March 6, 2015

Maria Jarreau Heller recycles throwaways into art

An 'aquarium' created by Maria Heller from recycled materials.

An 'aquarium' created by Maria Heller from recycled materials.An ‘aquarium’ created by Maria Heller from recycled materials. — Bryan Haeffele photo.

What we see as useless stuff, Maria Heller sees as recyclable ingredients for a lamp, a chess set, a sculpture, an aquarium.  Her eyes and her fingers understand that what would normally be considered worn out and ready for the waste basket can become an objects of art.

Old spools of thread, worn-out gloves, faded upholstery fabrics, washed out pantyhose, the bottoms of soda bottles, artificial fingernails, twigs and shells are collectibles for future use. In her small upstairs studio, shelves are filled with jars of buttons, used postage stamps, hairnets, pebbles.

Maria Jarreau Heller. —Bryan Haeffele photoMaria Jarreau Heller. —Bryan Haeffele photoMaria has lived in Wilton, in the same house, for 65 years. A member of Our Lady of Fatima Church, she designed and made vestments for Father Conlon and Father Murphy years ago when the church opened its doors. Her flower paintings have been exhibited in the Wilton Library many times. They are much larger than life-size and every pistil, stamen and calyx is drawn with exquisite precision. These are done with colored pencils on vellum or mylar.

She also paints with watercolors on silk. Somehow, with each look at her paintings or assemblages, a new detail emerges. She teaches decoupage and is adept at Chinese brush painting.  She also transforms clothing she finds at the Turnover Shop into dramatic couture fashion. Her work has been shown at the National Art Club in New York City, Greenwich Hospital, Neiman Marcus, the Westport Library and is in many private collections.

Her home is as unique as she is. The plants and vines in her sunroom are so luxuriant and voluptuously full they don’t seem real. Some stretch from ceiling to floor and have been growing since the 1950’s. Houseplants like cyclamen keep blossoming for years.  Maria obviously has the greenest of green thumbs.  There’s a table made from the wooden base of a large telescope, with partitions that contain the most unusual coral and shells.

Maria has just completed her second aquarium.  The first one was displayed in the Wilton Library for over a year.  Both aquariums are meant to be replicas of sections of the Great Barrier Reef. A small sign explains why she created them: “To protect our coral reefs and make people aware of the diversity of plants and animals underwater, natural wonders that must be saved.”

In the aquarium are fish made of eyeglass lenses, brilliantly colored and suspended by almost invisible string. Crocheted coral, an octopus of pipe cleaners with small white buttons like suckers on the tentacles. The background is silk that looks like water.

“ I’ve collected things since I was about 10 years old in Gibraltar, where I was born. I had school friends who were artists and I watched what they did and that got me started collecting things to re-use some time.”

Where do all her ideas come from?  “It’s all in my head,” she says. “Ideas come out of the blue. My newest idea is working with shells of all sizes, colors and shapes, and making them into people and plants.  People dressed in clothes, all made of natural shells. I have so many things that I’ve collected through the years, there’s no need to go shopping.”

Maria is the widow of Dr. John Heller, a Wilton bio-physicist, who founded the New England Institute for Medical Research in Ridgefield, which did clinical trials for cancer research. Her first husband was from New Orleans and fought in World War II. She was married to each husband 23 years.

Maria is nearing 90. Her imagination transforms so-called ordinary or useless objects into one-of-a-kind creations. It’s a gift that is part of her very being. She is never bored. There are always so many ideas, so many things to do.  She says that she hopes her use of rejected, neglected objects will inspire people to see things in a fresh, new way.