Heather Lynn is a multidisciplinary artist and gallery owner based in Chicago. A woman who mixes witch craft, pop sensibilities, costume design, dance, tapestry making, playwriting, electronic music, business owning, and sculpture work (to name a few), she also manages to maintain powerful, beautiful friendships and long-term partnerships with other local creatives. Though I can’t say I have ever been a close friend to Heather, I can say that the times she’s come in and out of my life have been positively impactful in one way or another. She’s had an omnipresence in the Chicago DIY art scene, which, for those of us who are living or have lived in Chicago, is the only art scene we know. She’s a friend to many and a pillar of strength and ability in what sometimes feels like a hopeless pit of despair.
After leaving Chicago for the final time, I decided to reach out to Heather to talk about her upcoming play Genesis and Nemesis, and in doing so, reflect on the past seven years and what her career and presence has meant to me.
The memory of my first time meeting Heather Lynn was in so many ways an integral aspect of the most influential year of my life. A time when I was highly permeable, when I was wide-eyed and living in a big city for the first time. I was meeting people who looked like they came alive from my glam rock fantasies. I was a dark little baby goth in knee-high fetish boots and a permanent mask. In another crowd I would have looked loud. But at that time, for the first time in my life, I was just as flamboyant and theatrical as everyone else. It was absurd, when I went out to shows and queer parties — I actually felt that I fit in. Heather and her gang, at the forefront of all of this, were a bunch of glamour witches; boys, girls, non-binary individuals. I was in awe.
I was 20 years old and had no friends. I had just moved to Chicago from Phoenix, Arizona to escape a variety of toxic and traumatic experiences that kept me in an unhealthy cycle for all of my adolescence. I was learning autonomy and self-love, or, trying to. I was content with being quiet and moving with the images in the background because I was figuring out who I was, free of previous influences and pain. I had a boyfriend — I met him within 5 days of living in the city and he became my entire world and the lens through which I saw everything.
One night, early on, he brought me to a show at the Funky Buddha where he would be dancing with a band called Pure Magical Love. I was backstage painting his body when a woman approached me. She had porcelain skin, jet-black hair, Cleopatra eyes, and was wearing a handmade costume and headdress. She looked at me straight in the eyes without ever blinking and said bluntly, “maybe next time you will dance with us,” and with a quick upturn at the corners of her mouth she was gone. I didn’t know what to say, or if she really meant it. Even if I had been given a formal invitation (which, the insecure sometimes need) my crippling stage fright would have kept me behind the scenes, or in the audience as I was most commonly found. That was the only time I interacted with Heather Lynn between the ages of 20 and 24. I was really intimidated by her. Mostly because I was young and unsure of myself, but also because she emanates a kind of power that at once fills the room but also changes everything in that room. There have only been a handful of times in my life where I have met other witches who can command a room the way that Heather Lynn does.
In that first impressionable year, there were many people I met who would not remember me when we met again 4 years later. People I wanted so badly to work with and get to know. I saw Heather perform a few more times and every time I would watch her friends dance with her and wish that I could be there. I saw them as an avant-garde troupe with the freedom of expression that you read about in books and see in films but you don’t actually think could possibly exist. I wished that I could understand and experience the world she lived in, where everything was gold and glitter and it’s okay to scream when you need to scream and you can dance out your love and trauma. When she dances it’s this tribal pop experience or sometimes it’s cold and sexy, but always genuine and unselfconscious.
It wasn’t until several years later that I would realize that this woman was not really intimidating — at least not in the negative sense. I discovered her empathetic caring self. Her need to provide safety and love for other women and queer/trans individuals. I missed the point of her art the first time. I thought it was about ego, glamour and power, and later came to realize it’s about strength, love, unity and survival.
A year and a half later a much-needed breakup with aforementioned partner kept me away from all those things that secretly fascinated me and openly brought about my jealousy and self-doubt. I avoided Pilsen in general, which is where many of these shows, queer parties and art events thrived (and still do). I didn’t want to get to know anyone or engage in the community. I didn’t see Heather again until I was 24 and had just moved back to Chicago from Brooklyn with more confidence, a solidified identity and a head full of ideas and actual plans I wanted to put into action. I believed in myself and my ideas, and much to my modest surprise, so did Heather Lynn.
I also had a pack of girlfriends with loads of talent, charisma and passion. We wanted to do something for ourselves, but we couldn’t do it without rejoining this art scene I was so too self-conscious to engage with. By this time Heather and her partner Mike (Mr. 666) were in the process of taking over and rebranding a gallery previously run by Loto Ball called The Reversible Eye. The two eventually re-vamped this gallery and named it Templehead — also the name of Heather’s first play. I was curating my very first gallery show called Hysteria! Visualizing Female Anxiety and it was Heather and Mike who welcomed me into their space to host this show.
