I first met Heather Spears at a writers’ group meeting, one dark Danish December evening in 2003. I noted the wise words, the pared-down sentences and thoughtfully constructed observations of one whose life had been dedicated to noticing the nuances and truth both in the written word, and pencil line. She drew my baby daughter, as I held her and struggled to read my latest piece of prose. I failed miserably, but I can still remember the guilty need that I felt to define myself as a writer, yet lavish my love on my children – that old struggle for a woman to be single-minded and ruthless, when by our very natures we are carers and creators of life. She was kind, and professional, and had spotted with her sharp eyes a woman at odds with her role. And when in later years I’ve talked to her of this artistic dilemma, we both had to admit that the years spent with our small children were times that we treasure the most, and had both given ourselves up to them joyfully.
Heather was slender, with beautiful features, her hair the apricot tone of once a flaming red. A patterned scarf, well-washed clothes that defied the vagaries of fashion, her hands clenched and ready to record with great dexterity the powerful truths witnessed by her eyes and experience – the veins in her hands blue and raised, nimble, well-used and busy. Beautiful hands.
I treasure those drawings and the well-honed comments and critiques that she passed my way that day in December, and from afar quietly worshipped Heather’s skill as a writer and artist for many years. Dealing with chores around my home filled with the happy laughter of children, I would glance up at my daughter’s portrait on the wall and feel the prickle of milk in my breasts – she’d captured the essence of my baby so well. Guests would remark on the simple beauty of the line drawing, and would gasp when they saw it was signed by “Heather.” In all those years I resisted the urge to say that I’d made it, although I was tempted, seldom had I recognized an artist in the same league as Heather Spears. With her work I began to understand that art is an act of great learning; a rare flower of care, time and of humility, and has a power which illuminates the dark. I knew then that I’d found something very special, encapsulated in a person that inspired me and softly guided me as I relinquished, and gave myself up fully to the tender years of motherhood.
Heather and I met again, as I brought my art students to her on class trips to experience how it is to be a real artist – the money for a workshop always helping to keep the wolf from the door for another day in her ramshackle apartment. They were just normal students, I’m not sure that they grasped much as they sat drawing in her clean but frugal studio. Their middle-class family opinions, which ignorantly judged the weekly art lessons as a beautiful waste of time, had rubbed-off somewhat on their artless little boys and girls. But of the twenty or so students at a time, I’d always see two or three dipping their toes in the warm bath of wise words, actions and instruction that Heather offered. Three of those students over the years were my own children, Mia was then ten years older than the first time she’d unknowingly met Heather as a baby.
Then, in the summer of 2017, I asked if I could show my photographs in her small exhibition space, Galleri Upper Canada in the heart of Copenhagen. This first show of mine was at the end of last year; and as I tinkered around in the bright and pleasant gallery space, in the back rooms Heather attended to her work – poetry, drawing, writing, saving the environment, and activism. Over cups of hot tea and big chunks of apple pie, Heather and I had a chance to get to know each other. And I was right to sense that she was an artist and writer of great worth, and a woman whose story is as complex, worked at and well-crafted as the seemingly effortless marks that she makes on paper.
As I curated my exhibition, Heather worked continuously. Moving from project to project, the edges of disciplines merging and hovering around her, as she plucked threads of truth and love – the warp and the weft of her art and the sharp northern light spilled onto the floor and, with her permission, I began to photograph some of the things which surrounded her in those precious weeks. Simple things that pleased her, like this egg left in an abandoned nest outside her apartment, an antler from a long-ago walk with Pax, her much missed old dog, or the substantial and edgy black ceramics that her ex-husband had made, once long ago on the Danish island of Bornholm.
There were drawings on shelves, in cupboards, in files on her over-flowing bookshelves, and on the walls of the gallery. I urged her not to throw anything away, and she gladly reappraised her beautiful sketches of lithe dancers, shabby poets, bell-ringers, tensed conductors, writers in mid-sentence, and courtroom sketches of judges and rigid suspects – innocent until proved guilty. All drawn with her achingly elegant lines, which at times appeared frantic but with one line always taking you straight to the essence.
And her books of drawings of premature babies:
Babies who might be dead, of babies who could not have lived, babies who might live, and the knowledge that her deft and heartbreaking images were sometimes all that the grieving parents had to remember them by. They weren’t plump and content like my babies, they were wrinkled and furious, weak and listless, grasping onto life by one silken thread in a plastic dome under the glare of neon light – the practice which sometimes led to the survivor babies becoming blind. I looked away, feeling upset and afraid, saddened by the fragility of life. Then I looked again, and saw Heather with her pencil and paper, sat in the neonatal wards of the Rigshospital in Copenhagen, illuminated under these awful lights. Quietness, the dead of night, her pencil summing up human existence as these little babes transcended life. And all over again Heather quietly illustrated that art is an act of care and of love and has power over life and death. The parents of these babies treasure these drawings more than any harsh photograph. Heather had captured their little souls.
Heather has spent her long life recording in line and word the lost and alone, the at risk, the unnoticed. The bravery of small children in war-torn places as they struggle to survive against all the odds. Their bodies swathed in bandages, the feeling that the room may be blown-apart by a missile at any second – she captures the tense eternal drama of that moment. Heather Spears has witnessed tragedy and selflessly recorded the strength, beauty, and resilience of the human spirit time after time.
If you cast an eye over her lengthy biography and bibliography, you’ll see a fuller picture of her prolific working life. As I helped her to replace folders and files of her wonderful artwork to shelves and drawers, I asked what she’d do with them? To which she replied they would be archived. I find that this isn’t enough to celebrate such a magnificent body of work. I’d like to assist Heather, an unsung national treasure of both Canada and Denmark, in making a major retrospective show of her life’s work. Please contact me here if you can help with realizing this 🙂
Heather Spears, born in Vancouver, Canada in 1934. A published author , poet and artist, she has lived in Denmark since 1962, first on Bornholm and now in Frederiksberg, Copenhagen. Books: Heather has had published 14 collections of poetry, 5 novels, 4 books of drawings, and a non-fiction book on drawing of the brain in 2012. Major awards in writing including the Governor-General’s Award, three times the Pat Lowther Memorial Award, and the CBC Literary Prize. As an artist, she instructs drawing and writes about drawing and the brain (The Creative Eye, 2012). A book of translations of her poems to Danish is to be published in 2018. Heather specializes in drawing premature infants, draws in theatres, concert halls, courtrooms, hospitals and war zones. She has held close to 100 solo exhibitions in Europe and America.
- Asylum Poems (1958)
- The Danish Portraits (1967)
- From the Inside (1972)
- How to Read Faces ( 1986)
- The Word for Sand (1989)
- Human Acts (1991)
- The Panum Poems(1996)
- Selected and New Poems (1998)
- Moonfall (1991)
- The Children of Atwar (1993)
- The Taming (1996)
- The Flourish (2004)
- The Strong Box (2016)
- Drawings from the Newborn, Ben-Simon (1986)
- Required Reading: a witness in words and drawings to the Reena Virk Trials, 1998-2000 (2000)
- Drawn from the Fire, Children of the Intifada (1989)
- Massacre, Drawings from Jerusalem (1990)
- Line by Line (2002)