Finding ‘Shangri-la’ in everyday life
Nov. 24, 2008 -- Like many young kids, Harry Heil had an addiction that distracted him from school. For him, it wasn’t video games or television. It was drawing.
“I really enjoyed it, sometimes a little too much,” he says, reflecting back on his grade school days. “I paid the price.”
Sometimes his teachers simply let him draw at the back table while they taught math to the rest of the class.
“They couldn’t deal with me any other way,” he says.
Heil, who grew up in a farming community in central California, says he learned to “buckle down” in school after awhile. He even tried his hand at engineering and aviation.
But, he couldn’t “hack the math,” so he turned back to art, he says.
Studying art in school, he attended a junior college in California and then graduated from Brigham Young University in Utah.
Heil moved to Gunnison in 1970 and has taught art at Western State College ever since.
Working with students and their vitality keeps him young, he says. That doesn’t mean he can’t find time to steal away for his own studies.
In fact, he spends a little time in the studio each day, working on an amazing variety of projects. They run the gamut from woodcuts, water colors, pencil drawings, etchings, wood engravings — and even a live steam-powered engine he’s constructing out of steel, iron and copper for his grandkids to ride in the backyard.
He says he “loves the process” of creating art.
“I just immerse myself and lose track of time,” he says. “You can think about doing the art, and you don’t have to worry about the worries of the world. ... I turn around and ‘Gee, it’s night.’”
In the end it’s the act of creating that matters most to him — much more than the finished products. Many times the final pieces end up in the recycling bin or, sometimes, he says they warm his “backside on a good, cold winter night.”
He churns it out, many times producing several water colors per week.
“I don’t get partial to it,” he says.
Thriving on the process versus the results is a trend that runs throughout his life, beyond art.
“I used to hunt, but now I just go out and sit and watch,” he says. Even when he did tote a gun, he says he was a “lousy hunter,” because he never put bullets in the gun.
“The animals were too pretty,” he says.
The same for fishing — it was always catch and release.
His deep love for nature inspires his art, and it was his father who inspired that love, he says.
His father’s business distributing gasoline often took him to the national parks for deliveries in the 1950s.
“As a boy, I would ride with him,” Heil recalls. “I fell in love with the national parks, whether it’s a big Sequoia or a waterfall.”
On the weekends, his family would pile into the family car and make treks, sometimes very long ones, to the coast to play in the surf, or in the opposite direction — the high Sierras — to watch a bear in its home.
“I would see those places and they were kind of dreams, you know? Kind of like my Shangri-la.”
The red rock country of Zion and Bryce Canyon National Parks hold a special place in his heart. But he is just as attracted to the jagged peaks of the San Juans, near Durango, or the Tetons in Wyoming.
Nearly everywhere he visits he sits down with his pencil
“That’s part of my memory,” he says. “If I’m drawing something, I can remember minute details about it.”
All the experiences have made Heil a big advocate of preserving natural places. He’ll even admit to being an environmentalist.
“Everybody needs to have the equal chance of seeing something beautiful, other than a skyscraper,” he says. “It’s part of us. We’ve got to have it.”
And for those who don’t buy into that, Heil’s creations may change their minds.
Thirty-two pieces of his art are currently on exhibit at the Gunnison Gallery through Dec. 29 (all created since July). Gunnison Gallery owner Anne Michel says his pieces “just have this magical quality.”
The showcased works of art are in various mediums, but nearly all focus on the natural wonders of the national parks and wild places — bringing geysers and grizzlies to life and flushing landscapes with waterfalls, light and steam.
Perhaps for Heil, creating these pieces on a daily basis means he never truly has to leave his Shangri-la.
Story by: Michelle Burkhart from the Gunnison Times.