Sofia Heftersmith knows what you’re going to say — she’s very young to be an artist — but she couldn’t give a single set of f*cks for your pre-conceived notions. She’d rather just let her work speak for her. And if her current trajectory is any indication, that technique is working well.
At 17, Southern California-based Heftersmith, who paints under the moniker Reeta, is already hustling to make a name in the art world. From designing Christmas ornaments and skateboard decks, flipping vintage finds on her Depop or doing good old-fashioned commissioned work, the young creator/model clearly understands that to make it in today’s art world you have to be everywhere and do everything all at once. At least until you make it big.
Looking over Reeta’s body of work, it’s clear that her biggest influence is the female form — which she depicts with a balance of grit and vibrancy that makes her art feel alive, despite the subtle surrealistic tendencies of the paintings. Her art looks both carefully labored over and spontaneous, balancing colorful detail with negative canvas space or simple captions. It never feels like too much, which is why it seems to stay with you.
We chatted with Reeta — fresh off her starring role as a model for Justin Beiber’s Drew House fashion launch — over the phone about the struggles of being a hungry young artist, the pros and cons of social media as a tool, and the various fields she finds herself dabbling in as she continues making a name in the art world.
What are some of the challenges of being a young artist or a young person in the art space?
What I’ve found is that the second I tell people my age, they don’t take me as seriously. Or people try to give me lower prices on my paintings because I’m younger and less established. But it’s still work. It’s what I do. That’s what I strive to do; where this is my life. So I don’t like it when people try to take advantage of me ’cause I’m younger.
Are there any advantages of being a young artist?
There’s a lot of people that I found have kind of taken me in and there are a lot of mentors right now that I’ve been learning from, and just getting to be around those people has been really helpful in teaching me different parts of the art world. I have a lot to learn from people who are more established and manage to make art for work.
How important would you say is social media to the art world? I noticed your Instagram account seems super personable. Is that an effort to connect to your potential audience or is that more just you being you?
It’s more being me. I think that social media – it’s kind of hard because personally, I kind of don’t like social media. It’s great in some ways, but other ways, it kind of freaks me out. The time people spend on it and all that stuff. But I think it’s a great way to promote yourself, especially as a young artist and to get your work shown and put out there. I think it’s great for that.
How important would you say connections are in the art world?
I think very important. I’ve definitely seen artists that I personally don’t think … They aren’t my favorite artists, but because they know certain people, they’ve been able to really be promoted and put out there and have a lot of people see their work.
The goal is to have the right people see and promote your stuff. Because that’s a great advantage.
I noticed a lot of your newer series of paintings make use of found photos. What is so appealing about found photos to you?
When I was younger, my mom and I used to go to flea markets and stuff and we would always go through peoples’ old photographs from family photo albums and stuff like that. I was always so drawn to them because I didn’t know the people and I kind of created my own stories in my head for what their lives would have been like.
I’ve always really loved National Geographic and Life magazine. So over the years, I’ve been collecting vintage Life magazines and vintage Playboys and National Geographics and cutting them up and doing things with them. And I just started painting on top of them because I got to be in their world and I thought it was really cool.
Okay, so how long have you been painting? Because it seems like even if you weren’t making art explicitly, you’ve been pretty creative since a young age. Creating backstories of people you’ve never met.
Yeah. Well, actually both of my parents are artists. So I’ve been holding paint brushes since before I could hold a pencil. And being able to express yourself has always been really important in my family. And I think it’s just kind of come out of that. I don’t know. It’s just always been there and it’s been almost just like my safe place. I’ve been painting since I could remember.
What inspires you to paint?
Oh, that’s a —
That’s a heavy one?
Yeah. I don’t know. Just kind of a need, in me. It’s something that I need to do. But inspiration-wise, I guess definitely old magazines. I love looking through those old photos. My biggest inspiration I guess is to be able to push boundaries. I’ve always tried to push boundaries and always looked for rules to break and to shatter peoples’ preconceived notions, ideas of what they think something should be. So use that and let my brain do the rest of the work and go crazy and let just whatever happens happen!
Speaking of going crazy, one of your paintings is captioned “Winona Ryder’s Hair from Beetlejuice Meets Donald Trump’s Tanning Salon.” How much does this actually reflect your approach to making art or is it just you’re having fun?
