A sculptor who bent stubborn materials to the purposes of art with deceptive ease, Carol Hepper began her career by stretching animal hide over armatures of stripped branches and animal bone, and later turned to copper tubing, fish skins, handblown glass, and raw and milled wood. In her hands, all breathed with the vigor and grace of living things. Not that Carol — whom I first met in the late 1980s, when she had a narrow second-floor studio in Chinatown — was sentimental about nature. On the contrary, she welcomed absurdity in her juxtapositions of the organic and the fabricated, and was not afraid to make sculpture that could raise a laugh, or an eyebrow. When furry pelts came into the work, along with forked branches still bearing bark and also curvaceous, irregular globes of pink blown glass, the hint of a frolic was fully intended.

Both the rustic associations and the multiple range of references were Hepper’s birthright. Raised in McLaughlin, South Dakota, she was the granddaughter of homesteaders who were German by descent though their forebears were long resident in Russia; the land Carol’s grandparents and then her parents farmed was on a Native American reservation. The schools she attended served the families of both European settlers and Lakota Sioux, since the federal government, in its wisdom, had promised the same land to each. With its inevitably mythic cast in the retelling, Carol’s upbringing is a reminder of how variable the distances are between history and the present. In South Dakota, where the past was very close, immigrant lives grounded in resilience and proud independence that seem straight out of Little House on the Prairie shared a footprint and a time stamp with the endless depredations visited on Indigenous peoples whose own resilience was certainly no less epic. For a kid growing up there in the late 1950s and 1960s, that conflation was a living reality. And for one with especially keen perception, such head-banging, heartbreaking contradiction could be a powerful driver for art.

One of Carol’s earliest creative adventures, a precocious bit of swirling abstraction, was painted in salt lick on a barn wall (the cows licked it clean). By high school, she was a drummer in a rock band — she always had high-octane energy to spare — and the connection between drumheads and other possible uses of animal hides wasn’t lost on her. As she became interested in art, she also paid new attention to local powwows and sun dances that Native classmates at South Dakota State University were bringing back, sometimes held in conjunction with rodeos. But her most consequential encounter in college was with Donald Boyd, a member of the anarchic, anti-commercial phenomenon its proponents named Fluxus. A student of Buckminster Fuller and a Harvard graduate, Boyd engaged fellow Fluxists Dick Higgins, Alison Knowles and others in a proto-conceptualist mail art project in which students were also invited to participate. With its wide-angle resistance to standing cultural practices and institutions, Fluxus offered the promise that an art career could flourish anywhere, in the unlikeliest of forms. 

Carol Hepper, “Lariat, 1991. wood, cast iron, 26 x 70 x 73 inches; Collection Phoenix Art Museum

Not that museums were off limits. Memorably, Boyd arranged a trip to the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, which provided Hepper’s first significant exposure to modern and contemporary art. She recalled a big Louise Nevelson exhibition, undeniably arresting if a little too grimly formal for Carol’s taste, although the aroma of celebrity surrounding Nevelson was a potent demonstration that a woman could have real success as an artist. More to Carol’s liking was a cloth and metal relief by Lee Bontecou; four decades later, Carol recalled with relish its hallucinatory landscape of stepped prominences and jet-black craters. Its raw power, and its negotiation of image and object, would be reflected in Hepper’s many wall-hung sculptures. 

After graduating, in 1975, Carol lived briefly in Georgia and then Florida, where she worked at the Jacksonville Art Museum and met a diverse group of artists that included Keith Sonnier, Tina Girouard and Dickie Landry. They would become important mentors and friends, providing models of careers with regional roots — Louisiana, in their case. By the late 1970s, Carol had moved back to South Dakota, living on her brother’s ranch, making sculpture and teaching at Standing Rock (now Sitting Bull) Community College — “our classroom was a one-room trailer that was parked in the livestock auction parking lot,” she later told curator Patterson Sims. Local farmers and hunters and Native friends who knew of the sculpture Carol was making provided her with skins that she stripped, tanned and draped while wet over wooden armatures—a tricky procedure, as the skins tightened as they dried, threatening to snap their frames. (Used by homesteaders as a substitute for glass in makeshift windows, and by Native Americans for tipis, animal hides were a familiar element of the local building vernacular. Some early rammed-earth homesteader dwellings, and later ones of wood and tarpaper, were still standing in the 1970s.) 

