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Hail the Heils

AE_studio1aA mother and three adult children prove that when it comes to art,
‘connection’ may be the best creative force of all

There are “artists,” and then there are Artists. The artists take themselves rather seriously and usually have fancy statements about their work (that sometimes are a little hard to decipher). The Artists are the ones who infuse some humor into the seriousness of being an artist.

On a fine day in September, I have the pleasure of meeting four of these Artists—a mother and her three adult children, all of whom are participating in this year’s Open Studios during the Oct. 10-11 weekend in South County. Meet the Heil family: There’s Betty, the 82-year-old mom, and Kris, her 50-something, son, then her two daughters, Judy Stabile and Wendy Aikin, also in their fifties. They’ve all shown up to their mother’s Spanish villa in the Pleasant Valley area, a stunning home, dotted with the work of many local artists. Spacious and airy, it provides great acoustics for the booming laughs of the Heil family. This is a crowd of jokesters, but underneath the comedy, they have a heart-warming story to tell about how they each became artists.

It all started with Judy, when she was in her mid-thirties. She decided to take a class at MichaelAngelo Studios in Santa Cruz. “I’d been working at a very intense job,” she says, explaining that she needed some sort of a physical or creative outlet. So she turned to a stone-making class, which then led to print-making, and a variety of artistic mediums, all of which she enjoyed. In the meantime, her sister Wendy was curious about what Judy was up to, so she took some of Judy’s scraps from art projects and started making collages, which led to her then taking assemblage and book-binding classes.

“I just felt like I was dabbling, until we hit on encaustic work,” Wendy says. Encaustic is a wax-based type of art form, where the artist typically creates paintings made out of this substance. The effect is original, almost three-dimensional looking, with a hint of transparency. “We both fell in love with the medium and set up our studio.”

AE_studio2That studio now rests in the Pleasant Valley area, just a few minutes from their mother’s residence. It’s a two-story building, with the downstairs serving as a showcase/gallery room, and the upstairs is the creative space, where the sisters often hold art classes.

Along the way, the sisters also became interested in using glass as an artistic medium. It was at this point that their mother (who at the time was in her seventies) found her own interest in art had been piqued. “I love it,” Betty says. “I like the ability to crack it up, break it, and have a good time with it.”

The big room is suddenly filled with explosive and resonating laughter. “It’s really exciting, she’s on blood thinners,” someone pipes up.

They all laugh again, and then they get serious for a minute, as clearly being on blood thinners and working with dangerous glass don’t exactly go hand in hand, but it doesn’t look like much will slow down the 82-year-old Betty. “My mom has a really young mindset,” Wendy says. “I have no mirrors,” Betty cracks. And again, the family erupts in laughter.

AE_studio1“I didn’t want to be left out,” Kris says, chiming in and joking about why he got his own start in art in his middle-age years. Kris began dropping in on the classes that his sisters were teaching and soon he learned the craft of print-making, glass and bronze work (much of his education was self-taught).

With each of these family members having morphed into artists as a sort of second life career, it seemed only right that they pursue the opportunity of getting into Open Studios. And they did—one at a time. Wendy and Judy have been participants for many years now, and this year marks Betty’s second entry in the county-wide art show, and Kris’ first time participating.

“For me, [Open Studios] gave me a sense of community,” Judy says. “And one of the huge things you get by doing Open Studios is a feel for what people like and don’t like. Many people are willing to share how your piece makes them feel and sometimes it’s completely different from what you anticipate.”

AE_studio3The last time Betty participated, her children say that her glasswork emptied out. Taking a look at her work, it’s not hard to imagine why: it’s stunning, practical, artistic, sculptural and fascinating. The common person doesn’t typically realize the flexibility that glass has, and the diversity of projects that one can create with it.

In this weekend’s Open Studios, Oct. 10 and 11, the foursome will all be showcasing their wares—Wendy and Judy will show encaustic and assemblage pieces, while Betty will unveil her popular glass work and Kris will share his glass and bronze work. The work of the sisters will be on display at their studio, just up the road from Betty’s home, where she and Kris will display their work in the garage/studio.

And while Open Studios might present a larger artistic community, the Heil family is their very own sub-community of artists. “Not all families have connections like we do,” Wendy says. “I think that being artists links us together in a way that’s different from just being a family member.”

Betty adds: “We have a common bond,” she says. “We always have something to talk about. Someone’s always got something going on.”

The family will be sharing their artistic experience during the South County weekend, and a perk for visitors is that at both studios, you can try out making your own encaustic painting or try your hand at glasswork, and take home your own project. Indeed, these are very ‘open’ studios.


To visit the Heil family during Oct. 10-11, meet Kris and Betty Heil at 1015 Pleasant Valley Road, Aptos, or visit Wendy Aikin or Judy Stabile a 133 Hames Road, Corralitos.
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