Travis Hetman : Artist Interview

Photos by Bryan Cavanagh : Words by Joshua Wills

Travis Hetman is an artist currently living in Denver by way of Minneapolis. Hetman comes from a a family of creative thinkers; his aunts were avid painters, his grandfather was an inventor and entrepreneur, his father followed suit, pursuing a life of creativity and business.

As a result Travis's creative output seems to be almost second nature. By that I mean art is a part of his being, he's not pursuing art, and seems to care very little about being labeled or perceived as an "artist". Hetman's creative output is the way in which he processes thoughts and explores the world around him.

"Throwing The Fight" is a perfect example of how Travis does just that. Hetman recently finished reading a book that challenged the way he saw the world and perhaps his role in it. The body of work that he created was a result of him processing those thoughts, ideas, and philosophies. Breaking down what they meant, how they could be applied and/or even evolved.

Thank you for sitting down and chatting with us!

Ahhhh… Thank You!

Rumor has it you grew up in Minneapolis. What was that like?

It was wonderful. It was cold. It was truly unbelievable… I mean literally everything except for the cold was fantastic.

Seriously  though - the people, the culture are all amazing, it’s definitely home, but I was excited to move to Colorado if for nothing else than for a change of pace.

Tell us a little bit about young Travis Hetman. Would the two of you hang out?

Oh yeah! Young Travis Hetman wasn’t that much different than old Travis Hetman. I was constantly drawing.

My Dad was always doing these little doodles, and as a little kid that just blew my mind. I was always like... ahhhh... I want do that! So I’ve been drawing since as early as I can remember, drawing things out of zoobooks, drawing baseball players, etc.

Did you go to college and if so did you study art?

I did, I went to the university of Minnesota. I studied fine art but really studied everything from painting to printmaking.

Wow this is very formal.

Ok we'll loosen things up a bit.

(Laughs… )

Tell us a little bit about the title of your show “Throwing The Fight”. Is there any significance and/or meaning behind the name?

Yeah - there is probably more significance behind it than I would like to share because I’m afraid that I’ll just ramble.

The title of the show was inspired by a very specific book that I just finished reading after a few attempts “Thus spoke Zarathustra” by Friedrich Nietzsche. The entire show was spawned by ideas in that book.

In the book Nietzsche used a historical figure “Zarathustra” who was Persian prophet as a vehicle for his own political views or POV. I mirrored that same approach for this show using Muhammed Ali in place of "Zarathustra" and my own POV in place of "Nietzsche’s". Oddly enough I saw a lot of parallels and connections between Ali and the ideas in the book, in the weirdest way...

But, to answer your question more directly - “Throwing the Fight” is a phrase or metaphor relating to the notion of “Universal Truths” such as “Good vs. Evil” and “Win vs. Lose”. Good guys are always supposed to win, bad guys are supposed to lose.

The title “Throwing the Fight” isn’t meant to be taken as losing on purpose or giving up, but rather creating a third option. It’s an alternative to the obvious “Win or Lose”  / “Good or Evil” scenarios. The work in this show is really focused around the idea of creating your own world, by creating new outcomes you’re able to separate yourself from the fight and create an alternative reality if you will.

Oh we will!

(Laughs… )

Did the title of the show have any influence on the pieces themselves, subject matter, approach or otherwise?

Absolutely. It was as I was reading the book that the phrase “Throwing The Fight” came to me and eventually turned into the title and really concept behind the entire show. Typically, I foolishly work without planning. I very rarely sketch out an entire composition, I start something and let the ideas develop over time and then typically end up struggling immensely somewhere in the middle to be honest, which is probably not the way to do it… 

(Laughs… )

For this show that phrase and concept of “Throwing the Fight” and the metaphor of Nietzsche injecting his POV into Zarathustra translated to Hetman injecting my POV into Ali really spawned every piece in the show, particularly the title piece.

How so?

