In Upstate, artist Sean Healy looks back at his childhood in the once-bustling upstate New York town of Brasher Falls. The town fell on hard times in the 1980s and '90s, when its three main manufacturing plants closed or relocated. Healy, 39, still visits his mother and sister there. Recently, with his 40th birthday looming, he found himself reflecting on the dissonance between his halcyon memories of Brasher Falls and its current depressed state.
WW: What's it like now when you go back home?
Sean Healy: It's a ghost town. There's no industry, there's rampant alcohol and drug abuse, spousal abuse, the suicide rate's gone through the roof.... I've been really thinking about it as I get older. It was such an idyllic, Leave It to Beaver-type place to grow up. You played baseball, you rode your bike until the sun set.... Lately I've realized how much I romanticize my childhood in my artwork. My color palette, the imagery, it's been nostalgia-based. I realized this last year around the time I lost my day job after 15 years. I was going through all these scary emotions that the workers at the plants must've felt.
Did your artwork change when you lost your job?
Yes. I couldn't afford anymore to make the big, grandiose, cut-aluminum pieces that I used to make. It forced me to work with more blue-collar materials like cigarette butts, salt, wood.... My colors became less "Pop," more muted and monochromatic. The new show is very spartan. It's the closest to minimalism I've ever come. It's a very different show for me. I'm nervous about it, but it's good to be nervous again.
Tell me about the pieces that are about cigarettes and male-pattern baldness.
There's a piece called Male Pattern Midlife 1 that came from a vision I had of these blue-collar workers who'd worked in the factories since they were out of high school. Now they're middle-aged, their hair's thinning, and they're out on a smoke break. Another piece is called Lifer, and it's about the kind of battle cry that these workers had at the plants: "I'm a lifer here."
There must be thousands of cigarettes in these pieces. Where did you get them all?
I bought them in bulk online from this place in North Carolina that makes filters for R.J. Reynolds.
Is this show about midlife crisis?
Not really, although I'm sure that show will come eventually. I probably won't realize it until it's done and I look at it afterward and say, "Wow, this is all about Porsches and young women!"
SEE IT: Upstate at Elizabeth Leach Gallery, 417 NW 9th Ave., 224-0521. April 7-May 28.