Artist Annie Hejny Explores the Depth of Water

The painter and recent Minnesota State Arts Board grant recipient makes it her mission to capture nature’s ever-changing beauty

Photos by Nate Ryan

When the Casket Arts Building in Northeast Minneapolis hosted one of its monthly open-studio events, people visiting Annie Hejny’s studio found themselves in a surreal environment, enveloped by calming hues of blues and greens. Light rippled across her canvases to create reflections deeper than should be possible with acrylic paint, while sediment scattered across the surfaces like the topography of a secret world. When a boy, no more than 18 months old, entered with his father, he looked up at one of Hejny’s paintings and said, “Water.”

And that’s what it is. For the past five years, Hejny has respectfully collected water from Minnesota’s lakes and rivers and has brought it back to her studio. There, she applies base paint to a canvas, pours water and sediment onto it through a mesh, and then adds more paint after the canvas dries. The result? Stunning abstract paintings that lend new meaning to the word “watercolor.”

Lately, she’s been immersing herself in nature even more by expanding her media and becoming a certified guide in nature and forest therapy. In October, she’ll begin a month-long residency in Red Wing followed by an exhibit of her latest works, and we can’t wait to see what new inspiration she unearths next.

What first drew you to portraying water as a subject?

I was always making art about places, primarily Minnesota, and the story that kept coming up was the theme of water and the metaphors it offers. I just felt it was a powerful and healing component in my life at that time, and the way I approach art is by creating work that can lead to further conversations. I’m not trying to directly represent what the Mississippi looks like in person, but rather that feeling of the river and being in the water. I think many of us in Minnesota know what that feeling is—you can’t always put words to it, but there is something really magical about the light and color and movement that happens.

How do you find your water sources?

I choose a collection site based on the story that I am intending for the artwork. I’m using trails, so they’re all found by public access. I’ve found this artwork especially connects with folks who have homes or cabins near water, and I will join them at these places for special commissioned projects.

What goes through your mind as you harvest the water?

The most important part of the gathering is to come to the water with gratitude. It’s about showing up and always being present, and bringing my attention and intention for the work to the water. Part of the ritual also involves taking photos, documenting and writing, and getting close to the water and touching it and feeling the earth. It doesn’t sound significant, but when there is a mindfulness to those actions, it can be incredibly meaningful.

You’ve recently been delving into wood studies. What can you tell me about those?

I was an artist in residence in Marine on St. Croix in 2018, and staying in this little cabin in the woods alone for two weeks. It was amazing to have the water right there, but that’s also when the trees started calling to me. The art is still about nature, but it feels different—I’m thinking about this external shield or skin on the tree and the meaningfulness of their lives and how they’re providing oxygen for us. It’s another necessary part of the human experience.

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