logs form a rig on water with a person sawing off a tip. a fire burns in the background

“Self Portrait as Emergency Shipwright” (2013), oil on canvas, 60 x 84 inches. All images © Julie Heffernan, shared with permission

Julie Heffernan likens her paintings to “advent calendars gone haywire.” Working in oil on canvas, the Brooklyn-based artist renders vast dreamworlds with tiny vignettes scattered across wider landscapes. Appearing from a distant or aerial perspective, the pieces envision the possibilities of life after fires, floods, and other climate disasters and potential opportunities for emerging anew.

Grand in scale and scope, the intricate paintings bear titles like “Self Portrait as Emergency Shipwright” and “Self Portrait with Sanctuary,” which nod to the personal details within each work. Various characters recur in the pieces, but where they once appeared alongside fresh fruit as an enduring metaphor for youthfulness, today, they’re surrounded by imagery of decay.”I find myself repeatedly drawn to landscape painting in order to explore my own issues, both planetary and personal,” she says. “I imagine landscapes that bear witness to our rise and fall as a great power but also to the workings of one woman’s mind.”


water rises around a tree with makeshift storage and a bed in its branches

“Self-Portrait as Tree in Water” (2014), oil on canvas, 40 x 46 inches

Painting, the artist explains, is a way “to see better” and to place the struggles and difficulties of the world within a context. Despite fires raging in the background, or in the case of “Weather Change,” a massive iceberg rapidly melting in the seas, Heffernan’s works are not fatalistic, instead highlighting the immense beauty of human ingenuity. She adds in a statement:

I wanted imagery that might suggest other ways we could cope and possibly even flourish in a new extreme climate and to give my characters things they must tend. I give them water and tools to stop the burning; the tarred and feathered heads of big polluters; a library of great books to surround themselves with as they contend with the madness of man-made calamities.

Evoking the tradition of Hudson River School artists like Thomas Cole, Heffernan’s paintings focus on landscapes that appear amidst chaos as a sort of paradise. She’s also known to paint over and retouch works even after she’s deemed them complete, each time revising her idyllic vision and inching closer to the sublime.

It’s worth checking out an archive of the artist’s paintings to see how the scenes and characters have evolved. Follow her work on Instagram, along with updates about her graphic novel, Babe in the Woods: Or, the Art of Getting Lost, slated for release in September. And if you’re in San Francisco, mark your calendars for November, when Heffernan will have work on view at Catharine Clark Gallery.


a pink sky floats above people walking across a towering rickety bridge over a river

“Pink Landscape” (2012), oil on canvas, 70 x 56 inches

melting ice unearths a grassy island while people in a ship below battle rising seas

“Weather Change” (2019), oil on canvas, 74 x 96 inches

a woman carries a basket of objects below a makeshift canopy of draped fabric while boulders fall

“Self Portrait with Sanctuary” (2017), oil on canvas, 102 x 76 inches

flowers sprawl across a tree with a person standing in the foreground above dead animals

“Self-Portrait as Animal Bed” (2024), oil on canvas, 56 x 48 inches

a naked woman peers down at a large mound that contains

“Study for SP with Mound” (2023), oil on canvas, 20 x 20 inches

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