Arts feature: "Paper Conversations with Henry Hess"

Staff Writer
Columbus Alive

In July 2014 Amy and Tom Hess decided to get their 14-year-old autistic son Henry a studio at 400 West Rich in Franklinton. The young Hess has since greatly developed his artwork, and will hold his first solo exhibition this weekend at The Vanderelli Room, the recently opened gallery around the corner from 400.

While Henry has been a tireless creator since he was old enough to hold a marker, a big factor in his recent development is the mentorship of Alicia Vanderelli, curator of The Vanderelli Room, and 400 West Rich multi-media artist Walter Herrmann. Both worked closely with Henry over the last few months, and invited him in December to participate in an in-residency program that will culminate with “Paper Conversations with Henry Hess.”

“We were just down the hall from Walt and Alicia,” Amy Hess said during an interview at the gallery. “Once we moved into the studio, they took a very strong interest in him. Walt was one of the first people to talk to us about what Henry could do. We went into 400 thinking we’d do it for a couple months … but the opportunity came from these two inviting us to do the show. Then we started to think about how much stuff we had, and I was kind of shocked.”

“His skills have really progressed since he started at 400,” Tom Hess reiterated. “We’ve seen a huge change in the detail and line work he does. He just pays attention more. And since being in the gallery, he’s paying attention to what he can bring in here. You could see his brain working — all these things that can go into this.”

Henry is extremely introverted, saying only a few words during the interview process, but he told me directly, “I am an artist,” which speaks to his passion and excitement for “Paper Conversations.” The exhibit will hold a reception 7-11 p.m. Friday, Jan. 9. Coinciding with Franklinton Fridays, the monthly art event involving the neighborhood’s businesses and arts organizations, Friday is the only opportunity to view this showcase, as the gallery will have to be emptied the next day to prepare for another exhibit the following weekend.

Henry’s upcoming show, as well as his overall approach, is best described as prolific — in both a literal and conceptual sense. Henry has hundreds of two-dimensional drawings for “Paper Conversations,” as well as dozens of three-dimensional paper sculptures and a few massive sight-specific installations. Some of the pieces were created before Henry began working in The Vanderelli Room, but a good portion — all the larger pieces, including a full-size rendering of the car from “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang” — were done over the three-week period he spent working in the gallery.

Much of Henry’s inspiration comes from the musicals he loves (“Chitty Chitty Bang Bang,” “Mary Poppins,” “Mulan” and more). Besides the sheer volume of pieces, it’s Henry’s thought-process and technique that compels experienced artists like Herrmann and Vanderelli.

“Henry definitely works with a three-dimensional brain,” Vanderelli said. “His drawings are planned out in a three-dimensional fashion. He’ll draw the whole thing and cut it out [to make] a house.”

“[Using his] memory of one of his smaller figures, he simply cut around the paper [and replicated it] in about 30 seconds,” Herrmann said. “That’s a total testament to his depth of space and three-dimensionality. It’s better than a lot of my peers.”

That last bit of praise from Herrmann is in reference to the large four-figure wall installation Henry created, but he also added that Henry replicates his line work like “a fifty-, sixty-year-old master.”

Henry often creates multiple drawings of the same subject, then cuts them out and constructs the multiple components together; making something that once seemed flat into a lifelike three-dimensional piece.

For the two-dimensional pieces there’s no less intricacy. Henry often uses both sides of the paper, showing the front and rear of his figures and subjects. Hess will also hold on to something for months as he continually adds elements.

He carries in-progress pieces in a backpack everywhere he goes — “school, restaurants, the movies,” Amy said — and even sleeps with them. Thus, many are wrinkled and crumpled (one paper piece has become as soft as cloth over the six months Henry has worked on it), so Vanderelli spent hours ironing them flat again. (Many still contain wrinkles that add a sense of life and/or movement.)

Perhaps the most challenging aspect of curating Henry’s exhibit was organizing the artist’s massive catalog. But Herrmann and Vanderelli also took an equally hands-off approach to let Henry have freedom.

“We’ve tried to have it be as loose as possible and it’s been a learning process for everybody … as far as letting the space develop,” Herrmann said. “Henry would leave and we’d play around with some of the pieces, but often we were just trying to create space for him to work because there was so much work. I think the first inclination that the room was his, was he went up and slapped [a piece] against the wall and tapped it there. Nobody said boo about it.”

Photos by Will Shilling

The Vanderelli Room

7-11 p.m. Friday, Jan. 9

218 McDowell St., Franklinton