In The Artist’s Studio
A conversation with Heliodoro Santa Coloma
1. When did you first start as an artist?
I think I was born an artist. I have been painting all my life.
2. Did you go to art school or have you taken art classes?
I went to the high school of Music and Art (in NYC) and then went to college at Cooper Union (also in NYC). After college, I went into the army and when I got out I went to the Scenic School of Design. My background was in Fine Arts and I needed something more commercial to make a living. My first job was for Lowenstein in their Men’s Wear Department. I designed plaids and suits. When I had to do swimwear (cabana type) I went to the Library around the corner for ideas. That’s where I read about batik. I started doing batik designs for Men’s Wear and then doing my own batiks on the weekends. I enjoyed it so much that I started taking my work to local art shows.
3. Who or what inspired youand why?
My older sister was very talented and very supportive, but mostly I was inspired by the books I found which showed Indonesian women creating beautiful batiks.
4. What medium do you work in and why?
When I was at Cooper Union I liked pottery ….I worked on a potter’s wheel and I also did sculpture. But, I found over the years, that I really like color, which was one reason I was drawn to batik. When I went to local art shows with pottery and batiks, my batiks sold faster. After a while, the pottery got too heavy so I just did batik…plus it’s more fun. I ran around in a van living like a gypsy for 8 years, going to different art shows to sell my work.
5. What is your creation process like?
I am always looking at things -- at people -- at nature. I have traveled all over the world and been inspired by what I have seen. I have been to the Amazon Jungle and Tahiti and to Indonesia, where I saw young girls doing batik.
6. How do you describe your style?
Impressionistic – with a process similar to one used for pottery. You make a pot and glaze it and then keep your fingers crossed that something beautiful comes out of the kiln. It’s the same thing with batik. I never know what I am going to get until I finish it. I let the technique guide me since I don’t have total control over it. I put one color over another to create a third color. Then, when I crack the wax on the cloth, it can add to, or mess up, the design. It doesn't always work out and you can’t correct it -- but that’s what makes it so exciting.
7. Do you find it difficult to title your pieces?
I sometimes create paintings of women, so I will call them by a woman’s name. Usually I name the piece after its inspiration. Recently, I had a painting in the gallery that was inspired by a young couple that came to my house. I had told the woman that she was very beautiful -- I think she was Indonesian -- and I mentioned I wanted to use her as an inspiration and so I named the painting after her. It’s titled Michelle.
8. What’s your favorite piece?
Actually, it is the one in the gallery now. I have a huge painting in there I call The Green Mansions. On my website, I have a video of how I created it and it is quite unusual. I had never tried something like that before. In this process, I created my batik painting, then laminated it to a paneled door. On the outside are leaves and when you open it, you see Lima, the girl from the Green Mansions that was my inspiration. To create this, I used my knowledge of pattern management. I worked on it for over a month. Normally it takes a week or two to complete a piece. I generally work on several paintings at the same time – putting one color on one and starting another with different color. Since you have to have each color dry before adding a second color, it is more efficient to have multiple pieces underway at the same time.
9. Where are your favorite places to see art?
I went all the way to Tahiti to see the work of Gauguin. I went to the Gauguin museum there and it turned out they didn't have any original works just prints, which I have in my own library!
10. Who are your favorite artists, current or historic?
At Cooper Union, we were exposed to many different artists that I love: Michael Angelo, Gauguin and Klimt. Klimt does elaborate, almost mosaic-like work.
11. What are you currently working on?
I am not working on anything at the moment but want to do something Klimt-like next. I can only stand for an hour now and you really have to be able to be on your feet and stick to a schedule, since you have to apply wax several times. And, if you don’t remember where you are and what you are doing, you might cover something you shouldn't cover. It takes several hours every day.
12. What challenges do you face as an artist?
When I wanted to make money (when I got married and had two kids), I looked for a job in the Arts and that was a challenge. That’s why I went back to school for commercial design. One of my jobs was for the designer Vera Neumann. I designed wallpaper. I designed 10-15 wallpaper books. I would drive to the end of Long Island to work for this company. But it was worth it. I learned how to do silkscreen and I then set up my studio where I could replicate everything I did at that company.
13. What has been the impact of the Putnam Arts Council on you?
The exposure. My studio has changed quite a bit over the years. First, I set it up to do my batiks. Then, when I got into screen-printing, I turned it into a wallpaper studio. And, then I turned it back into doing batik paintings. You always need other places to exhibit your work. I’ve made some nice connections through the Arts Center.