It’s a little bit of both. I guess a lot of my work has a lot of feminist undertones in it. Some of my paintings have captions on them. A lot of that has to do with my viewpoint. What’s going on in the world definitely affects my art and what I paint and how I paint.
So I noticed that bodies seem to play a large part in your paintings. What is it about the human body that fascinates you? Is that a way you explore breaking boundaries?
Yeah. It is. I’ve always been really intrigued by the female form. I remember the first time I painted a naked lady, I was like six years old and my parents were like, “What?” A little confused. Then they’re like, “Okay, cool. We shouldn’t be worried about this. She’s just doing her thing.”
I guess it is another boundary thing because women’s bodies have been so sexualized in the world and to be able to paint them and let them be free and an art form has really kind of helped me in a sense and I guess… I guess my moment is to help others kind of break free from those kinds of constraints, whether it’s literally or figuratively.
You’ve served as a model for your own paintings, how did that start?
Yeah. Actually, a lot of my work is done from photographs of myself just because I’ve been the only model I’ve had for painting. So I did that a couple times, then I was like, “Oh, maybe I should just practice shadow and lights.” So I’d start painting a photo that I took of myself a week or two ago and started just using myself as a model for my work.
What’s your favorite type of art to make? Would you rather do something that’s commissioned or just something that you make on your own time?
Oh, I love making art on my own time! If I was commissioned just to do whatever I want, that would be amazing. But definitely making art in my own time, having that freedom to do what I want to paint is definitely my favorite.
Okay. On that note then, where do you want to take your art? You want this to be your career path, right?
I started working on murals for people. Hopefully to do something like that, definitely want to be able to make a living off selling my paintings, even though it’s really hard. But right now, I’m trying to find a way to almost merchandise my art and find different ways that I can make money off of it while still enjoying it. So that’s kind of what I’m working on. I’m not really sure where that’s going to take me, but I’m excited.
I’ve noticed you seem to have, your hand in a lot of different areas — from selling clothes on your Depop to making handmade Christmas ornaments, to painting skateboard decks. Do you find this a necessary part of being an artist or are you just a renaissance woman and you just want to do everything?
I’m a little all over the place. I want to dip my brush in everything that I can because I love being busy and I love trying different things, so I’m always trying to go out and be involved as much as I can just because I am that way.
I do think it’s actually pretty necessary to have different skills, especially as an artist, to be able to do multiple things because it’s really hard just to make a living off of one thing that you do. But yeah, I’m a bit of a renaissance woman [laughs].
I think this is an important question to ask artists, especially younger ones: What are you the most worried about in the modern world? That can be from small-scale stuff to really large-scale stuff. Just the kind of thing that nags at your mind the most.
What really worries me is the people that we have in office. I don’t know. It really affects everything. Everything that they do affects every little thing that we have to worry about on a bigger scale. Especially the younger generations, we have all these older people making decisions for us and then leaving us with the consequences, which I think is really unfair. And it’s hard because we’re left to clean up the mess. But I’m really worried about what the earth’s going to look like in a couple of years and how I’m going to raise kids and what that’s going to look like. Are they going to have to go to school in gas masks? Or hazmat suits?
I’m also a little worried about the amount of technology we use. I think it’s great we have all these resources to help us heal and to connect us with different parts of the world, but I think we’re all very over-stimulated and it’s been a big distraction from what’s actually going on outside of our phones or computers or iPads or TVs. We’ve kind of lost that connection with the earth and I think that connection with the earth is really important, especially in how much we’ve destroyed it.
In that case, what are you hopeful about?
I’m definitely hopeful that … I know that there’s a lot of people my age that are really not happy with what’s going on right now, so I have a lot of hope that there’s going to be people fighting for the right thing and helping do the right thing. So I have hope in that.
I definitely have a lot of hope in the art world because it’s so open right now. There are so many different types of art that weren’t considered art back in the day being recognized, which is really cool. There’s just so much more freedom in that realm right now. Hopefully, I can be a part of that, which I’m pretty excited about to shine into that.
Do you have any advice for young artists?
My advice would be don’t be discouraged because of your age. You can really do anything. Whatever age you are, you’re able to push through those boundaries and break the rules and become your own person at whatever age you choose, whether it’s old or young. You can be whatever you want to be. I definitely would say to try everything. Don’t just be stuck in one place. And really hustle. Try to make things work. If you really want them to work, they’ll happen but you’ve gotta put the work into it.