In Conversation with Sally Heller

Sally Heller working with Newcomb Art students

New Orleans-based artist Sally Heller worked with Newcomb Art Department students for the last two weeks of September to develop the installation Mind Over Mayhem. In October, School of Liberal Arts Writer and Editor Emily Wilkerson sat down with Heller to speak about her artistic practice, her new installation in Tulane’s Carroll Gallery, and experiential learning.

Emily: Tell me a little about Mind Over Mayhem, the installation you developed in the Carroll Gallery with Tulane students. 

Sally: All of my installations have titles that are a play on words, for example Bloom and Doom and Terrain Wreck, and they are usually about my general impression of the world as a chaotic place. So the idea of Mind Over Mayhem addresses what’s going on politically, and how we can bring to order these matters that are out of our control.

Emily: And how did the installation unfold?

Sally: I began the installation by accumulating low-end consumer goods, often materials or things that get used and thrown away. Then the students and I transformed these objects by bundling, cutting, and knotting them to remove them from their intended context. During the first day of installation, the students and I also applied rigging to the grid on the gallery’s ceiling, which consisted of clothesline tied in a crisscross fashion across the length of the space. At the same time, we mounted a twenty-foot photographic print onto the back wall. From there we could suspend forms, the items we collected and transformed, from the rigging and against the backdrop of the wall print. This created a three-dimensional effect—it was as though the students and I constructed a three-dimensional, abstract painting with the gallery space as our canvas.

Emily: What do you hope students gain from their experience working with you? 

Sally: In constructing the installation, we made decisions about how to access the piece, where to place boundaries, and how much tension should be applied to the rigging, so the students were examining materials, planes, and space carefully. The process takes into account everything they are learning in their individual classes, such as painting and sculpture, and combines all of that into this one process.
What’s interesting to me about making this work is the potential I see in the materials themselves. And that is something I hope to impart to the students—the excitement of building with these non-traditional art materials.

Emily: Can you talk about what inspires your work?

Sally: There’s a raw energy that comes from making something with your hands, especially on a really large scale. I’m also using objects that we generally don’t pay attention to, and am turning these objects into art. By turning disposable items into something significant, you can begin to see the power in very nominal things.

Everybody’s aesthetic sensibility is really about who they are. It comes from a deep place inside you. My work and process are impacted by not wanting to stay within the boundaries of painting, a cannon that was mostly dominated by white, male artists. When I became a feminist, I realized I didn’t have to subscribe to the boundaries of painting. My process is really about me as a person.

Emily: How do you think visual art, and the liberal arts, influence the way we see and move in the world around us? 

Sally: It seems that right now the political climate is all about tightening rules. And I think the liberal arts allow you to expand your thinking. I also think a liberal arts background, and exposure to the arts, allow you to have more sympathy, and not be too reactive in situations.

I believe the more knowledge you have, the better decisions you’ll make in your relationships, in your workspace, and really in every aspect of life.


Mind Over Mayhem is on view at Tulane's Carroll Gallery through October 24.

Sally Heller is a multi-material based artist who creates recognizable yet improbable landscapes constructed from cultural detritus. She has been awarded residencies at Headlands Center for the Arts, San Francisco; Civitella Ranieri, Umbertide, Italy; the Vermont Studio School, Johnson, Vermont; and Yaddo, Saratoga Springs, New York. Her work has been exhibited at the Lawndale Art Center, Houston; the Contemporary Arts Center, New Orleans; DePauw University, Greencastle, Indiana; Whitespace Gallery, Atlanta; Kemper Fine Art, New York City; and Scope, Miami, among many other sites. She holds a B.S. from University of Wisconsin and an M.F.A. from Virginia Commonwealth University.

Artist Sally Heller looks onto the early stages of the installation with Sara Abbas (LA, '20), a graduate student in studio art. Abbas was one of many students that contributed to the collaborative installation Mind Over Mayhem at the Carroll Gallery for two weeks in September.
Mind Over Mayhem, a collaborative installation by Sally Heller and Newcomb Art Department students, is comprised of low-end consumer goods Heller purchases at dollar stores and thrift stores. Heller and the students transformed each object by hand, and then used them to create an immersive installation.