Well I tried to really pour my heart into every piece. I see each piece as having a purpose and they all ladder back up to the higher concept. But the title piece for the show which features Ali’s head floating above the ocean with the words “Throw The Fight” was really the key to the whole show. I was struggling with turning the corner on that piece, one day I went on a walk with the dog and it just clicked. It was like one of those one-every-two-year inspiration charges that just hit me. As soon as I stopped fighting the struggle and embraced the challenge I was able to move forward and act.

That painting in particular was inspired by a specific line in the book where Nietzsche states “One must be a sea to be able to receive a polluted stream without becoming unclean.”

Again using Ali as my vehicle or guide I’m able to transcend the battles and challenges in order to shape my world, each piece is an investigation into answering or exploring the big questions we all ask ourselves over the course of our lives. The title piece depicts the process by which I explored and investigated.

You’ve described your work as being inspired by existentialism. How would you define existentialism for those not in the know?

That’s a tough question. There is so much debate and conflict within that school of thought. Even the quote / unquote existential philosophers disagreed and even rebuked the label. 

For me, I create works of art as investigations in response to the big questions we all ask ourselves. The thread that connects my work to that school of thought and those thinkers is the notion of embracing the fear of the unknown. Art can be challenging, it’s really you against you. When you start asking yourself what is the point and purpose to everything it can be a bit unsettling.

One of the core existentialism principles is to confront that fear of the unknown, not necessarily in an effort to find an answer, but to embrace the idea that you may never know. That is key to doing art for me. It’s not something that I trying to achieve per se, it’s more about the process and act of exploring.

Would you say that by creating, investigating, and exploring you are in essence shaping your own world?

Absolutely. Again as I’m creating I’m not necessarily searching for an answer, I’m more interested in exploring the idea that everything changes. Even the notion of morality, the concept of "good" and "bad" as we know it has changed over time. The thought of creating your own truth is terrifying to a lot of people, it’s easier to assume other people’s definitions and conclusions.

Even more unsettling to most people is the idea that you might not ever know. My end goal is to carve my own path, again with no real end-point in mind. It’s not about being “on track” or arriving, it’s about enjoying the journey and process of shaping the world around us, and embracing the idea that may you never really know.


Walk us through your creative process… from inspiration to pencils / paintbrushes down.

(Hesitation) That’s tough… It’s a mess...

End quote?

You can quote me on that… it really is a mess.

Some of the best help I get as an artist comes from my wife. She definitely encourages me to be a bit more buttoned up and helps me work through some of my frustrations or challenges creatively… simply by suggesting things like making a list and/or other exercises to help me think through things, she’s really good that way.

That said, I’d say my typical process starts off in my head. I usually visualize ideas, the medium typically becomes pretty obvious to me as the idea takes shape. From there I experiment with different ways to bring that idea to life. The idea itself usually takes on a few different forms over the course of my experimentation, the beginning phase or phases are pretty loose. From there I get a bit more calculated and form various strategies to refine and complete each piece. This first few attempts are really just studies.

Those two pieces right above your head came to life in the exact opposite way. I knew what I wanted to do from the onset, got to work, and they turned out exactly how I envisioned them. The two words “good” and “bad” came from my artist statement for the show which I actually wrote as a poem in the voice of Ali, so it’s my POV in his cadence with his confident delivery and rhyming style. These two pieces are really the common denominator that we are all battling as the ultimate truth or assumed reality. By folding the the concept of “Good” and “Bad” on themselves you can create your own definition.

I love those pieces!

Thank you!

Tell me what your work / work balance was like leading up to the show? What sort of schedule did you keep?

It’s not unique to me, but finding the time and space to act on inspiration and actually create artwork can be tough. But i’m also finding it’s nice to have other things to do, it’s the time away from making that I find my inspiration. So I like having multiple things to do, right now I’m working a few days a week at Hazell & Dewey off Broadway, which I love!


Would you pursue making art full time if the opportunity presented itself?

