The opening of Matt Hebermehl’s new installation “Birds in Flight” at the Jepson Center last week was the first time the museum’s atrium has had art hanging from its glass ceiling.
The show includes five ornately designed bird forms suspended twenty–some feet above the floor. Standing at the entry, the birds appear to be on the wall, thanks to the nearly invisible metal wire keeping them in place. The illusion ends with a bird that seems to be heading up the stairs toward the galleries.
The bird is among the figures that have become recurring themes in Hebermehl’s work, an accidental acquisition into his repertoire that he stumbled across while working on a poster for a friend’s band several years earlier. It caught on with him and others.
“It’s a simple line drawing, and it has lots of variations,” he says. “People bring their own kind of things to the meanings they attach to birds. They have different ideas of what a bird might represent to them.”
Although the concept for the installation wasn’t solely his — some of the inspiration came from art collector and Savannah transplant Arthur Kouwenhoven — it’s appropriate that Hebermehl would be the one to cross the invisible barrier between the upstairs gallery spaces and the airy entry.
“I wish I could take all the credit,” he says during a break from guiding the careful hanging process, which included two hydraulic lifts parked on plywood meant to protect the white marble floors.
It’s appropriate because, even in a city with as many artists per capita as Savannah has, Hebermehl’s recent work has had a pronounced focus on public art rather than more readily commercial items like prints and skateboards that were a common medium for him a couple years earlier.
He still exhibits more traditional pieces, and had work in “Art–o–Rama” and “Works on Paper” in the last 12 months, but much of the last year or so has been spent bringing art directly to the people.
In collaboration with his “Artner in crime” Dr. Z (aka James Zdaniewski), the duo set out projecting large scale, constantly evolving images onto the sides of buildings downtown. The effect was like watching them paint on the sides of buildings, but without leaving a mark.
“You have the historic district, which is a preserved thing, and I respect that, but I think you can still do public stuff and still respect the history of things,” he explains.
There have also been several pieces that remained on walls after he left, including several murals — one on the western side of the Meddin Studios building, and another with a variation of his bird motif is on the side of a building on Habersham and 34th Streets.
“Public painting and murals are very acceptable in almost any other city in the world,” he says. “There are artists getting flown around the world to paint murals. It’s happening, it just doesn’t happen here. I want to help foster that environment.”
Although the lines between public art and graffiti are blurry at times, unlike some street artists, you won’t see Hebermehl’s pieces on walls where he doesn’t have permission. A lot of his effort goes into building relationships with people who might be willing to support his work by offering up a wall.
“They understand where I’m coming from and what I’m trying to accomplish,” he says. “We’re gonna do something good and well thought out.”
Even with permission, there have still been some issues with his work. After painting a mural on the street side of a building at Woody’s Skatepark earlier this spring, the piece had to be removed after neighbors complained.
There might be metropolitan areas more receptive to public painting, but Hebermehl feels deeply invested in Savannah, and in putting both himself and the city’s art scene on the national radar.
“What’s cool is that now we’re starting to get some national recognition for what we’re doing down here,” says Hebermehl, whose installation at the Jepson is sponsored in part by the influential art magazine Juxtapoz.
His public paintings haven’t exactly helped him earn a living, but the hope is that by consistently doing good work, documenting it and getting it out to people, it could create new opportunities for commissioned work elsewhere.
“It’s more or less about getting up,” says Hebermehl. “The money thing, I’m not even concerned about local stuff. I just want to paint.”
Birds in Flight
Through March at the Jepson Center, 207 W. York St.