Hefferlin Section in Evolution Through Art

From Part Three, Freedom, Chapter 3, Evolution: Contemporaries

There are thousands of contemporary living figurative/representational artists doing amazing work that is subtle, universal, and unique. I have picked six artists for this chapter who are contributing innovative aspects of knowledge, perception and psychology to art. Their inroads are adding insights into our human experience and spirit—nudging us in positive directions and tapping our need to keep evolving.


For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.[1]

Isaac Newton

If Melissa Hefferlin (b. 1968-) did something bad as a child, her father, Dr. Ray Hefferlin, a world-renowned physicist, chemist and spectroscopist, would sit her down with a sheet of paper and pencil, instruct her to divide the paper into two columns, to label one column “Positive” and the other “Negative,” and then to analyze her behavior accordingly. Little did she know then that those epistemological and moral lessons in reason would lead her to be one of the 21st century’s great artists. Her extraordinary use of positive and negative shapes in composition are perhaps only rivaled by Picasso, although Hefferlin does something Picasso does not: she integrates her compositions with perceptual realism.

Born in Chattanooga, Tennessee, Hefferlin moved to Los Angeles in 1988 to study fine art at Otis College of Art and Design. In 1990, still a student there, she apprenticed with me for a year. Then she went on to study at the Russian Academy of Art (Repin Institute of Painting, Sculpture, and Architecture). Since then she has been a prolific visual artist, exhibiting in Europe and the U.S. Her paintings are in the permanent collections of the Hunter Museum of American Art, the Academy of Fine Art Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia, and the Siemens Collection. She has won several awards, such as the Popular Choice of the National Exhibition of Oil Painters of America in 2003, and was featured in American Artist magazine in 2009. She and her artist husband, Daud Akhriev spend time between their two residences in Chattanooga and Olivera, Spain.

In Blended Family, Melissa Hefferlin balances the positive large shapes of the glass bottles and wood box with the large negative spaces of the left and right back wall. She then continues to carefully hone the distances between things. You may recall Michelangelo’s Adam and God with the negative space between their fingers? Notice the almost touching distance between the two glass bottles and the more delicate distance between the two apples.

Each and every shape in Hefferlin’s compositions will have a corollary weighted shape somewhere in the painting to give a sense of balance. Notice the width of the space between the left bottle and the wood box; it has a similar weight and width as the highlight on the wall above.

Melissa Hefferlin, Blended Family, 2019, oil on linen, 39x39 inches.
Melissa Hefferlin, Blended Family, 2019, oil on linen, 39×39 inches.
Melissa Hefferlin, Blended Family, 2019, marked for educational purposes.
Melissa Hefferlin, Blended Family, 2019, marked for educational purposes.

It is a mind-bending effort for us, the viewers, and the artist to think of negative spaces as equal in power and worth of the positive objects. Hefferlin’s genius creates a beautiful balance of positive and negative shapes, with each one not only being unique but also a reaction to the other shapes. Added to this complex painting arrangement is the integration of forms, lights, shadows, and colors. The end result is a natural realism abstractly organized on a skill level so high that we may not even notice her process as we respond emotionally to the art.

In religions, humanities, and self-help books,we are often shown pyramid charts or mandalas that show us how to arrange our lives in hierarchy or in equally portioned bits. Artistically they are guides dividing complex issues into generic sections. But why not in turn think of a fine artist’s arrangement of organic shapes, each individual carefully evaluated as to make the whole even more cohesive? It has more truth to examine every facet of our lives with big and smaller issues, each having been deeply experienced, and how we learn from each of the episodes, and how they fit together to make our unique self. For those, like me, who are unsatisfied with religious or conventional psychological explanations, we can turn to a Hefferlin, and feel through her methodology of composition another way of seeing the complex positives and negatives of life. Melissa Hefferlin shows us how to balance the negatives as importantly with the positives thereby enriching the whole on a level worthy of eudaemonia.

[1] (Newton, n.d.), NASA website

Newberry, Evolution Through Art

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