Heebner: Blue Is the Farthest Shore
by I. Murphy Lewis
In early 2004, Santa Barbara artist Mary Heebner and her partner, photographer Macduff Everton, set out to write about, photograph and explore the Atacama desert of Chile, “possibly the most alarmingly beautiful regions of Chile — its torn, twisted, uplifted body ribbed with active volcanoes, gouged, mined parched.” In this place, Heebner found inspiration for her article “Chilean Oasis: Heaven on Earth” for Travel and Life Magazine, vol. 21.0, 2004. She found herself inspired by the small piles of stones, aparchetas — or offerings — that lay along the road. The driver explained that they are built with the left hand, “the hand of the heart — stone by stone, as a repository for one’s fatigue and a prayer for continued safe passage.”
From this wonderful journey came Heebner’s journal entries that accompany her visual artwork creations. After exploring her work, I find that was she calls journal entries I call purely poetry. Here in “Blue is the farthest shore,” one can walk the expressive lines, experience the enlightening dance of words as she hikes across the altiplano, as she lags “behind in order to absorb the colors of the canyon in silence,” inhales “a paradoxical desert world of stark simplicity, cavernous silence, needle-sharp light, unexpected sweetness.” Through her words, one can taste the emptiness, the starkness and tread the same steps.
“Blue is the farthest shore, the shortest wavelength, the color of distance and longing. Blue yonder — out of reach, a palpable illusion of light and form coming from elsewhere.
“The Chilean antiplano of the Atacama desert
is one of the driest places on earth.
At 13,000 feet, each breath in a conscious act,
thin air makes parchment of my skin,
and I inhale a world of stark simplicity,
cavernous silence and needle-sharp
“Terra firma is an illusion wedged between
blue skies and blue lake. In the distance,
pink flamingoes alight on glassy lagoons ringed
with salt so dense it looks like foamy breaking
waves, a mirage of movement and fluidity.
But as I trace the water’s edge and eacg footfall
Crunches dried shards of salt and clay.
“Wind tears at my clothes, hums in my ear,
an invisible tango partner, pressing me forward.
Raw elements — air, salt, water and molten
red land borne of fire — vibrate clean through
to my bones. I bend down to collect
flamingo feathers afloat in the pastel water.
“Across the flat salt lagoons, the land rises up
to meet bare pewter and buckskin hills.
Above, clouds of torn cotton in a denim
- Atacama journals, Mary Heebner
When she reaches the lagoons, her “footfall breaks the silence (…) find bleached vicuna bones resting among the tundra grasses. I gather five small stones, and, with my left hand, pile them up next to the bones. I place a flamingo feather on top and watch it take flight. My own apacheta turns out to be a tribute to the Atacama, less a repository for fatigue and a prayer for safe passage than an offering of thanks.”
One has a sense that whether it is Heebner’s hand-made books, paintings, journal/poetry/article writings, blue work or brown, she approaches each day, each movement, with a refreshing childlike exploration of creativity and thanksgiving, reminding us all to explore the world around us with the eyes of a child and heart of a poet.