Heddi Siebel is an artist and filmmaker who lives and works in Cambridge, M.A. She has taught fine arts at major American universities and currently teaches drawing at Harvard University. Her prints, paintings, and photographs are in private collections, and the permanent collections of many museums, including the Yale University Art Gallery. Her most recent exhibition, Our Bodies, Our Ice was held at the Soprafina Gallery in Boston from January to March 2020. In our interview, we spoke about Heddi’s research into her grandfather, Dr. John Colin Vaughan, and his Arctic travels, Heddi’s own work in the Far North, and developing an understanding and empathy for places.
Sarah Pickman: Can you tell us a bit about your background?
Heddi Siebel: My work is rooted in direct observation: by looking closely, I feel I can understand the particular language of a place—hear its invisible stories and connect more deeply to its non-human forms. Over my career, I have shifted from painting and printmaking to filmmaking, photography and writing, but almost all my work begins with looking and drawing. Before 1996 I was Assistant Professor and head of the Printmaking Department at the Massachusetts College of Art. Since then, I have been investigating my grandfather John Colin Vaughan and his role on the failed second Ziegler Expedition, while continuing to teach fine arts part-time at the Rhode Island School of Design, Boston University, Wellesley College, and Harvard University. I have an MFA from Yale where I studied with artists trained by the modernist Josef Albers.
SP: You mentioned your ongoing project researching your grandfather’s role in the second Ziegler expedition, an expedition to reach the North Pole between 1903 and 1905. Can you talk about this project, especially how you built an archive of different sources related to your grandfather and the expedition, and how this research has manifested in your work?
HS: William Ziegler, a New York baking powder magnate, wanted America to be first to the North Pole, and funded two lavish expeditions North, including the Ziegler Polar Expedition of 1903, also called the second Ziegler expedition. This expedition sailed to Franz Josef Land (now in the Russian Arctic) and camped for the winter, intending to cross the 1,200 miles of sea ice to the North Pole and back using sledges drawn by dogs and small Siberian horses. In November 1903, ice crushed their ship, marooning them for 2 years on the archipelago. In the spring of 1904, expedition leader Anthony Fiala, my grandfather Vaughan, and 37 other men set out with dogs, horses, and sleds and attempted the sea ice crossing to the North Pole. They hacked through pressure ridges and fought for just a mile and a half before quitting. In addition to being the commander of this expedition, Fiala was an accomplished polar photographer, a subject on which I have written an article to be published in the journal Film History, from Indiana University Press.
In 1996, I read my late grandfather’s copy of a book about this expedition, Fighting the Polar Ice by Fiala, published in 1906. My mother had given me the copy before she died. When I read it, I was startled to find that it was not the story she had told me. Was my grandfather, the expedition’s assistant surgeon and a sled dog driver, the hero my mother had eulogized? Or a disgruntled trouble-maker? I began hunting for the true story of what happened in archives just before the era of digitized databases! At the time, the only definitive history of the second Ziegler Expedition was Fiala’s book.
Initially, I didn’t expect to dig so deeply into this history. But as I went to archives, interviewed descendants and traveled to places, I decided to use every instinct and sensibility to root out both objective and subjective information. I conducted archival research at places like the Harvard Map Library and the National Archives, where I found incredible material, often as the result of serendipitous conversations or cataloging. As I collected the archival materials, I copied them, etched them into copper plates and printed them as large-scale photo-etching collages. Gluing together disparate or like images is a way I startle myself into finding new, poetic meanings. I was especially drawn to stories told in incidentals or “overlooked” information. The exhaustive lists of materials necessary for sustaining life—and culture— for years in the Arctic fascinated me: imagine the impact of supplies like 800 fawn skins used to sew parkas or 36 tons of Spratt’s dog biscuits for about 230 dogs! Medical lists became windows into understanding what happened by looking at the lives of the men, their health and addictions.
SP: Can you talk about how you’ve turned your research materials into exhibitions?
HS: In 2010 Rosa Portell, a curator at the Stamford Museum in Connecticut, cold-called to tell me the museum owned several expedition horse sledges, given by the Ziegler family. I had a proprietary interest in seeing these sleds, as one of my grandfather’s frequent jobs was their repair. Even though they are now just canvas platforms on broken wooden runners lashed together with rope, repaired with looping wires, these objects tell a story: human effort, panicked horses, a forced ending, and disappointed men on sea ice.
In 2011, Rosa curated an exhibit at the Stamford called Last Frontiers with expedition material that included hand-carved skis, a blanket, a rifle rescued from the ship, and rare Fiala-designed guns manufactured in Connecticut. That exhibition also included my interpretive installation Aims, Hopes, and Endeavors (words from Vaughan’s journal), which recreated an eerie polar camp surrounded by wooden structures lashed together with gut and covered with etching prints on skin-like Japanese gampi paper. A section of the space was illuminated by the wall projection of Far, and Further, a film collaged from found and archival footage. I could easily see another art installation of my archive in the future because each time I go back to the materials, I find new meanings.
