How Identity and Environment Shape The Creative Practice


Interview led by: Olivia Revoredo  |  @bbgpaperco

We are excited to introduce you to talented artist Bernadette Hornbeck. You may recognize her work and words in Issue 3: The blues, and if you haven’t read it yet, tune in to page 50 and 51, it’s a must read. In this conversation we talk about incorporating identity into your artistic practice, being misunderstood, and overcoming the blues.


Hi Bernadette, thank you for joining us on the blog for our Embrace The Blues initiative! Tell us about yourself and about your artistic journey so far.  

My name is Bernadette - and that’s the short version of my first name. I am 26. I’m originally from Kansas City, MO but I now live in Iowa City, IA with my two dogs Dottie and Dino. I don’t have too exciting of an “artist’s life”. I work in a retirement home, and I think I’m lucky for that - to be around so many kind and caring people every day.

I’ve been drawing as long as I can remember. I’ve always been kind of quiet, but around the time when I think most kids come out of their shells I was diagnosed with a bone tumour in my right nasal cavity. I had to go to school with gauze tapped under my nose because it wouldn’t stop bleeding after the surgery to remove it; my face would be numb and I wouldn’t know that I was crying. At night I slept with an ice bag tied to my face. I was so embarrassed; I wouldn’t leave the house. I’d just lay in the attic bedroom and draw. During my time in the hospital the nurses would bring me into the art room because they knew how I liked art. The first time they brought me there I was terrified because I was wearing one of those flimsy hospital gowns and also I’d never seen a bald girl before. I was taught to fear people who looked different - though at that time I was discovering I was one of those feared people too. The moment this tiny girl asked to borrow my crayons I knew she was not bad or even that much different from me. I think that space changed me. It felt safe. Art has continued to be that sort of space for me.

I decided I wanted to study art therapy after high school, but after two years at the Kansas City Art Institute I decided not to transfer out. I received my BFA in Sculpture in 2013. I chose to major in Sculpture though I work mainly in 2D because I wanted to get the most of my education while still working with my hands. This year I’ve finally decided to apply to a program for an MFA in Painting and Drawing. I’m currently working on my application for Fall.

I really loved your piece in the latest issue. The combination of your words and visuals were very powerful. There were so many lines in your entry that really resonated with me, and I felt myself wanting to ask you questions right there in the moment. I felt that your writing and train of thought throughout was so enjoyable as a reader. One line I would love for you to expand on is the last line "There are wild things outside but there are wilder things in the home, and still the wildest of things in the heart".  

It was actually something I had written in my sketchbook when I was reading A Sand County Almanac. Aldo Leopold starts off the book by saying, “There are some who can live without wild things, and some who cannot.” I used to volunteer as a wildlife rehabber in Kansas City; I was trained under the opossum and squirrel woman, but during the off-season I’d take care of the raptors and owls, sometimes the turtles and snakes. “The wild things” that Aldo Leopold talks about aren’t so wild to me - not because I’ve held full grown opossums in towels - but because their unpredictability is expected. They bite, scratch, jump, fly, etc. What’s harder to control and understand is why people hurt each other - especially when those people are your family. The wildest things that exist are internal and intangible; your dreams, motivations, and hopes are the most dangerous things in the world.

I thought your story about Ms. Allison and your mother being concerned when you started writing accents on e's was really powerful. When you stepped outside the conventional box as a child, the adults around you automatically reverted to you having autism or "developmental issues". As you said, your environment was never taken into consideration. Do you ever find yourself misunderstood even now as an adult?

I don’t know if anyone thinks I have autism anymore, but maybe there are a few I don’t know about. I think I’m mainly misunderstood now because of how I look: I have several tattoos, I’m pretty thin, and I’m not very tall. I wear my hair buzzed to extra-long, and I sometimes have a woman on my arm. I think because of my small stature I’m sometimes treated as younger than I am or as someone who’s naïve. Tattoos have their own stigma, and of course homosexuality or bisexuality is not easy for a lot of people to understand. I think some people feel entitled to my private life because I’m a bisexual; I think for some that equates to me screaming, “I’m a sexual deviant!” I’ve had strangers ask me intimate details about my sex life on the street. I don’t think it’s appropriate or anyone else’s business; I’m not an #AfterSexSelfie person. There are plenty of extremely open LGBT people on the internet you can ask your sex questions to, but on the street to a stranger it is harassment.

