Painter Michael Heffernan's work combines the visual and poetic in new exhibit 'Wayfinding'

The new exhibition "Wayfinding" by the Irish-born painter Michael Heffernan is on view at the Marietta Cobb Museum of Art through March 12. (Courtesy of Michael Heffernan)

 The new exhibition “Wayfinding” by the Irish-born painter Michael Heffernan explores the overlap in visual and poetic language through abstract conceptual works. Each painting is paired with a poem written by Heffernan.

His show is on view at the Marietta Cobb Museum of Art through March 12, and the artist joined “City Lights” host Lois Reitzes to share about his multidisciplinary works and the challenging chapter that inspired them. 

Interview highlights:

How art and poetry helped Heffernan through a dire health ordeal:

“The pandemic for me, and of course, a lot of people, was tremendously challenging. I had a heart attack in 2018 while cycling on the Silver Comet Trail, and fortunately, Joe Hicks, who’s a park worker for the Cobb County Parks and Recreation System, saved my life, literally,” Heffernan recounted. “Having gone through that trauma and recovery, and then roll into the pandemic, and I, like other people, have to be very careful because of the damage to my heart…and fortunately, I had a studio to go to every day.”

“I was lucky that I could throw myself into my painting. Oddly enough… I had a very vivid dream one night in June of 2020, about one day in my childhood, on my grandparents’ farm in County Tipperary, and the dream was so vivid. I got up about three in the morning. I started making notes, and that ultimately turned into a poem called ‘Summer Hill,’ and that was the first time I’d really written a poem. And it sort of kicked off a love of expression in that format, and I found that I was able to dig into my own feelings and a new level of understanding of what was going on around me.”

On the fluid relationship between a Heffernan poem and its canvas accompaniment:

“The poems came first. What’s interesting is that the writing is driving the painting, and I guess I’ve written almost 30 poems at this point, and I’m not somebody who sits down every day and writes poetry. I’m constantly thinking about language, though, and thinking about concepts and ideas, and the first manifestation of that is usually in a poem. And then I literally have the poem in my hand when I start the process of painting.”

“I think about the size of the work. I think about the shape of the work. I build my own stretchers. I stretch my own canvas. I kind of prepare everything, and I do all this with the poem at one side, and unlike a lot of other painters who paint work simultaneously… I tend to focus on one painting at a time, because it’s a very immersive process for me,” Heffernan said. “The great thing about poetry is you can say a lot between the lines. It’s very similar to painting, you know, especially abstract forms of painting. They’re emotive and they’re very expressive, and I found, the overlap between the process of writing and the process of painting it that way was seamless, and that was very exciting.”

On the quiet reflections behind the title and poem “Wayfinding:”

“In isolation, I defined my own way, of finding my way to all of this and creating work that I found was meaningful… for me to understand my place in all of this, and it was a platform really that is summarized in ‘Wayfinding,’ which also culminated in a poem of the same name,” Heffernan said. “I found that my respite from my studio was to walk the banks of the Chattahoochee River, which I do regularly still, and indeed Kennesaw Mountain and Kolb Farm, and those places were safe to be during the pandemic. And I was very inspired, of course, by nature.”

He continued, “Now my world, like other people’s worlds, has shrunk to our neighborhoods. But I realized that the joy of nature, and the influence of nature as we walk through this life is really, really important. But we have to be still enough and listen to what nature offers around us, and understand, if one’s quiet enough to listen to your interior landscape, your interiority, and the external natural world. Because I think in that gap is imagination, and we’re all born with imagination if we stop and listen in the threshold to that gap.” 

Michael Heffernan’s solo exhibition “Wayfinding” is on view at the Marietta Cobb Museum of Art through March 12. More information is available at