SP: In general, how do you think about the role of place or travel in your work?
HS: Our human connection/disconnection to landscape has fascinated me since childhood. When I began to research my grandfather, it seemed logical to travel to the significant places in his story. In 1998, on a Fulbright Grant, I painted my way across northern Norway and Svalbard. I then resolved to visit Franz Josef Land. However, getting to Franz Josef Land meant working as an artist/lecturer from 2015 to 2018 on a Russian icebreaker that took tourists to the North Pole. To stand in my grandfather Vaughan’s “places” and feel them for myself was different from, but as critical as, the many records, journals, photographs, early films, and maps I unearthed. For example, when I climbed rocks on the bleak, narrow beach of Camp Abruzzi on Rudolf Island, I felt Vaughan’s claustrophobia and vulnerability. I also made two trips to Marion, Indiana where Vaughan lived at the end of his life, where he cared for prisoners and practiced medicine for barter during the Great Depression.
SP: Can you talk more about Franz Josef Land and how your time there has shifted your work or your thinking about place?
HS: Franz Josef Land is at the heart of my research. At the turn of the twentieth century when the American expedition with my grandfather landed there, it was internationally open territory used for exploration or fishing and hunting. The weather station, Calm Bay or Bukhta Tikhaya, where I lived in 2018 as a guest of the Russian Arctic National Park, was established by Josef Stalin in 1929 to claim the Franz Josef Land archipelago for the Soviet Union. Living for 6 days in a Soviet-era camp on Franz Josef Land with 17 Russian historians, scientists, and Park Rangers, with no running water, was a highlight of my life. I was in the place where my grandfather had been marooned, but confronting a completely different history! A land he called his “arctic hell” had been, to the Soviets, heroic and uplifting. Between 1929 and 1959, Bukhta Tikhaya served as a research station with a community of as many as 60 male and female scientists and their families. The station had log homes with interior heat and electrical power, an airplane hangar, scientific laboratories, and movie nights. Eleven babies were born there.
At Calm Bay, I began to think more deeply about the interconnections of humans and place, explorers and tourism, climate change and culture. For example, I knew from my grandfather’s diary that he had been fascinated by local plants, which grow very slowly in the Arctic. My roommate at the station was a scientist from Arkanglsk studying the impact of human activity on the soil. I followed her with my camera as she tracked multiple paths through the green, mossy hillsides of the bluff to replicate the foot traffic of tourists and scientists. When she examined her results she found that, not surprisingly, the path where the tourists’ footfall was simulated did not revive after winter.
When I reviewed my photos, I also noticed that the tourists were uncomfortable in a place unless they made some cultural action to claim it as their own. One tourist at Calm Bay stripped from the waist up and asked me to photograph him. Others wore costumes. A couple, he in a parka and she in a gown, married at the North Pole. The Ziegler explorers had also brought their culture with them: their hierarchical class structures, their food, their music, a printing press to make a newspaper, and even their attitude toward hunting, or killing nature. And they left behind this stuff from their culture. When I walked the beach on Rudolf Island, I found a large cook stove, fragments of mason jars with “New York” embossed in the glass, and crate slats that read ZIEGLER.
SP: Your most recent exhibition, “Our Bodies, Our Ice,” engages with how landscapes and bodies are changing because of anthropogenic climate change – and how humans must shift their thinking in response. How do you see your role as an artist in conversations about the Anthropocene?
HS: These are great questions because much effort and money has been put into artworks addressing climate change. The planet is on fire, yet few seem to notice. Not long ago, climate scientists and experts Jim Hansen and Bill McKibben thought that “getting the right facts in front of the right people” would generate action. But as I prepared for my show Our Bodies, Our Ice, I wondered if it was my imagination that there had been little cultural progress on accepting climate change in the U.S. since my birth in 1950? So, I researched news archives and created my own visual chart. I saw that the push-pull of arguments and policies has kept us in political stasis for those decades, while at the same time the planet has warmed and changed faster than anticipated. Can artists help change our culture to rescue ourselves? In January, when my show opened, I thought humans’ ultimate vulnerability was our ability to quickly forget, but now in the midst of the Covid pandemic, I feel the weakness is our desperation to maintain a particular fiction of “normal.”
The Arctic is fragile and changing more rapidly than other parts of the planet. Before the pandemic, millions of tourists visited the polar regions; in the summer of 2018, 1,000 tourists landed in the remote Soviet camp on Franz Josef Land. Some call it “extinction tourism.” Could tourism be re-imagined to be more environmentally savvy, with tourists who were moved to be more protective of places? In my essay ‘Look Closer’: Figure Drawing as a Lesson in Empathy I write about students using figure drawing as a means to connect with other humans. The idea of using art to somehow help humans build empathy with non-human places is an ambition I reserve for the day I can travel once again.