When two artists are better than one: collaborative art-making

May 3, 2018

Close-up of Liz Heller and David Kodama's collaborative piece for 'Sticks and Stonewear'
Credit David Kodama

The Roaring Fork Valley is an artists’ mecca, and area artists say the community here is unusually close.  Because of that support, the valley just might have a signature aesthetic: collaborative art.

David Kodama and Liz Heller slowly fitted together dozens of geometric wooden and ceramic tiles.  


It’s like putting together a puzzle, except you can’t look at the picture on the front of the box to solve an argument about which piece belongs where.  

When two artists want to create one piece of art, they first have to create the same vision.  And that might mean some compromise.

But there were no tense moments when Kodama and Heller first sat down to talk about working together. Heller said, “We both came to the table with our own ideas and we both said yes to the other person’s idea and agreed to realize the other person’s vision as well as our own.”

Woodworker David Kodama and ceramicist Liz Heller
Credit Christin Kay / Aspen Public Radio

Saying "yes” to something that one person never would have imagined on their own is part of the power of collaborative art. According to Kodama, "that’s always the fun part of collaborating, especially with someone who works in a different medium.”

For this pair, their support of each other grew even stronger through the inevitable ups and downs of the creative process. Kodama shook his head, remembering breaking one of Heller’s tiles. “It was like the bottom inside corner of the wedge, so you can’t see it, and I barely touched it. Broken."


Heller just laughed it off. "It happens. I’ve broken so many pieces, and it's so frustrating.”


That reaction certainly doesn’t fit the stereotype of an angsty artist, who might be too isolated or egotistical to work with anyone else. Heller said that artists get a bad wrap for those things.


“As far as being a loner and being hard to deal with, or temperamental, or competitive, I think this valley in particular has an amazing artistic community and I think everybody is really supportive of one another.”

Those partnerships take a wide range of forms. Some, like Kodama’s and Heller’s, or Aspen Santa Fe Ballet performing alongside pianist Joyce Yang, involve different mediums. Other artists create individual works meant to be shown alongside each other. And some hand over all control to the process.


Stanley Bell and Takeo Hiromitsu are both painters.  Their collaborative show "Word is Bond" was on display at the R2 Gallery last month. At the show’s opening, attendees celebrated, sipping wine and admiring the bold, colorful canvases on the gallery walls. It was a chance for Bell and Hiromitsu to reflect on working together. Hiromitsu has a specific name for experiences like this. "I call it type two fun. It's like going on a long hike. In the middle of it, you’re so miserable, and, at the end, you’re like, ‘We saw so many things!'"


"Let’s do it again!" Bell chimed in and they both laughed.

Collaborative painting by Takeo Hiromitsu and Stanley Bell for 'Word is Bond'
Credit Carbondale Arts


They agreed the Roaring Fork Valley sees an unusual number of collaborations. Bell thinks this is partially because there are just so many artists. "There's a lot of people working around each other and so there's constantly access to people that you can ask, 'What do you think about this?'''

For this show, one of them would start making marks on a canvas, and then they would turn the piece completely over to the other. Hiromitsu said that collaborating with someone else was sometimes a challenge, but that stepping out of his comfort zone was important.


“You would often find me opting to be more solo, but at a certain point, if I’m the only person who’s referring to myself, that self-referential loop will become stagnant.”


The glamour of the opening for "Word is Bond” is a far cry from the drafty workshop where Heller and Kodama are painstakingly arranging those wooden and ceramic tiles.  But for now, these two artists are happy to just be on the journey together.

Heller said, “It’s been an amazing experience from beginning to end, and we’re not really at the end.”

Kodama added, "No. I think we’re still at the beginning.”

Their show “Sticks & Stoneware” opens Friday evening at the Carbondale Clay Center.