On the topic of your environment, has your Vietnamese identity shaped your artistic practice?

I do think my biracial identity has shaped who I am as an artist. I don’t speak Vietnamese so I’d make art for my relatives in Vietnam when I was younger. When I met that side of my family for the first time when I was 13 I discovered so many of them are makers and it made communicating with them so much easier. One of my aunts is a seamstress, a cousin is a graphic designer, another cousin makes silk sculpture, another aunt loves to cook… I think you can say a lot with your hands and say a lot more of what’s good. I think art is everyone’s first language.

Right now, it looks like you are using primarily black, white and grey tones in your pieces. Have you ever created work with vibrant colours? Do you have phases that come and go when creating? Walk us through this process.

I work in colour sometimes, but I prefer not to because I’m more interested in texture and line. Ink and charcoal drawing/painting are my main practice but I do experiment in other mediums. I’m very strict with myself with drawing though so when I do try something new with coloured pencil, painting, etching I still try to get everything to a certain drawing standard. I think that’s the more rigid side of me. It can be overwhelming at times so I also play around in 3D: body-painting, screen printing, food sculpture, claymation, photography, sewing, etc. I think when art becomes more of a work it helps to have a reminder that it’s another form of play

I can see you gravitate towards drawing/painting human figures and animals. Do you have a favourite thing to draw? Are there other aspects of your life that you have been thinking of incorporating into your practice?

I’m not sure I can pin down a favourite, but I enjoy drawing portraits, patterns on fabric, and nude figures. I remember once in Painting class in college we were supposed to draw a landscape en plein aire and after my professor found me he said, “Bernadette, this isn’t a landscape. This is a portrait of a tree.” He was right. It was a gorgeous redbud though.

One thing I’ve been thinking about incorporating more of is identity - especially with what has happened within U.S. politics in the last year. I think it’s important to illustrate a diverse national identity because we have so many villainized groups. I don’t think a lot of people really understand what it means to be a political refugee. I was raised by one and so the news and the current events surrounding immigration and refugees frustrate and upset me. I think illustrating identity right now is vital to recovering from a separatism within groups divided by the fear of “the other”, that fear that ignites racism, sexism, homophobic, xenophobia, etc.

As a child, it seemed like you found solace in the places and things around you that others failed to see. The adults around you could not see past the surface level. Now, yourself as an adult, how do you overcome the blues? How do you navigate these feelings and emotions when they come?

I haven’t changed much. When I’m feeling down I go outside. I like to watch birds and take walks in quieter places. Nature still surprises me. I hope I never lose that.

What advice would give other makers and creatives on overcoming the blues? 

1. Disconnect from the electronic.
2. Breathe.
3. Reconnect with the organic.
4. Learn something new - even if it’s only to make a decent cocktail; that gets expensive.

Finally, can tell us where you feel the most inspired?

It’s kind of a dumb answer but I feel most inspired at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art. It’s been a home to me. I have a strange relationship with that museum. It is across the street from the Art Institute so I got in the habit of bringing a blanket and napping on the lawn between classes. And since it was so close I had several art history and painting lessons in the rooms and hallways. I’ve brought dates inside to meet the girl that I’m in love with - one of Bouguereau’s Italian women. She has these perfectly folded hands. I’ve been dumped on the stairs. I’ve watched movies and seen bands there. Whenever I drive the 5 hours back to Kansas City, my nostalgia for home is never disappointed. It’s the only place I can see many of the people I grew up with unchanged. It brings me a certain solace. I can sit there for hours and draw. I want to learn more and do more and still retain who I am at my core.


For more of Bernadette's journey:  |  @b.hornbeck