Therese Heliczer Interview — Learning Through Art

…I also want her to see how authentic her grandfather was.  He didn’t care what others thought and acted on his thoughts and emotions without hesitation (sometimes to a fault). That is a harder lesson for us in this social media crazed world we now live in but I do want her to be comfortable in her own skin and be her true, authentic self…

This is Therese Heliczer speaking of her father, Piero Heliczer, an eccentric poet and artist whom many consider a cult figure of the underground art movements of the 60’s.

When Therese Heliczer set out to make a documentary about her estranged father she knew very little about his life and his impact on the culture around him. Through making her film, she not only learned about his contributions, but also the parts of her that she can trace to Piero.

Here Picture this Post (PTP) talks with Therese Heliczer (TH) about the power of art, and why she chose to make her film, The Invisible Father.

(PTP) The Invisible Father is a film about getting to know your estranged parent through his art. How much do you think we can learn from the art others leave behind?

(TH) I think you can probably learn more about someone through their art than in most other ways. Art uncovers emotions and feelings that we may not even be aware of, and reveals our innermost thoughts. That is the transformative possibility of creative expression.

In my father’s poetry, while I may not understand the whole poem, there are phrases or stanzas that I can pick out that relate to his history. For example, in The Invisible Father, Anne Waldman reads one of my father’s poems and relates it to my father seeing his father dead in Italy.  Knowing my father’s history brings new meaning to the line of the poem, “my fathers [sick] body lies in this lava hill… my fathers [sic] body lies naked in his icon of blue jeans.” It also helps me understand what he may have been feeling about that moment in his life and how he used it creatively.

Art is healing. In writing the poem he was able to process that trauma in some way.  Most people were not aware of the trauma he endured as a child during World War II, so I hope that the poem helped him heal as he did not seem to dwell on it or talk about it during his life. Through learning about his trauma and how he creatively expressed it, I learned not only how that influenced his art but also how I might deal with traumas in my own life.

Piero Heliczer with Andy Warhol
Velvet Underground with Piero Heliczer Photo: Adam Ritchie
Piero Heliczer with his mother
Wynn Heliczer, daughter of Piero Heliczer and step-sister of Therese Heliczer

Through the making of this film you got to meet many artists who worked with your father. Did you learn as a filmmaker and artist from them?

I appreciated being able to meet artists who worked with my father and supported him. Without that, even more of his art would have been lost and I would not have been able to get to know him through their stories.

Jonas Mekas was inspiring to me as he continued to be a filmmaker up until the day he died.  His 365 days project where he made a film every day taught me that art doesn’t have to be so precious and perfect. Just make art! He was more productive than most people half his age and his energy and enthusiasm were infectious. John Cale is also still creating music and touring and it’s inspiring to see that continuing over the decades. Both artists teach us that your creativity can be sustained and helps you live a meaningful life surrounded by interesting people.

 Did your feelings about your father change while working on this project?

Definitely.  I only knew a few stories about my father and most had to do with my family protecting me from him. So, I saw him as a somewhat scary figure with mental illness.  But as I learned more about him through his friends, I saw the fun and meaning he brought to their lives and the playfulness in him that was so appreciated.  I’m sure the baby me experienced that, but I have no memory of it. So now the adult me has a new appreciation of my father and who he
was. While not the father figure I would have wanted, he did give me an optimistic nature,
smarts and a smile to light up a room.

There is a scene in the movie where you attend one of your father's poetry readings as an adult. What did the two of you talk about?

I was 19 years old when I met my father at a poetry reading at St. Mark’s Church in New York City. It was 1991 and he was living on and off the streets. He smelled of alcohol and body order and was hard to understand. I don’t remember talking to him much but rather just being shocked at his state. At the poetry reading, he had many adoring fans but I could not understand what all the fuss was about. It wasn’t until later, when I spoke to his friend and playwright, Jean-Claude Van Itallie, that I was able to understand the fuss. Jean-Claude shared with me his memories of Piero as someone who would act out an impulse and not settle for anything less. I saw that in my father at the poetry reading. He insisted that the whole audience turn their chairs so he could read his poetry under the Bella Donna bas-relief. That was the way he wanted it and he patiently waited to read his poem as the chairs scraped across the floor.

 How do you feel about Piero getting some more attention in recent years, with new attention to his films and poetry?

My grandmother, Piero’s mother, always believed in him and thought that he would be famous someday. While his 15 minutes of fame may have already passed, I’m glad he is getting his due as an influencer of the 1960s underground culture of poetry, film, music and creativity that exploded in New York. He was not recognized then and was perhaps a little ahead of his time, but it is nice to see his art and poetry celebrated for its unique contribution. It was something he really put his heart and soul into. He was always carrying a notebook and jotting down lines and carrying his films from showing to showing. It’s good for that to amount to something and be appreciated for its DIY aesthetic.

Piero spent some of his final years homeless in New York City. Do you feel there is a connection between his life, art, and his mental illness?

Piero was a nomad starting at a young age in Rome, Italy. His family was displaced as the Nazis occupied the city and the Jewish people went into hiding. Later in his life, when he would travel back and forth to show his films, go to poetry readings and eventually live on the streets, I think this was a continuation of his nomadic lifestyle. In the film, he talks about not being homeless as he has a house in France that he can take a subway and a plane to get to. Jonas Mekas also told me that Piero did not act destitute when he was living on the streets of New York and sometimes staying at Anthology Film Archives (which Jonas founded). So, Piero didn’t see his homelessness or mental illness the way society did. It was a part of him but did not hold him back.  In fact, at the time he was in a mental institution it was seen as a badge of honor for a poet. Like many artists, he did not want to take medication for his illness as it deadened his creativity. This made it harder for him to fit the traditional mold, which is why he spent most of his time in either France or Amsterdam. He was able to live in the small French village where I was born. They tolerated the poet in their midst and welcomed him into their community, much as the Italian resistance had done during World World II when he was in hiding with his mother and brother. The village now has an annual walk where they read his poetry. Somehow it feels like his life has come full circle and he lives on in his words.

What do you want your daughter to take away from this film about her grandfather?

My daughter is also an artist so I want her to see where that comes from in her heritage. She uses her music to express her emotions and I’m so thankful that she has that in her life as we all need ways to cope with life’s ups and downs. I also want her to see how authentic her grandfather was. He didn’t care what others thought and acted on his thoughts and emotions without hesitation (sometimes to a fault). That is a harder lesson for us in this social media crazed world we now live in but I do want her to be comfortable in her own skin and be her true, authentic self.

Therese with filmmaker Jonas Mekas

For more information on where and how to view visit The Invisible Father website.

Read how filmmakers make their magic— in their own words. Read “FILMMAKERS SPOTLIGHT— Meet Filmmakers Picture This Post LOVES!” and watch this video for a story preview —

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Images courtesy of Therese Heliczer.

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