Probably not. I would only end up doing art part of the time, I would need to do some other things as well. I personally couldn’t be in a studio all of the time. For me going and doing something else is where I find my inspiration and motivation to get back to work. The joy of creating is defined by it’s contrast for me…

Karl Pilkington said it best in “Idiot Abroad” - He stated “Happiness is like cake, if you have it every single day of your life, eventually you'll get sick of it.”

I wouldn’t want to force it, I like the idea of stealing time to sneak away and create, explore, and investigate.

Who are some of the artists that inspire / influence you the most and why?

Michael Jackson, Barry McGee, Tom Waits, and Muhammad Ali to name just a few. These artists have all inspired me immensely. They all had this innate ability to not only shape the world around them, but to transport those around them into that world.

There are these assumed realities or roles the world imposes on us all. You are supposed to act a certain way or make certain choices. Again Jackson, McGee, Waits, and Ali all have / had an ability to fold those things in on themselves and create their own definitions in a way that allowed them to transcend the expected.

Can you describe the gravitational pull that Tom Waits has on you? What is it about the man and music that you find so captivating?

It’s such a slow burn and I’ve fallen completely into the vortex. I think more than anything his writing continues to pull me in. Every line he writes has the ability to unearth you. The persona he has created as an artist is also really interesting to me. He’s like Dillon in the way that he sees music as part art performance. He’s created a fictional character out of his own life, he’s also really good at concealing in an effort to keep things interesting. He has a way of presenting things in a manner that makes you question whether it’s “Myth, Legend, or Truth”. He’s definitely created a world for himself and I just love getting in there.

One other bit I also find particularly inspiring about Tom Waits is that he seems to have gotten tougher as he ages. I had this fear when I was a younger, as I was an angsty teen punk rocker that I was going to grow up and get soft, sell out, or just become uninteresting. That’s my ultimate fear. The worst version of myself I can imagine is turning into an old, grumpy, uninteresting person. But Tom seems to channel the creative spirit more as he gets older, he’s gotten braver, and continues to push himself to be more daring artistically.


It seems that you draw a fair bit of inspiration from reading. Do you have a favorite book… or books? Top 3?!

Ok - “Lord of the Rings” is definitely number one. That one stands on it’s own a bit, I’m into all the philosophy and existential bits hidden in there. I read “Lord of the Rings” every winter… I love it! I also watch it while I’m drawing. I got through the extended DVD series while working on pieces for this show. But again it’s kind of separate from the other two that I’ll share.

The book that served as inspiration for this show “Thus spoke Zarathustra”  by Friedrich Nietzsche is right up there. It knocked me on my ass and changed the way I viewed the world. As I mentioned It took me a few attempts to read it through. Nietzsche arrogantly coined the book as being for “all and none” meaning no one can truly understand what’s been written. I began a book club recently with my good friend Danny. That was the first book we read. The power of the book club definitely helped!

Having someone else to talk to about the book with, made a huge difference. Lot’s of the book really struck the right chords with me, and I soaked it up easily. But there are tons of perspectives that weren’t immediately apparent to me, that revealed themselves after chatting with Danny. We got to bounce different perspectives and interpretations off of each other which was really eye opening and enlightening. That book is definitely in the top 3.

The other book is “The Castle” by Franz Kafka… it’s unreal! That book just haunts me. I love all of his books but that one in particular is by far my favorite of his works. Kafka might be my favorite author.

Tell us about what you’ve got lined up or in the works… what is next in the world of Travis Hetman?

There’s not a whole lot set in stone to be honest with you…


I hear you’re going surfing?

I’m going surfing! Just like the Weezer song! I’m so excited. I’ve never surfed. I’ve had the opportunity to surf a few times in the past but never followed through and did it. My wife and I are headed to Mexico right after the show opens and we’re going to surf everyday. I'm so stoked... I can't wait! If I can get up and cruise a little bit I’ll be happy.


"Throwing The Fight" new works by Travis Hetman will be on exhibit in the Svper Ordinary gallery through November 8th and can be viewed online. 

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