Portrait of the Sculptor as a Young Man

By Lawrence Biemiller

Philadelphia -- Austin C. Heitzman scrapped the meticulous syllabus he had prepared for Studio Art I after the first week. "This was gonna happen, then this was gonna happen, then this was gonna happen," he says as he navigates his Ford Escort through afternoon traffic on the 25-mile trip out to Delaware Valley College, in Doylestown, Pa.

Austin Heitzman
Austin Heitzman

Teaching 11 agriculture-college students to make art — to see creatively, to represent imaginatively — has turned out to be a challenge, even for an artist who, during a year in Rome, painted a cheesy Wild West landscape, carried it down to the banks of the Tiber, and took photos of himself posing in front of it while wearing a homemade cowboy costume. He later printed 11-by-17-inch versions of the photos, painted out the Rome skyline, and painted in characters from an Italian comic book called Tex that Mr. Heitzman describes as "pretty much the Lone Ranger meets Clint Eastwood meets Versace."

But that was back in grad school. Now, M.F.A. in hand, he's teaching his first college course "100 percent on the fly," with each week's assignments based on how well, or badly, the previous week's went. Tonight he plans to ask his students to take off their shoes and search them for curving shapes both large and small — shapes the students will then cut out of colored construction paper and use in their first exercise in composition. "Shoes are a great place to find shapes," he says, although the woman who turns up in flip-flops will have to look harder for hers than her classmates in running shoes.

At 25, Mr. Heitzman is tall and almost as skinny as the strips of wood that are accumulating in the Escort's back seat so he can use them in his sculptures. He grins a lot. While he's showing slides of paintings by Caravaggio, el Greco, and Malevich at the beginning of class, hints of a drawl creep into his voice — he's from Missouri City, Tex., a Houston exurb — and he flexes his knees endlessly, so that he's never the same height for more than a few seconds at a time. Pointing out the triangles with which each painting is composed means he must slide back and forth around the lab table at the front of the room, which by day is the college's dairy-science laboratory. One of the sinks holds a fragrant jar labeled "Sweet Horse Food/Amanda, Tues p.m."

Delaware Valley's catalog includes exactly two art courses — Studio Art I this semester and Studio Art II in the spring — and this fall Mr. Heitzman is the institution's entire art faculty. It was the only teaching job he was offered; he found out just a couple of weeks ago that he's been hired to teach Studio Art II as well. His class meets every Tuesday evening from 7 to 9, which leaves plenty of time for a day job that pays the rent: His alarm goes off at 6:05 each morning so he can be at work by 7 as a carpenter for a company that builds display fixtures for stores. He says he thinks about Studio Art I constantly while he's putting together shelves and coat racks. "Ideas for class kinda form organically," he says. "This week I've done a lot of sanding, so I've had plenty of time to daydream." Tuesday night, he says, is the highlight of his week.

So far this semester, he has had his students draw an object they could touch but not look at — a vacuum cleaner to which he had attached horns, which he calls a "Eurekalope" — and he has screened spaghetti westerns by the Italian director Sergio Leone for a class about representing intangible things. The class in which he had students draw to Russian folk songs went particularly well. "By the end of the class, they were doing some amazing stuff."

To help broaden their horizons, Mr. Heitzman is requiring his students to visit the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the downtown galleries and write brief papers about what they saw. For extra credit, they can go to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, in New York, and the galleries in Chelsea.

Lately he has been thinking a lot about topics for which his M.F.A. program did not prepare him, such as how to grade and what to do when students miss class. Two students are on the college's field-hockey team and one is a wrestler, he says, and excused sports absences are looming as an entirely unxpected issue: It's impossible for a student who has missed drawing a Eurekalope to make up for it afterward. Indeed, tonight's class begins with one of the field-hockey players asking to leave early for a team dinner at a nearby Olive Garden. "They're ordering for me," she says.

The other player is absent for the third or fourth week in a row. But several of his students are doing so well that Mr. Heitzman speaks of them in exclamations of delight. He's not sure what they think of him. He has not told them his age, and he says he makes a point of wearing a collared shirt to class, although he sometimes wears an orange T-shirt underneath.

When he's not worrying about Studio Art I, Mr. Heitzman is thinking about his own work. String, sticks, and strips of wood make up his most recent sculptures, a series of large, airy, primitive works that look like topographical studies of memories and dreams. At intervals along the wood strips outlining remembered hillocks and imagined ravines are miniature trees, shrubs, and tufts of grass — trees and tufts that seem to be floating in space, although Mr. Heitzman says each is placed where it would get the right amount of water to grow if the landscape beneath it were real. "Here's a gully, where water would collect," he says, pointing at the base of a tree half a finger high. The gully is really just a couple of thin strips of wood held in a shallow "V" by string. It is also, like the piece of which it is a part, mysteriously engaging.

Late last spring Mr. Heitzman's sculptures could be found on display in what was then his studio at Temple University's Tyler School of Art, from which he was about to receive his M.F.A.. He had lights perfectly focused on each piece so that it threw eerie shadows across the wall behind it. But now several of the pieces are the only artworks among cardboard boxes and wood scraps in a dusty one-room studio that Mr. Heitzman has just rented with two printmakers for $500 a month in a former factory in South Philadelphia. Having studio space again means Mr. Heitzman will be able to get back to making art. "Lately, I've just been doing kitchen-table drawings," he says, including a drawing of a sad-faced Colossus of Rhodes that he thinks might be the basis for a sculpture.

Mr. Heitzman's wood-and-string sculptures are direct descendants of the cowboy pictures he made during his year at Tyler's program in Rome. After photographing himself repeatedly in front of his cheesy Wild West landscape, he realized he would have more flexibility if he tried photographing small models in front of backdrops. He was at work on a three-dimensional backdrop for a piece about Custer's Last Stand when he decided that the hilly backdrop could stand on its own as an object. "It's what I remember from when I was 16, looking through the gate because we didn't want to pay to get into the national park," he says. He adds: "It's all jumbled, this concrete history and then my memory of the concrete history, and the viewers can interpret it as they want."

Other pieces followed, including one based on a picture of Tower Falls by the 19th-century American painter Thomas Moran. (The falls are now part of Yellowstone National Park.) Mr. Heitzman, who built airplane models as a kid, found himself enjoying his efforts with wood strips, string, and glue. The string he used in part because putting nails in thin strips of wood is difficult and in part because it reminded him of the rigging of sailing ships. "Most of the time the string is entirely structural," he says. The trees and tufts of grass convey just enough of nature to let the viewer fill in all the rest.

Or at least that's what they seem to be there for. Mr. Heitzman is wary of detailed explanations. "Explaining too much gets in the way," he says. "However you read it is exactly how it's supposed to be."

Which is, perhaps, the hardest lesson for a Studio Art I class — for anyone who doesn't look at art regularly or think like an artist. "Once you've found every shape you can in your shoes, start arranging on the paper. Please overlap," Mr. Heitzman calls out above a murmur of voices in the dairy-science lab. "Don't glue anything down for at least 30 minutes." He walks up and down the aisles, looking at students' work, offering comments, tilting construction-paper curves, flexing his knees. "You don't have to stay within the piece of paper," he calls out. "If you fall off the edge, fine."

Copyright © 2006 by The Chronicle of Higher Education. Published November 24, 2006.