Kenneth Craighead is the owner-director of the Craighead Green Gallery in Dallas, which is currently showing Heather Gorham’s artwork.
Craighead says that more than any other artist he exhibits, Gorham and her work prompt a particular question from visitors and collectors.
Craighead: “What does she look like? Because they’ve created this image in their mind and it’s typically the opposite of who she is. They think she looks like something from The Addams Family and she’s more the Doris Day type than the Addams Family.”
The Addams Family impression could come from a Gorham sculpture like The Lonely Matchboy King. Not quite three feet tall, it’s made of wood and metal. What looks like a fat baby sits on a tall throne or highchair, wearing a crown of kitchen matches. Next to him is a cute circus monkey.
Oh, and his throne seems to be on fire. But then, so’s the monkey.
The Gorhams live in a middle-class neighborhood north of Bachman Lake. Their house is full of Gorham’s painted and sculpted oddities. Three little bronze birds sit on the dining room table. They have oversized human heads. In the living room, there’s a large-ish contraption with rusted metal wheels and on top of it a — well, something like a life-sized goat doll, complete with real horns. One bedroom is now a painting studio while the garage has been converted into a well-equipped woodworking shop.
“I think,” Heather muses, “we started with a chop saw. And this is probably our third scroll saw we’ve had, so we must have started with a scroll saw, too. Then came the table saw. Then the drill press. Then the band saw … “
Gorham has dozens of drawers organized with the antiques and discarded objects she collects for her sculptures. Bird skulls, brass keys, forks, gears. And sticks. Lots and lots of sticks.
Gorham: “I can’t pass by a good stick. I will stop the car to pick up a good stick [Laughs.] I love using found wood. I’ll go to White Rock once a month.”
Gorham also loves using objects that have had “a previous life” — they add their own histories to the “story” of her work, she says. The wood for the Matchboy King’s high chair/throne, for instance, came from husband Greg’s grandfather’s old railroad depot desk.
These days, Gorham is successful enough to have galleries exhibiting her art in Dallas, Houston, and two in California. She’s had shows there and in Austin, New Mexico and Colorado. Craighead thinks Gorham’s current show (“Approachable Beasts”) is a benchmark because in the 10 years he’s represented her, her work has become more polished and more complex.
Craighead: “What makes Heather’s work so much fun and so successful is she doesn’t put everything out there. Ten percent of the information is put out there, 90 percent is left for the viewer to make up their own story, to finish the story.”
Gorham’s artwork is memorable because it’s often creepy but it’s also charming. That’s a mixed message she enjoys, Gorham says. To flip the silly with the sad or the scary. It’s why her art often resembles something from an old folk tale. A wooden rabbit runs from ravenous wolves but is built like a rocking horse, so he can only move in place (while his not-so-lucky “rabbit’s foot” waves tantalizingly over the wolves’ mouths).
Her sculptures are like toys that have escaped from a dream. The Matchboy King has little wheels on his burning throne as if he might roll away from his own predicament.
Gorham: “If you’re gonna do a two-headed dog, it may be creepy to some people. But if you turn it into a toy, put wheels on it – [laughs] – it won’t scare you then.”
Weeks: “Everything looks cuter with wheels on it.”
Gorham: “That’s true. I think that’s my new motto.”