Heidi Broner almost didn’t become an artist. Blame it on the teenage rebellion. Growing up on Long Island in New York, she didn’t particularly get along with her father, whom she described as “a very good abstract painter”. Of four girls, Broner said, he “chose me” to follow his craft. She didn’t have it.
But luck – or fate or maturity – intervened, and in his thirties Broner changed his mind. “I really wanted to have a good relationship with him,” she said, “and I wanted to pursue art.”
Today, the 69-year-old painter from Calais is widely known for her representations of people at work, especially those in trades. This interest resonates strongly now, at a time of universal labor shortages.
A large piece recently exhibited in the “20/20 Hindsight” exhibition at Art in Kent is a stellar example. Titled “Spreading Cement,” it features an African-American man, wearing jeans, a white sweatshirt, and a backwards cap, doing just that. His face is in profile; he is focused on his work, does not pose consciously.
The figure is extremely well rendered, from its posture to the drape of its clothing. But in a painting by Broner, realism gently clashes with the transcendental. In this case, a vacuum surrounds the worker, as if he were spreading cement at the end of the world.
This haze of light-drenched pastel hues is so exquisitely painted that it cannot, however, be called nothingness. Here, “absence” has a presence, if ethereal. Broner captures what gets lost in his thoughts looks like, like her human subject was producing a crown of focus that only she could see.
“Heidi has been on our radar for a long time,” said Nel Emlen, one of three co-curators who curate the annual Art at the Kent exhibition. “We put our ideas together and consider them once we have decided on a theme. When we decided on the theme of this show [honoring makers from the historic site’s past]Heidi immediately came to mind.”
Emlen appreciates Broner’s “ability to tell stories about workers through painting,” she said. At the exhibition, “people kept coming back to Heidi’s work and really liking it.”
Emlen added that more men commented on the work than usual. One gentleman even said, “I would like to see a painting of me at work,” recalls the curator.
Broner had 24 paintings in the “20/20” exhibit – many of them measuring inches rather than feet. In any case, she paints only male workers. A work titled “Order Out of Chaos” freezes a waitress amidst the bustle as she prepares tables for a lunch rush.
Like “Spreading Cement,” this painting includes relatable details: red ketchup bottles, paper napkin rings, and the waiter’s handy Danskos. But Broner trades a cluttered cafe background for that celestial ether. The tables seem to float on a cloud.
Broner does not always paint workers. “I especially like going to a roller derby,” she said during a studio visit. “I like people in a parade, a balloon seller.” She also enjoys painting rocks and animals.
That said, the work in progress perched on his easel last week features a young man bent over a bucket and a small pile of bricks. Broner’s photograph of the worker – she usually shoots first, paints in acrylics later – reveals a messy construction site. Painting eliminates this distraction.
“I kind of approach a painting as if it were an abstract,” Broner said. “I’m not attached to the original photo, I can move things around in space, change colors. I know, for a lot of people, the face says a lot about the person, the personality. But I see the body — that says a lot about who they are.
“I love people, seeing their vulnerabilities and their strengths,” she continued. “It’s just delightful to watch people.”
Broner herself is slim, graceful, poised. Greeting a reporter at the rural home she shares with her husband, Mason Singer, she pretended to be nervous but warmed up to talk about her life’s journey – both in Vermont and in creating art.
Maybe her cat’s nonchalant entrance broke the ice. Samson, a yellow-orange boy, has a pattern of fur between his eyes that gives him a permanent scowl. Impossible not to smile in his presence.
Broner said she left high school early and avoided college. She sang with a Renaissance music group and worked with theater companies – “I got into making props and sets,” she said. She made puppets for an opera on Frida Kahlo. She worked at a macrobiotic restaurant in New York.
After visiting a friend who was attending Goddard College, Broner moved to Vermont at age 22. “I felt like there was so much to do in New York, but it was about watching other people do things,” she said. “I wanted to do my own stuff.”
She landed a cooking concert at the Horn of the Moon Café in Montpellier. Her theatrical experience led her naturally to Bread and puppet theaterthe Glover-based company she would work with for 20 years.
She also began to take drawing lessons from nature in Montpellier. “I saw that the models were getting paid, so I started artistic modeling as well,” Broner said. “It put me in an environment that made me realize that art was a legitimate activity – and that I was already [an artist].”
She worked for a time as a freelance illustrator but barely made it, she recalls. In 1999, a friend told Broner about a job that would pay better: granite engraving. It’s a job she still does today, even though she’s gone from four granite sheds to just one.
Broner admitted that being the only woman in a male-dominated workplace has its challenges, but she enjoys the “simple and straightforward” task. And the engraving led to an epiphany: “Because I worked from photos for tombstones” [portraits]I realized I could work from my own photos,” Broner said. “It made me realize I could make art that I loved.”
His experiences in the granite sheds also introduced Broner to the motif of men at work. A recent painting titled simply “Granite Polisher” illustrates his lifelong fascination with the body language of someone focused on a job. We see an older man from behind, slightly slouched, wearing a long apron and sturdy work boots. Black, yellow, red and green electrical cords wind through the composition. Of course, the distance is a fog.
Broner remembers when she was drawn to scenes of workers doing their jobs. “One day I was going to work in one of the granite sheds, and there were these guys fixing some asphalt. The steam was coming up – it was a cold day,” she said.
She had a camera with her, but the film was gone. “I went to the store, bought movies, and took lots of pictures of them,” Broner recalled. “I watched them for a while to see what they were trying to do.
“I really enjoyed the subject matter,” she continued. “I still do.”
It turns out that the cement spreader painting has a special meaning for Broner. “When my father was dying in New York — I was helping to care for him — I wanted to show him a picture of the painting [in progress]”, she said. “I couldn’t get it to him before he stopped responding.”
Broner struggled to return to this painting after her father’s death, but with the encouragement of a friend, she eventually did. “I kept painting more and more of the background; it was like my father’s death, on the brink, his experience of death,” she said.
Yet death is not what she has in mind when she paints her figures today. “When I’m working from a photo, it’s not a still image. There’s a stillness around them, but I like to see their focus,” Broner said. “It’s also an awareness. I think we have an ability to focus on something but also an ambient awareness of what’s around us.”
While Broner’s paintings effectively exalt workers — the people who fix our streets, climb utility poles, lay bricks — their aim is not just to see these normally overlooked people, she suggested, but to show us show something about them.
“You see the results [of their work,] but not how it’s done,” she said. “It’s how it’s done.”
Correction, October 21, 2021: A previous version of this story misidentified Mason Singer’s profession.