Sculptor Katy Heinlein’s studio is quiet, cozy, exploding with texture and color, and perhaps most important of all, stable. But it wasn’t always that way. Heinlein has been practicing in Houston for twenty years and listening to her recount her past studio experiences was like riding a roller coaster through the ups and downs of Houston’s art neighborhoods.

After graduating from Texas Tech with an MFA, she began an internship at the Chinati Foundation in West Texas. Her planned move to New York City wasn’t panning out as she imagined when she was offered a job as a gallery assistant at Texas Gallery in Houston. Heinlein had good memories of Houston as a kid and teen coming in from Baytown to visit coffee shops, go shopping, and experience the city. After weighing the pros and cons, she accepted the offer and made the move. Over the years she went through half a dozen studio spaces, both shared and solo, and countless jobs. Heinlein was  determined to see what was out there when it came to working and (hopefully) making a living in the arts.

Katy Heinlein, Fob, Cloth and wood, 2014
Photo by Hillary Hunt.

Heinlein originally sculpted with clay but transitioned to fabric while at Texas Tech and has pursued that exclusively in the years since.

“Fabric helped me overcome obstacles I was facing working in ceramics,” she explains of the shift. “There was a lack of immediacy. You have to wait for the clay to dry, hope the glaze sets, hope the color comes out the way you want it. You get to see the color in the fabric right away; there’s a certain kinetic energy.”

Working with fabric also helped Heinlein capitalize on another skill she already possessed. Heinlein’s mother taught her to sew at an early age and she was always interested in making clothes. Realizing she could use those skills to make art was thrilling.

“There are infinite possibilities with color, drape, how fabric reflects light, how it responds to gravity, and even people walking around it and the draft from the air conditioning.”

The way people interact with her work, and the way the work interacts with its viewers, is very important to Heinlein.

“I think a lot about that Barnett Newman quote, ‘Sculpture is what you bump into when you back up to see a painting.’ I relate more to painters than sculptors, but I’m also kind of poking fun at painting. It’s static and one-sided, while there’s a passive kinetic quality to fabric soft sculpture. I want people to walk around my pieces and really engage with them. Be curious and look at all the angles.”

There’s also a practical element to working with fabric. It is compact, durable and easy to transport. Fabric can be folded up into tiny and relatively lightweight packages and the other materials used to frame and support the sculpture are both minimal and durable. When Heinlein began looking to the future she gave serious thought to what she wanted her studio space to look like and feel. She considered what she wanted out of the installation and breakdown process. The thought of lugging around ceramic-based sculpture was daunting. Using fabric also allows her to be completely self-contained.

“There is no foundry; I don’t need assistants. As a small woman, I wanted to be in control and be able to do all the things myself. I want to be totally alone while I’m making work. There’s a stubborn independent streak there, but it serves its purpose.”

Katy Heinlein’s studio.
Photo by Katy Heinlein.

After a decade and a half of warehouse studio spaces—starting back when 2000 square feet cost $800—and an endless stream of art-related positions such as museum work and art handling, things have settled down. Heinlein and husband own a home and converted the garage to a permanent studio.

“Owning my studio space has been very significant. I have been able to build it up from scratch and season it appropriately,” she explains. Just not having to move when a lease is up has been huge, but Heinlein also notes flooding as a major problem and inevitability for all Houston artists. Now she can mitigate that problem herself rather than rely on landlords with different priorities. It could be the security this situation provides, or just getting older, or the years of experience under her belt, but Heinlein feels more comfortable with herself as an artist than she ever has before.

“It’s not so much about achievements anymore, I feel comfortable with what I do and why I do things. Not looking for outside approval is a profound feeling.”

2019 was busy for Heinlein. She received an HAA grant, had a solo exhibition presented by Deasil at McClain Gallery, curated Fold In, a three-person show at Lawndale Art Center, and participated in Meet in the Middle, a group show at Acadiana Center for the Arts in Lafayette. Heinlein looks to the coming year as a time to slow down. She has a solo show, Soft Skills, opening at Galveston Arts Center on April 18th and beyond that, a goal of creating two new pieces this year. Maybe 2020 will be the year you back into a painting while looking at one of Heinlein’s sculptures.

—EMILY HYNDS