PHOTOCULTURE Conversations Episode #8: Mary Beth Heffernan

By Paula Ely

Mary Beth Heffernan is a Los Angeles based artist whose work explores the intersection between representation and physicality. She is Professor of Sculpture,  Photography and Interdisciplinary Art at Occidental College. Heffernan earned her BFA at Boston University in 1987, graduating Magna Cum Laude and awarded the Kahn Career Entry Award. She earned her MFA in the Photography Program at California Institute of the Arts in 1994, and appointed Fellow in the Studio program at the Whitney Independent Study Program 1994-95. 

From the start of her career, historical medical archives fascinated Heffernan. Her Becoming series (1994), was a sculptural response to specimens and 19th century medical photographs from the Mütter Museum in Philadelphia. The Replete series (1995–2001) drew from Enlightenment-era dissection engravings by William Hunter at Harvard’s Countway Library of Medicine. She recently received critical acclaim for a solo exhibition of her Blue series at Sloan Projects in Santa Monica, Calif.  Heffernan's social practice PPE Portrait Project to humanize the frightening protective gear worn by Ebola workers in Liberia garnered international recognition on NPRPRI, the BBC the Los Angeles Review of Books,  CSNBC and many other publications. The project was also featured in Tiffany Schlain's 2015 film The Adaptable Mind

In 2017 Heffernan was selected as the recipient of the first PAC·LA Artist Grant and spent several months at The Huntington Library, Art Collection and Botanical Gardens, engaging with its collections and producing new work inspired by the objects she encountered. The Huntington has acquired a new artwork resulting from her residency that will become part of its permanent collection.

Watts chose Heffernan in part because her work aligned so closely with The Huntington and its collections. “Her art is deeply research-based, she is intrigued by historical photographic processes and techniques, and interested in the intersection between the human body and its representation over time,” said Watts. And then there’s the mesmerizing beauty of her art, which Watts finds “striking for its depth and seriousness of intent.”

Heffernan's art is included in numerous private and public collections. She is represented by Sloan Projects of Santa Monica, CA.

We spoke on February 18, 2018 at Heffernan's studio at Occidental College in Eagle Rock.