Issue No 17

Traveling Like Vasco Da Gama

BY Jonathan Mayor

Kevin Heisner is an ace of many trades. In addition to building, designing, and owning some of the most celebrated and awarded bar and restaurant concepts in Chicago, he has interests ranging from furniture design to brewing his own beer. As a visual artist, his paintings and other art have been shown all over the world (upcoming shows are set for summer 2013 in New York City and Osaka, Japan). Heisner also builds and invents intricate new tools and tap systems, travels like Vasco Da Gama, and finds a little time for yoga. How does he fit it all in? Or more appropriately with Kevin...what is he up to next?

Jonathan Mayor: Describe some of the things you're currently working on?

Kevin Heisner: I'm currently working on a series of paintings based on drawings from a recent trip to Naples, Saint Sebastian, Paris, and London. The series is inspired by Lichtenstein’s Painting Composition 1 in retrospective show, which I saw in Chicago. I'm also working on some tool pieces with LEDs made from found objects, and some idiot-observant sketches (pretty self explanatory I think). I have a few chair prototypes and a multi-media table I've been designing and working on as well. Then there's construction stuff. I'm finally finishing my warehouse (where I live and work), and finishing a few other houses in Chicago's Lincoln Park area and in other parts of the city and suburbs. I just finished a rebuild of an amazing old house in France, and hospitality-wise we're working on a lot of new things, including a bar on Randolph Street in Chicago and another on Western Avenue. Then a Korean pub and a rebuild of a place I currently own with my business partner (Empire Liquors).

JM: Sounds like busy times.

KH: Makes the day go by. I like working on a lot of different projects, trying new things... keeping things moving.

JM: Can you describe a day in the life?

KH: I usually wake-up around 7. Every day of the week is more or less the same schedule though Sundays I go a little more Zen by throwing yoga into the mix. Yin style which is not like exercise but stretching and stress release. I also box, and run, and have periodic sessions on the inversion table. Anyway, I don't sit around much in the morning. I sleep until I have 20 minutes to leave and then I leave. There's always someplace to go.

The job sites change every day. I'll grab coffee near a site after I check in to chill and regroup, make some calls, lay out the day. I'll usually have six or seven meetings to get to. We have weekly meetings for all the bars and restaurants so there's always something going on there, too. Around 6 or 7 I'll usually head home and exercise, work on drawings for jobs, work on my own art, build image boards for different projects, then figure out where to eat dinner, which I'll usually head to around 10 pm. Then back home and I'll draw, email, fall asleep working on computer. I'll wake up a couple hours later and go to bed.

JM: What did you want to be when you were growing up?

KH: I'm still growing up, but I wanted to be doing more or less what I'm doing. Using my creativity... making things... using my hands.

JM: What's the first job you ever got paid for?

KH: 2nd or 3rd grade. Paper route. I was a delivery boy for the Downers Grove Reporter.

JM: What first made you want to do this and what makes you want to keep doing it?

KH: It was, and still is, pretty organic. I never really thought of doing what I'm doing specifically, I just started out dreaming about art and design and wondering what it could turn into. I’ve been into it since childhood, always creating something, going to school for art, learning the craft of construction. Everything's been an extension of that. An opportunity because of it. I’m lucky that when people see my work and other projects they want me to work with them, so I get to continue doing what I love to do, collaborating, creating, working on cool things in cool places.

JM: What would you be doing if you weren't doing this?

KH: I'd possibly be a deadbeat.

JM: What art-historical period do you wish you could have lived through and why? What would you have been then?

KH: Pop Art no question. The time when art came back to America in the form of Abstract Expressionism with Andy Warhol and Pollack in NYC. I would love to have been a visual artist during that time.

JM: What artists and other figures do you really admire?

KH: Peter Sellers, Joseph Cornell, Alexander Calder, Cindi Sherman, Rebecca Horn, Daniel Clowes. That list can get pretty long. There have been some amazing people.

JM: Define your career in terms of phases or periods. How has your work changed?

KH: Elementary School Phase: Exterior Painter, Interior Painter, Residential Remodeler, Residential/ Commercial/ Hospitality Remodeler. Jr High School Phase: General Contractor/ Hue Painting Inc. Business Owner/ Residential Designer. High School Phase: Hospitality Designer/ Restaurant Owner. College: Consultant for other businesses and just make stuff.

JM: Kind of like an independent study college?

KH: That they pay you for.

JM: And then what?

KH: Just keep making cool things. Traveling. Growing. It's all just a great crazy journey.

JM: What's the craziest thing you've ever done?

KH: When I was 23, I moved to Prague for 2 years, thinking it was ok to have $2,000 to my name, not speak a word of Czech, and only grab a one way ticket.  My plan was to get by playing pool and doing my art (by the way, I never got a job).

JM: So how did you get by?

KH: The night before I was leaving, I was at a bar in Chicago called the Ginger Man and I was playing pool. A guy I was betting asked me to put up $20 while he proposed a 5000 Krown Note (which was ironically Czech currency worth about $250 US dollars at the time).  Also back then, you couldn't cash in Krowns anywhere in the USA. I knew what I was playing for and won, then told him that I was going to Czech the next day. He couldn't believe it. And that's pretty much how the trip went. I had a Czech girl I had become friendly with help me find a place in Prague for $20 a month rent. I paid the first year in advance so I wouldn't  blow all my cash and wind up homeless.  Beers were like five cents at that time and food was just as cheap.  Between playing pool in small bar competitions, selling a few paintings, and a little black market work, I got by just fine.  My friends came to visit for extended stays and paid for my meals and drinks while I put them up and showed them around. Everything just fell into place... there's no way it could ever happen that way again.

JM: Black Market work?

KH: Basically I would ride with this guy who would take cigarettes into Germany and bring back chocolates. His name was Milan. He said they were cigarettes and chocolates but I never saw them or ate any of the chocolate. Could have been anything. I'd just wait in the car while he did his thing and ride back and forth with him. He said it made it look more legit. Like two buddies on a road trip or something. He had a good little trade thing going on. Red duffel bag goes in, blue duffel bag comes out.

JM: Talk about fusing art and construction, and taking in your experiences as inspiration for your spaces.

KH: Having the practical knowledge of construction and the creativity of art allows me to blend these together pretty easily. My travels help me free my mind from work and give me a new perspective that allow me to be inspired by really neat things. I get to reflect and become more aware of the other creative processes and see other cultures and people. All of it helps me pay attention to the details.
My projects are always things I'd want to go to. Environments that are focused on an artistic approach that blends all kinds of different travels and ideas. There are a lot of cool things to see out there.

JM: So you travel a lot?

KH: Like Vasco Da Gama!

JM: What's your favorite piece of art that you own, and when and how did you come to own it?

KH: It is a found piece that I bought from Brownstone Antiques, then painted a cell phone in the hand and added a blinking LED.

JM: What's your favorite thing to do?

KH: Draw... doodle. I like visual problem solving, and making something out of nothing.

JM: Any plans to do things outside of Chicago?

KH: Yes, possibly in Brooklyn and/ or the LES. There's a coffee brand interested in collaborating on a few spaces and that looks pretty good. I'm also working on a commercial space in Indianapolis and possibly a cafe/roaster in Instanbul. We have a lot in the pipeline right now.

JM: What advice would you give to an entrepreneurial and artistic mind growing up?

KH: Don't grow up too fast, if ever. Follow your passion. Work towards investing in yourself and see what happens. Be honest with yourself, your talents and skills. Don’t make excuses. Don’t be afraid to take chances and put in the hard work. There are no such thing as shortcuts.


Photography by Jamieson Mulholland