I still felt a bit like my 20-year-old self around Heather, but I came to know her as a nurturer and a mother figure to many. Though brief, I felt like my glimpse into her magical life was all I imagined it to be while standing on the outside as a younger woman. Working with Heather for those few months showed me a side of her that was incredibly endearing, kind, sensitive, sweet, careful. I realized more as I came to understand her work and her vision that the world she wanted to create was one where girls are safe and loved. If I could simplify her oeuvre with that statement I would — and I wouldn’t call it simplistic necessarily. It is as whole and deep as any dream world. Girls get to play and love and make things, sing, dance, live in nature. In the world of Heather’s work, magic is real — it’s all around us — and that magic is love.
This is the part where I wish I could transplant visual and aural memory into writing, because I don’t think I will correctly convey Heather’s first play: an opera called Templehead. I cried through most of it, and so did most of the people in the audience. Because it was a story about women finding love and acceptance through one another and through loving themselves in the most hopeless and devastating of times. It wasn’t just the story, it was the set, Heather’s vision, her partnership with Mike, and the music they created together. It was about seeing all these artists working hard and doing something they love and speaking their own truths. And on top of that, the play ran for several nights and sold out each night. I was so proud to be a part of that scene, I was so overwhelmingly proud to have been there and to see how much people care, and how talented the people I could finally call my peers were.
I wanted to write this piece in order to garner support for Heather’s work, and especially for her upcoming play Genesis and Nemesis. The Kickstarter for this project ends on July 31st and in a practice where we do everything we can to hustle and make the money we need to create our dream worlds and express ourselves, us girls have to promote and support one another when a goal needs to be reached.
Heather exemplifies professionalism in a practice that is inherently structureless and chaotic. Because I can’t be there myself, and because I think more than just Chicago should know about the work of not just Heather but all the artists involved, I wanted to share that work, and encourage the emotional, fiscal and social support of a group of people who live their dreams with unstoppable integrity and love one another.
Since I couldn’t be in Chicago to interview Heather myself, she recorded herself having a conversation, a sort of informal interview, with friend Zachary Hutchinson about her life and work.
How did you imagine yourself as a kid?
I always wanted to be a writer. I actually used to say I would be an “arthur” ’cause I thought that’s how you said author. I definitely couldn’t imagine myself like any of the adults around me. I just sort of imagined myself exactly the same as I was except bigger and that’s actually pretty much how I turned out. I live the sort of life that probably would have been really cool to me when I was 13.
When you were a kid you wrote a book, right? So you were an “arthur” then
Yeah, I was 7 when I wrote The Girl Who Had No Name…it’s funny because I think the themes I like to explore were already there — it’s a story about this little girl who came from outer space and got trapped on Earth and felt displaced from everyone around her. I was trying to use reference points from the world around me but I’m pretty clueless about the world around me. So, it starts with a stadium filled with fifty thousand people, Cubs vs. Bears, and then a comet with a door lands in the middle of the stadium. I didn’t really have a grasp on reality. Most of my art is me trying really hard to be normal and failing, for example Pure Magical Love was like my version of like a normal pop band.
And did that happen with The Capricorns too?
Me and my best friend/bandmate Kirsten both moved out of our parents houses when we were 16 and then back in with them again when we were like 20. We both ended up in this small town sort of isolated from the art and activist scenes we spent our high school years being a part of, with the realization that we missed out on being normal teenagers. We started playing shows because Kirsten’s little sister was part of the drama department at Grayslake High School. We were like the band for her high school friends and we were so into it because we just wanted to be normal teenagers…and we inadvertently wrote this record that captured what we imagined it was like to be a teenager, and even though we were just making stuff up, the songs resonated with teenagers. We ended up becoming one of the first bands that became really popular because of Myspace, which is also a super teenage thing to happen. It was never our intention to make records and tour and end up on every mix tape made in 2001, but once you send something into the world you can’t control how people take it. But, it doesn’t really matter, even if no one really liked The Capricorns it would have been the best summer of my life. I got to be a normal teenager!
How did the transition from The Capricorns into Pure Magical Love happen?
