. So perhaps it's not surprising that Grew's studio is filled with rough, folk-like creatures that are not quite human and not quite animal.

Fairy tales weren't Grew's only inspiration for her creatures. They were born in her studio after a trip to New Orleans, where she attended the last Mardi Gras before Hurricane Katrina slammed into the city.

"Mardi Gras wasn't what I expected," she says. She had envisioned a festival of complete bacchanal overload but found, to her surprise, that the parade route was packed with children, parents and grandparents. Colorful beads were everywhere, and people threw chocolates, rubber chickens and teddy bears from the floats. Marching bands filled the streets. "Music was a huge part of the experience," she says, "but mostly, it was about celebration."

Grew came back and began a series of small sketches, followed by models, followed by larger sculptures. She braided her comical figures together, imbued them with a festival air, and bonded them into family and friend groupings. They are tragic, comic, ugly and beautiful. "I find the human form inspirational," she says, "and I often return to it. But there's more freedom if I can employ animal attributes."

Her beasts are now headed for an art gallery in Portland to cavort for the crowds. "How people respond to my art is more important than how I conceive it," she says. "It changes when people see it."

At Willamette since 1999, Grew is far from the Medieval German town where she lived as a college student, but she is not unlike the crates in her studio that are marked Ready to Ship. "Much of my inspiration happens in places where I'm not familiar with the language, the people or the landscape," she says. "There's a new level of perception that heightens your creativity."

This story originally published 6 March, 2006.

Grew's work has been exhibited in Germany, Taiwan, Korea, Japan, Poland, the Czech Republic, New Zealand and the United States. Her work will be on exhibit through Oct. 8 at the 2006 Oregon Biennial in the Portland Art Museum. Thirty-five artists were selected by the museum from a pool of more than 700. The juried show crystallizes the local art world's latest trends and important happenings.