What inspires ‘Absinthe’ performer and Small Space Fest co-curator Heidi Rider?

Artist and actress Heidi Rider poses in her home studio.
Photo: Steve Marcus

Shortly before Heidi Rider moved to Las Vegas several years back, the CUNY Hunter College alumnus did something most newcomers don’t: the reading. “Research is really fun for me,” she says. “I researched Las Vegas’ artists: What were they doing, what were they working with, what kind of spaces were they working in? So, when I came here, I had an idea about the things they wanted to explore.” That advance work paid off. Rider landed in Vegas’ arts community at a sprint, co-curating the inventive, multi-disciplinary group art show Small Space Fest at Emergency Arts (with Adriana Chavez and Elizabeth Colon Nelson) and performing in a dizzying variety of Strip and off-Strip theatrical productions (she’s currently an understudy for one of the leads in Absinthe). Rider took a recent moment to talk about what motivates and inspires her.

What surprised you about Las Vegas—both in a good and a less-good way? The less-good surprise was the first time the heat hit my skin. Goosebumps stood up on my arm and my body was confused: Am I cold? Am I hot? And then a breeze came, full of dust and unbelievably hot, and I was like, “Oh, okay, this is where I am. This is the new reality of my body in space.”

But the positive thing was how open and warm the community was. I can’t believe how many people I met through Small Space, and how quickly I formed friendships—especially coming from New York, where it’s so super-dense and oversaturated with artists.

Can you name some of your influences? Definitely the performance artist Jibz Cameron, who has a character named Dynasty Handbag. She’s a very interesting multidisciplinary artist—very political in her work, though it’s not overt; she does it through humor. I’m also really excited about Nathalie Djurberg, a Swedish, self-taught animator based in Berlin.

I’m really into people who are teaching themselves how to do things. I’m super excited about people who don’t think of themselves as artists who do handicrafts. … I grew up with my mom making clothes, pillows, quilts, dolls, Christmas ornaments and other kinds of home-crafty, non-art material objects. I love that stuff so much. There’s something about this kind of non-hierarchical art; the artist’s hand has a good sort of clumsiness to it that I think is really beautiful.

And I’m really grateful to have friendships with Brent Holmes and Karla Lagunas. The thing that I really love about Brent and Karla is that they work on a deeply intellectual sort of politically-minded art, but in a playful way. They really take a lot of risks … [and] they engage all the senses. When Brent said he was going to be working with food in his [Small Space piece] I thought, this is the kind of extra level that we want at Small Space that we couldn’t have even thought to ask for.

Where do you go to get inspired? I love to walk the streets of Downtown. I love that I work on the Strip; that very strange Strip culture really influences my art-making. But my favorite place to be is in Downtown. I love walking the street and seeing peoples’ personal fashion expressions. That gets me out of my head. I’m really into experimental fashion right now; I’m looking for people expressing themselves in an interesting way through what they wear or even like what kind of makeup they put on.

I love walking into the Downtown casinos. I love the carpet! I love to go to the Plaza, to Binions, and just spend time looking at the carpet. And I love the old horse racing game [at the D]—it’s like a giant diorama.

And I love to go into nature. I balance out my time walking on concrete by going out into the desert. When I first moved here, I didn’t appreciate its delicacy. I was really, really missing lush forests, that overabundance of green and wet. I was complaining to my cousin about that, and she said that kind of Earth expression is really, really showy. The thing about the desert is it has quiet secrets—and you just have to get down low, physically get down low to the ground. And then it’ll reveal to you all its secrets.

Once she said that to me, everything opened up. Now I see the delicate palette of the pastels at the White Domes Trail in the Valley of Fire, and I am in love with that hike. I definitely take the experience of those colors back with me.

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