Kirsten had moved on, first to San Francisco and then New York. I still really loved writing music with her so I would write songs and send them to her where she lived, she would also write stuff and once in a while we would get together and record. The last Capricorns record was called Pure Magical Love and was very personal. I wrote all but one song on it. It didn’t resonate with people quite like the one about partying and being teenagers, but I’m still very proud of it. It became clear that The Capricorns wasn’t happening anymore, but I wanted to keep performing these songs so I recorded all the parts of them so I could play along with them live. There’s live bands and bands where you stand up there and all you do is push a button and I was somewhere inbetween…I started asking friends of mine to put on costumes and play fake instruments because I wanted to match the aural experience to the visual experience. I wanted something to go along with that and it escalated from there. I was always a dancer so I was like, you know what, this needs some choreography and it just sort of spiraled from there.
A lot of the work you do bleeds into other projects, like how a lot of the songs from Pure Magical Love were used in your rock opera Templehead.
Yeah it was similar to how The Capricorns became Pure Magical Love, I thought it would be really cool to take all the songs and string them together because they do all kind of tell a story. I write about what I’m going through and I think we have patterns we repeat so there are songs about the low parts of that cycle, the high parts of that cycle. I had a residency at this gallery and they gave me like eight months to use the space however I wanted, so I got in there and started building a set in the gallery and the songs kind of created the story. It definitely took on a life of its own and the whole thing became much bigger than I thought it would be. It really combined everything I loved to do. I always wanted to be a writer, it’s got dancing, visual art, activism — but it was a natural progression. I don’t think I intended to do that.
(Heather and Zachary have a conversation about Heather’s passion and dependency on hot glue)
So let’s talk about video, that’s a very new thing for you
At the end of Templehead, the setting changes from an abandoned museum filled with neon glittery relics to a bleak futuristic world outside which required telling the story in a different way. So I had to think outside of the colors and textures I usually use when building sets. So it involved wiping everything clean putting white sheets up, adding fog, and making videos of the bio-technicians. At the end of the play Templehead appears, and she is a shapeshifting goddess-like figure that has only existed in one girl’s imagination. Originally it was going to be a person playing Templehead, but I was having a hard time coming up with one costume that could represent all of her faces, and it just made sense to do a video where it’s a bunch of girls wearing a bunch of costumes morphing into each other. I collaborated with Molly Hewitt who does video and has worked with me for years and is very understanding of my aesthetic. As well as someone I had just recently met: chainmail artist Sky Cubacub. We realized my colorful costumes were complimented really well by her chainmail pieces.
The video ended up being so amazing, it really tied everything else that happened in the play together in a way that made me think: even if I don’t understand a lot of the technical aspects, I have ideas that do translate into video. I never thought I would do video because I prefer to make art that you need to experience in person and video is the opposite of that. But when I saw how important video ended up being to the live experience of Templehead, I became more open to the idea of using it in the future. Video is an essential part of the world of Genesis and Nemesis, where people are communicating largely through these transmissions in this infrastructure.
Can you explain what that means?
Yeah in some ways I’m still as clueless as when I wrote The Girl Who Had No Name. I don’t know how the internet works and I don’t know how videos get transferred so when I talk about the transmissions and the infrastructure I’m totally talking out my ass. But the point is there are groups of people in hiding rather than talking in person or having actual confrontations. It’s this very disconnected form of war where you’re just trying to get people to think a certain way by controlling the media…We can just sit in our houses and have people give us their opinions, try to sell us things, try to persuade us of things, scare us out of doing things and a lot of people can live their lives without actually interacting with the world.
So talk about the themes of using the internet and how we use the internet in the play
So it’s a post-apocalyptic world that is based very much on what will happen if things don’t change. The one variable that’s maybe a little different from all of us living in work camps being governed by one corporation is some people have started developing these special abilities. Some people can astral project, some people can move things with their minds — they’re called transmuters. The thing is, the play isn’t really about that, it’s a variable I added to show that happens when people have the ability to empower themselves and they don’t need to wait around for corporations, governments, religions, etc to do it for them. It’s a group of people who are self-sustaining and peaceful. They can take care of themselves and they don’t want anything or need anything. But this corporation wants a monopoly over everyone in the world so they have been telling the population that transmuters are a threat to them and being an unregistered transmuter is a criminal offense. So the corporation has these mandatory transmissions that come into all these work camps through monitors and they have no control over when they start or where they end and it’s like, in addition to all the information they need about the weather and what to do today, it’s also reminding them that they shouldn’t go outside because it’s too dangerous. And technically they’re all free to leave at any time but they’re all so brain washed that none of them do.