For several years, Hepper moved back and forth between South Dakota and New York City, working in advertising to make enough money to return to art-making. Pluck and serendipity helped draw curators to her Midwest studio; she had a show at PS1 in 1982, and was represented in an important show of young artists at the Guggenheim Museum in1983. She moved permanently to New York City in 1985, and attention continued to arrive, as it so often does, in irregular bursts. Starting in the late 1990s, she split her time between the city and a second home and studio in the western Catskills. Sculptures that followed were made of bundled willow branches, trained under thousands of pounds of pressure to assume curves held at their tightest angles with metal fixtures, which caught and amplified their tensile force. There were also related works made of copper tubing, similarly surging with energy. In a 1986 article for the New York Times, Michael Brenson wrote that Hepper’s work had gone beyond a what he had earlier seen as a struggle between the “call of the wild” and a utopian Constructivism. She had come into ownership of a fully developed, distinctive language.

Carol Hepper, “Tsunami” (2009), fish skin, fishing line, pigment, metal armature, 9 feet 3 inches x 15 feet

Hepper’s next series was made with fish skins, including salmon and sturgeon. After being tanned, stitched together with fishing line and painted to restore the vivid coloring they had when alive, the skins were stretched across metal armatures. When hung on the wall, these assemblages seemed to stream and float, luminous and fluid, evoking schools of fish illuminated by refracted sunlight as seen underwater. They made a particularly dramatic appearance as a brilliantly lit stage set for a collaboration with dancer Molissa Fenley in 2000.

A 2007 residency at the Pilchuck workshop introduced handblown glass to Hepper’s vocabulary. She was enchanted by glass blown to freeform, sensuously billowing shapes and brought back dozens of such fragmentary forms, which found their way into her sculpture for many years. A residency at the Park Avenue Armory in New York in 2011–12, while it was undergoing renovation, allowed her to exercise not only her formal acuity but also her resourcefulness. Befriending carpenters and construction workers, she secured furniture and woodwork that otherwise would have been discarded. Cutting it apart, partially painting it and combining it with stripped tree branches, extruded foam, scraps of furry animal skin and the ballooning pink and green glass form from her Pilchuck residency, she crafted a series deft, sensual, often funny assemblages that were shown to great advantage in the Gilded Age armory’s hyper-elegant meeting rooms.

As she spent more time in rural New York State, the local landscape became more prominent in Carol’s work. An inveterate recycler, she joined hewn lengths of felled trees to a variety of material both natural and manufactured. Working on paper was always an important part of her studio life, and by the early 2010s she had become deeply engaged with photography. Having always done her own photo-documentation, she came to see that photographs could also assume the dimensionality of sculpture. Taking dozens of shots of proximate aspects of, for instance, a neatly stacked pile of wood, she pieced them together in the same way she stitched together skins, causing space to curve and amplify. Her last body of work involved painted wooden frames of her own devising, which melded image and object, artifice and nature. They reflect an urge to inclusion seen also in the luxuriant garden she tended — and in the communities of friends and colleagues she brought together wherever she found herself. 

Carol died of cancer on April 29, at 67. She was too young to be the gate-crashing feminist that Mary Beth Edelson was, or a pioneer of forged steel sculpture like Alain Kirili, two other artists lost in the past few weeks. But she was a leader among the ranks of artists who have shaped fully informed and sophisticated bodies of work from experiences — and from materials, processes, and histories — that stand stubbornly at odds with cosmopolitan culture’s conventions. 

Nancy Princenthal is a Brooklyn-based writer whose book Agnes Martin: Her Life and Art received the 2016 PEN/Jacqueline Bograd Weld Award for Biography. Her most recent book is Unspeakable Acts:...