Essay: Why Suzanne Heintz married a mannequin

· Mar. 18, 2014, 6:00 am
They’re seated at the breakfast table. She’s looking over half a grapefruit, staring at a couple of crossword puzzles. He’s fiddling with the corner of his newspaper and looking at her. They’re obviously a couple, but they appear to be caught in a tense moment.
You’re right to consider this a scene from a typical marriage. But what’s unique about the domestic image I’ve just described is that the husband in this fraught domestic tableaux isn’t human. 
He’s a mannequin.
His name is Chauncey, and he has become an integral part of the work of photographer Suzanne Heintz, as well as one of the characters in a Heintz-directed documentary short called “Playing House.”
“Playing House” is part of the lineup at the 2014 Women+Film VOICES Film Festival, which runs from March 18 to March 23 at the Sie FilmCenter.  Heintz’s movie shows Friday, March 21 at 9:30 p.m. as part of a shorts film package called “Sisters are Doing It for Themselves.”
A total of 19 programs can be found in the VOICES Film Festival, and Heintz’s film is only 15 minutes long. But it seems clear to me that she has one of the most original and provocative voices in town. 
Heintz’s work — which blurs the boundaries between film, performance art and photography — may signal a rising art star or at least it should.
I’ve seen people react to Heintz’s photographs with a mixture of surprise, delight and reflection. Heintz seems to be onto something that connects with folks, whether they’re looking at her photographs or watching her work at a location.  
When she recently posted 45 of her pictures on the Internet, the site received more than 500,000 hits. The trailer for “Playing House” has attracted a steady stream of viewers, and Heintz has been besieged by requests for interviews from as far away as Australia. She already has been the subject of a piece on CBS’s “Sunday Morning.”
Heintz’s work is thought-provoking, satirical and perhaps even defiant. It’s also amusing, witty and accessible. If you feel the need to put a label on her series — which she’s been working on for 14 years — call it “friendly feminism.” 
How friendly? If you can get through her film without laughing, you’ve got a stonier personality than I have. 
During the last 14 years, Heintz -- the wife in all of the photographs in the project -- has staged and photographed mock events that include her marriage to Chauncey at a church in Morrison, a variety of cheery domestic scenes, the introduction of her daughter Mary Margaret (another mannequin) and the vacation trip to Paris that’s the subject of the artist’s short documentary.
But don’t call these pictures “selfies.” 
They are carefully composed images, most requiring assistance from a small crew of volunteers who handle logistical matters. This includes everything from managing six dogs in a sled on a photo shoot to avoiding the police at the Eiffel Tower during the making of the documentary.
Heintz has a demanding day job. As an art director for Starz, she works on on-air promotions and visual branding for all of the cable network’s channels. 
But society tends to expect more from women than career success. Heintz’s project has its roots in those kinds of pressures.
“I had broken up with my latest boyfriend and was visiting my mom in Salt Lake City at Christmas time,” Heintz says. “I was telling her what went wrong, and she said, ‘You know, you’re expecting too much of people. Nobody’s perfect. You’re just going to have to pick somebody.’ I said, ‘Mom. I cannot just make this happen. It’s not like you can go to the store and buy a family. We’re talking about fate. It’s not something under my control.' It just sat with me wrong.”
Soon after the artist returned to Colorado, Heintz began to translate her dissatisfaction into an art project.   
“I was walking past a retail liquidation center that’s now out of business,” Heintz says. “They were selling mannequins, and it was like, ‘Bing! I’m going to make this happen. I’m going to buy a family.’ I was in photography school at the time, and I thought, ‘I’m going to use this as my project, and I’ll show my mother what it looks like when you force it.’”
Heintz, who describes herself as ‘’a woman of a certain age,’’ has been creating and photographing her domestic dioramas ever since. 
Take that, Mom.
Despite the humor of her project, Heintz is serious about its message.
“Really what I’m getting at is that there’s this entire societal implication that goes beyond just me and marriage,” Heintz says. “No matter what you do in life, it never seems to be enough. It’s always insufficient. You write a book. What’s the next book about? You make a movie. What’s the next movie about? People really need to lighten up and respect each other for the accomplishments they already have in their lives.”
Heintz admits that during her 14-year commitment to the project, she has had moments of frustration. Carrying a 50 lb. mannequin on her shoulders through the streets of Paris left her with bruises that didn’t disappear for months. 
Still, she’s always coming up with ideas that give her project renewed life. 
In the works: A feature film expansion of her documentary short and more activities for Chauncey and Mary Margaret. In June, Heintz plans to renew her marriage vows in a ceremony at the Grant-Humphreys Mansion. It’s a way to comment on the confluence of weddings, commerce and fantasy.
“A June bride. Can you believe it?,” Heintz says. “My family’s coming, too. It’s going to be almost like a real wedding. If I could get Chauncey a social security card, we really could be married. “
Family life has a kind of natural progression. So it’s hardly surprising that Heintz, who’s deeply interested in the way kids are forced into molds at an early age, also has plans for Mary Margaret.
“Mary Margaret’s going to school,’’ Heintz says.
The artist hopes she can raise money for the feature, which might take as long as two years to complete. She also says she’d like to produce a couple of books, one of her photographs, and another that’s less heavy on pictures, but which includes essays from famous women writers about the issues raised by her work.
Despite evidence to the contrary, Heintz has her feet firmly planted on the ground. 
She’s in a relationship (she and her significant other don’t live together) keeps Chauncey and Mary Margaret boxed in the basement of her Capitol Hill home when they’re not in use and has a hearty laugh that punctuates nearly every sentence. 
She likes to think that nothing’s worth doing if it isn’t fun. 
Heintz is also practical about her obsessions. She’ s in the process of having a new Chauncey made because she abandoned the old one in Paris. It cost too much to ship the poor guy back to the U.S.
“I felt so good when I was rolling him through the streets about ready to dump him,” Heintz says. “Not only was I sick and tired of the project and the strife and the trouble, but I also felt there was finally some closure to the whole thing, that I was really dumping all the baggage that had been heaped on my shoulders since the beginning of time. It felt great.’’
Of course, we’re talking temporary relief.  
The new, improved Chauncey will weigh 20 lbs more than the old mannequin, primarily because he’ll have articulated joints. Heintz says she’s not ready to put her burden down for good. The mannequins are props that allow her to explore all sorts of themes. 
That means you should be hearing more from her. Chauncey and Mary Margaret won’t be doing the talking.
As for me, I’m on the guest list for the June wedding. 
Heintz’s film can be seen on Friday, March 21 at 9:30 p.m. The VOICES Women + Film Film Festival runs from March 18 through March 23 at the Sie FilmCenter, 2510 East Colfax Avenue in Denver. Click here for the full festival program.

Robert Denerstein reviewed movies for The Rocky Mountain New for 27 years and still writes about movies at

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