A lot of the play involves people using fear to get other people to do what they want. On the internet we see more and more news articles that are geared towards making us afraid, and we continue to read them knowing it’s just going to be bad news with no hope or solutions. Feeling outraged or afraid triggers a dopamine response so we are just as complicit in this as the people publishing these articles. We want to believe the world will end in our lifetime. That actually makes us feel really fucking special. It’s less work to read about how doomed you are than it is to try to change things…So all these transmuters live in this place called Sanctuary and the person who started it is a very reluctant leader, he created it because he felt that it needed to happen and that’s all he wanted to do. But, the transmuters have started reacting to the Corporation attacks by using their same tactics against them, slowly becoming the thing that they hate in an attempt to liberate themselves from it. This was inspired by many of the well-meaning but failed radical/counterculture movements I’ve seen or been part of.
Let’s talk about how the Chicago art scene has nurtured you or given you space to be able to do what you do
I couldn’t imagine doing what I do anywhere other than Chicago. I think Chicago is the hardest city to break into but when you figure it out I feel like it’s the easiest city to navigate…People who can survive here are extra tough because we’ve survived Chicago winters and Chicago assholes and Chicago sexism. It’s like how a Chicago winter will make you stronger and more able to handle extreme weather, the Chicago scene will make you stronger and more able to handle criticism and in the end I think it makes you a better artist because you don’t have as much to prove. If you say you’re doing something people are excited about it. If you start a band especially when people are familiar with you people want to see and support you. People start spaces at their houses all the time and no one really questions their credentials. That “anyone can do anything” attitude is good.
Specifically, your projects don’t get exploited in ways maybe they would in other cities
I’ve thought about that a lot. For example when I was doing the rock opera, it was an interesting idea and it was an ambitious project and I think if I was in New York — well first of all I wouldn’t have gotten the residency I had, it was kind of a makeshift residency that ended with me owning the gallery, and that doesn’t happen in New York. I feel like if I was there people would probably be assessing it trying to figure out if it’s worth giving buzz to or if it’s something you should totally not give a shit about. I don’t think it’s that way in Chicago, people are more willing to give things a chance. And yeah I think the end game is not a career, people make art here because they love it and they pay the bills doing other things.
I think the vibe here is more inclusive. At least that’s the approach I take. I’m not into the idea that for something to be important it has to be exclusive, or only accessible to the rich, or connected or the cool kids. I have never done auditions for any of my projects, if you want to be involved in what I want to do and you actually show up, then you’re in.
And in Genesis and Nemesis there are people who were in Templehead and before Templehead they were in Pure Magical Love shows so it’s all building up on each other, how you collect people and people want to work with you
The idea of collecting people sounds creepy to me. The people I’ve been working with for a long time, it’s not because I’ve harvested them and they are contractually obligated to perform in my things, they like something about the way I work so they stick around from project to project. I don’t really have a system it’s all trial and error but it’s a really good group of people that are part of Genesis and Nemesis, so many artists, musicians, and just rad people I have a lot of admiration for and I’m really excited to be working with all of them
Who are your influences?
Bob Fosse! I think a lot of people just remember him as the dude who influenced jazz, but he has done so much stuff. Cabaret is one of my favorite movies of all time. A lot of my favorite artists have a dance background, Maya Deren is another huge influence on me. When I was younger I took ballet at the park district from like this ex-vaudevillian lady who was 90 years old and who would hit you on the ass with a ruler if you weren’t working hard enough, then I also took studio classes at this place where you had to wear your hair in a bun and everyone at the same level wore leotards that were the same cut and color. And the thing that I love about ballet is it’s not actually glamorous, its repetition and practice and there is no room for ego, if you want to be the star you have to earn it. I think that’s missing in a lot of art now. Oh yeah, and I also took those quintessential 90s classes where theres like 30 of you doing choreography to Janet Jackson in rhinestone caps. All this stuff combined pretty much sums up what my art is about…so yeah, I’m mostly influenced by dancers and sometimes historical figures like Joan of Arc and writers like Iris Murdock, Virginia Woolf. Oh and my friends obviously.
What advice would you give to young people who want to do crazy ambitious projects?
If I have any regrets as an artist it’s that I let a lot of people tell me in my 20s I wasn’t good enough. Now I’ve turned that around to the point where I’m pretty much impenetrable to that and I’ve almost learned that anything anyone says you can take control of the narrative by either proving them right or proving them wrong. Also there is no shortcut for hard work, sometimes people think making art that’s really shocking or inaccessible will distract people from the fact that not much work went into it. They’re wrong-you can tell. Also don’t use interns, it creates a hierarchy that says your time is more valuable than an artist that is younger or less experienced or with less access than you. Find people who love and support what you do and want to be a part of it if you need help.
What are you going to do in the future?
Hopefully after the play is over in mid-September, I’ll get some sleep.