Eroded faces of ancient sculptures line the walls in muted tones. These pieces are photographic prints on handmade Bhutanese paper, and yet they excel at deception. They mimic boulders thanks to their striking illusion of three-dimensionality. Up close, they are nothing but manipulated paper and paint: the faces are fragile, wrinkled, and flawed. They are evocative of any face’s true terrain, blemishes and all. To artist Mary Heebner, this is the geography of a face.

In “Silent Faces/Angkor,” an exhibition at the Mansfield Freeman Center for East Asian Studies, we are transported into the age of antiquity. The ruins of Angkor Wat, a temple complex in Cambodia, surround us in the form of collage, manuscripts, and photographic prints. Heebner and her husband first visited the site of Angkor Wat at the dawn of the millennium. There, Heebner would carry around sheets of paper, folded and stuffed in her bag for spontaneous sketching. Carved faces decorate almost all flat surfaces of Angkor Wat, and everyday she would sit down and draw them.

On Wednesday, February 12, Adjunct Professor of Anthropology and East Asian Studies and Curator of the Mansfield Freeman Center for East Asian Studies Patrick Dowdey gave a gallery talk that discussed Heebner’s journey through Angkor Wat and her artistic exploration of ancient ruins. Students, professors, and Middletown residents huddled in from the cold to hear these stories of culture, myth, and creativity.

As Heebner sketched, she noted the varying levels of deterioration: some figures were missing noses, others eyes, and yet they were still recognizable. She asked herself, “What is the minimum amount of information one needs to recognize a face?” She repeatedly stripped down her drawings and photographs in an attempt to unearth the bare bones of the sculptures. She realized that the amount of information needed to register something as a face is actually quite minimal.

“[The face] is the first thing we learn to read as human beings,” Dowdey said.

What is captivating about her work is that it evolved from sketching forms to being a psychological study. Heebner feels that there is something very essential about our humanity that can be learned from looking at the sculptures in ancient ruins. Not only do ruins speak to our forgotten past, but they also force us to examine who we are as a people. The geographic significance of the giant prints of these sculptures’ faces is evocative of our connection to the earth: they act as both origin stories as well as illustrations of our deterioration back into the earth.

Tom Christopher, an attendee, had previously visited Angkor Wat and therefore resonated with Heebner’s attention to the details in the sculptures, details that remain unnoticed by many passersby.

“People sort of focus on size and bulk,” Christopher said. “And I mean, it is phenomenal and impressive, but the beauty isn’t just in the bulk, it’s more in the kind of grace and conception: the balancing of one mass against another.”

Kellyn Maves ’16 attended the gallery talk and exhibition in the hopes of learning more about Angkor Wat for a French course.

“Whenever we speak about art [in class], it is how France is sort of mesmerized by Asia and its culture,” Maves said. “So I think its cool how ancient art is being incorporated into the Western culture.”

In addition to her drawings and prints, Heebner is a renowned book artist, with fifteen art books already under her belt. After her explorations in Angkor, she decided to create a book with poetry, prints, and reproductions of her sketches.

“The best way she could express the growth of this project was to make a book,” Dowdey said. “That’s what she did here.”

She made a complex cedar box that fit three scrolls, a codex book of sketches and poetry, and two accordion fold books, to be exact. Heebner’s use of multiple media beautifully marries the worlds of sculpture, photography, drawing, and poetry.

The sculptures of Angkor Wat also have a mythological foundation. Heebner became infatuated with a particular narrative in Hindu mythology where the demons and gods began a tug of war using a snake around Mount Mandara (a foundational mountain in Hindu mythology) in order to free the sea of milk and obtain the elixir of immortality. In the course of the tale, drama ensues and a poison is released; however, in the end, they eventually release the elixir. For Heebner, this myth was an important analogue to the experience of creativity, one full of back and forth struggles.

Dowdey spoke of Heebner’s passion for this myth with the excitement of the artist herself.

“She says it just this way: ‘ah-ha!” Dowdey said. “There’s this moment when it [creativity] just comes’”.

Christopher noted Heebner’s creative spirit.

“What I admire of artists is that they can see beauty in things like this,” Christopher said.

Beauty: in the flawed, the old, and the imperfect. Students should indulge themselves one hour to visit this show (up until May 25) and share in Heebner’s creative adventure. Inspiration is contagious, and I have no doubt that such an “ah-ha!” moment will hit you, whether you need it for art, French, or simply re-excavating the beauty in oneself.

  • Subodh Shenoy

    This is a well-written, evocative article that makes the reader feel he was there at the talk; and induces thoughts of future travel plans to Angkor Wat.
    Ms Lookman: More, please…
    Subodh R Shenoy